There is an intriguing connection between Ed Broadbent, last year’s honouree for lifetime achievement in the annual Maclean’s Parliamentarians of the Year Award, and this year’s winner, Monique Bégin.
In early 1979, when Broadbent was NDP leader, he rose in the House during question period and began, as Bégin recalled in a recent interview, “giving Trudeau hell for user fees and extra billing” in Canada’s health care system.
Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau had named Bégin—already by then a trailblazing woman in federal politics—his minister of health and welfare in 1977. She had been focusing on priorities like protecting pension benefits in an era of high deficits and economic uncertainty. But Broadbent was now raising a new and politically explosive issue. “I had never heard the words ‘user fees’ and ‘extra billing,’ ” Bégin says. “I didn’t even know what it meant.”
Soon all Canadians were familiar with the terms and the controversy surrounding them. Debate raged over how to guarantee free access to universal health care. Bégin calls the period “a five-year horror, a crisis.”
But the resolution of that crisis secured her place in Canadian political history. Her Canada Health Act, passed in 1984, stands as landmark legislation. To qualify for federal transfer payments, the provinces’ health services would have to be publicly run, comprehensive, universal, portable and accessible.
Bégin laughs at how the Canada Health Act has come to dominate the story of her life. It’s hardly the only chapter worth retelling. She was born in Rome in 1936 to a French-Canadian father, who was working as a sound technician in the European movie industry, and a Belgian mother. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the family fled to Portugal, managed to get on a ship to New York and then a train to Quebec.
The family started from scratch in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood. “The library—the little public, parish library—and the Girl Guides saved my life,” Bégin says, “in the sense that we were nine living in four rooms until my 21st birthday.”
She eventually earned a teacher’s certificate, then studied sociology at the Université de Montréal and, for two years, in Paris. As a young sociologist, she drew the attention of key figures in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. She was recruited in 1967 to serve as executive secretary to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
That role established her public profile. Pierre Trudeau’s federal Liberals recruited her to run in the 1972 election. She won, as did Albanie Morin and Jeanne Sauvé, making them the first three female MPs ever elected in Quebec. Trudeau named Bégin revenue minister in 1976 before promoting her to health and welfare the following year.
Although the Canada Health Act stands as her signature achievement, Bégin is also proud of having introduced a child tax credit and boosted seniors’ benefits in an era of ascendant economic conservatism. “Milton Friedman’s monetarist policy was sweeping Canada,” she recalls, “including journalists, civil servants, deputy ministers and many ministers.”
She left politics in 1984 as a recognized pillar of the Liberal party’s left wing. Moving into academia, she taught at the University of Notre Dame and McGill University before settling into a long career at the University of Ottawa, focusing on women’s studies and health administration. She lives in an apartment not far from the university’s campus. Lately, she has been busy writing her memoirs, which she says has caused her to reflect on her life.
Feminism is a through line of her story, and she advises young women who might feel like those battles are over against letting down their guards. She urges them to analyze “patriarchal power”—how men still hold the upper hand. “If they haven’t studied that and understood how it’s made,” Bégin warns, “they’ll be destroyed and not understand why.”
Liberal Senator Dennis Dawson. Photograph by Blair Gable