Female trailblazer Maureen McTeer now officially has the key to do what she's been doing all along on her own — opening closed doors for women everywhere.
She was awarded the Key to the City — the city’s highest honour — during a special ceremony held at Ottawa City Hall on Wednesday night. It was well-attended by friends and family, including her husband, Joe Clark, former prime minister of Canada and former leader of the federal Progressive Conservative party, and their daughter, communications expert Catherine Clark.
McTeer received the framed ornamental key from Mayor Jim Watson, on behalf of city council, for her strong advocacy and support of gender equality in Canada, her commitment to the defence of women’s health, care and reproductive rights, and for her outstanding accomplishments as a best-selling author of four books.
She joins an illustrious list of previous recipients that includes figure skater Patrick Chan, the late Paul Dewar, former chief justice Beverley McLachlin, actress Sandra Oh, author Margaret Atwood, former Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, and former governor general David Johnston and his wife, Sharon Johnston, both of whom were in attendance that night.
“I’ve led a fascinating and challenging and rewarding life,” McTeer said during her remarks at the podium in Andrew S. Haydon Hall. “I’ve not done this alone.
“I have been able to achieve what I have as part of a team, and so many of you here in front of me this evening were part of those teams. All of you honour me this evening by your presence. I feel supported by you and, in turn, I thank you for making this evening such a memorable one for me and my family.”
Among McTeer’s accomplishments has been her role in helping to build the Shirley E. Greenberg Women's Health Centre, located at the Riverside campus of The Ottawa Hospital, to address the health and medical challenges that women face throughout their lives.
One of the highlights of the night came at the conclusion of the ceremony when McTeer's two grandchildren, Alexandra and Charlie, rushed to the front of the room to give the “the world’s best granny,” as they call her, a big hug.
McTeer, who is a lawyer by profession, was born in Ottawa and has deep roots here. Her family started coming over from Ireland in 1847 to escape the potato famine. She grew up on a farm near Cumberland as the second of six children.
McTeer’s daughter spoke about the shocking gender discrimination and challenges that her courageous and resilient mother faced.
“Challenges which helped her not just break but rupture glass ceilings for other women in this city and across this country,” said Clark, an accomplished public speaker.
The room heard how, in 1976, after months of political campaigning with her husband, McTeer was also trying to complete her law courses and study for exams, while pregnant and suffering from morning sickness. She asked her dean if she could — instead of sitting for morning exams — write a paper for each course, or take her exams in the afternoon, when her sickness usually subsided.
“The dean refused,” said Clark. “He told her it was best to quit. She could have babies or she could be a lawyer, but she could not be both.
“If I may say so, Maureen McTeer did a rather good job of proving him wrong.”
More famously, there was McTeer’s decision to keep her maiden name when she got married. She decided against shifting to her husband’s surname upon assuming the role of prime minister’s spouse.
“I don’t think there is a single person in this room who is unaware of how that decision reverberated across the country,” said Clark. “Offensive to some, inspiring to so many others.
“Not only was my mother attacked for it, publicly and relentlessly, but my father was, too. Many were baffled and offended that he ‘allowed’ his wife to keep her name. It was the subject of letter-writing campaigns and special motions at political conventions and scathing newspaper articles.
“What courage, on both parts, to withstand all of that.
“I am now approached regularly by women who tell me how mom’s decision profoundly affected their own choices and their world view. It allowed them the courage to make decisions that they felt were best for them, personally, and to point to mom as an example of how it could be done.”
At the start of the ceremony, McTeer and the mayor were escorted into the hall with pomp and circumstance by the Ottawa Police Service, Ottawa Paramedic Service, Ottawa Fire Services and Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (Duke of Edinburgh’s Own). The ceremony also included an Indigenous blessing by Algonquin Elder Barbara Dumont-Hill, a musical interlude by a trio from the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, and the singing of the national anthem by a chamber choir from Canterbury High School.
Attendees included well-known philanthropist Shirley Greenberg and Dr. Elaine Jolly, the first medical director of the Shirley E. Greenberg Women's Health Centre; Canadian Chamber of Commerce CEO Perrin Beatty (he was a cabinet minister in Joe Clark's government); Gerda Hnatyshyn, wife of former governor general Ray Hnatyshyn; French Ambassador Kareen Rispal; National Arts Centre CEO Christopher Deacon; Jodi White, former chief of staff to Clark; Ottawa Board of Trade chair Ian Sherman; and Ottawa icon Grete Hale, who turned 90 this year and is still going strong.