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From Grand Bank to Government House

Q&A with the first female lieutenant-governor of N.L.

Campus and Community |

By Lisa Pendergast

Standing in the window of her office, Lt.-Gov. Judy Foote looks out on the grounds of Government House.

She turns and offers a firm handshake and a warm greeting, “Hello, welcome. I’m Judy.” It’s a greeting that belies her position as the Queen’s representative in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Lt.-Gov. Judy Foote
Photo: Chris Crockwell, Crockwell Photography

Turning back to the window she points out the object of her interest, a teepee, on loan from the Newfoundland Aboriginal Women’s Network and featuring the artwork of renowned Mi’kmaw artist Jordan Bennett. It has been installed on the grounds to share a piece of Indigenous culture with the people of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

News of the installation is one of many regular updates coming from Her Honour’s Facebook page – the first lieutenant-governor in this province to embrace social media.

Things are changing since the first female lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador took up residence in Government House in May 2018. In our conversation, Her Honour took the time to reflect on some significant events that led her to this point and to talk about her plans for the future.

LP: Can you tell me about your experience growing up in Grand Bank?

JF: Grand Bank is a rural community, a historic fishing community – and growing up there, and my childhood experience, influenced me for a number of reasons. My mom died when I was three, so I didn’t have that mother figure and I looked to others for that kind of relationship, especially my dad. He became my mom and my dad. He was an amazing father.

As with many rural communities, they are much more closely-knit than you would find in larger centres. Rightly or wrongly, everyone knows what the other is doing. From my perspective it was good because you were able to share in [everyone’s] celebrations and losses and get on with life, always having someone to turn to when faced with difficult circumstances.

LP: You completed a bachelor of arts, with a focus on English and political science, followed by a bachelor of education. How did you first decide to come to Memorial as a student?

JF: When I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I worked as a receptionist and then I became a telephone operator at Terra Nova Tel. It was pretty monotonous work, but it was a job that paid really good money. After about three months I thought, there’s more that I want to do. So I made the decision, on my own, to go to Memorial.

My father wanted me to pursue post-secondary education, but never pressured me into it. He knew me well enough to know that I would get around to it, and I did.

“Having a woman in the role is long overdue.” — Lt.-Gov. Judy Foote

When I told my dad I was going to university he told me he had $1,700 saved and I was surprised. We weren’t a well-off family, so for my dad to save this money – it must have been hard for him. But it was important to me to do it on my own, and I had to convince him of that. I made the decision to go to university, and I felt like I had to make the decision on how I would pay for it too. So I didn’t take the money, I got a student loan.

I came to Memorial and I lived in Squires House: I was a Squires Squibbit! My cousin and I lived in Squires and then I became a proctor there. It was a really good time in my life.

LP: You’ve had a very diverse career. Can you talk a bit about your work life before public service?

JF: After I graduated, we returned to Grand Bank. The local school was having a hard time finding a teacher and I was pregnant at the time. I didn’t have any work lined up as I was expecting a baby, so I said I would help out and I became the music teacher at Partanna Academy. Then my husband’s electrical job finished and we moved back to St. John’s.

I did some substitute teaching in St. John’s and one day I saw this job advertisement: CBC was looking for a story editor. I had no idea what a story editor did. But I thought, I have a degree and I love to write.

I didn’t get the job. But I did get a call asking if I would consider coming in and working in the newsroom doing some copy stories. So I went in just two weeks after I had my second baby. I really loved the work but quickly learned that I needed some additional training, so I decided to go back to school.

I got accepted at Lambton College in Sarnia, Ontario, for their diploma program in broadcast arts, radio and television and we decided to move the family to Sarnia. I was the oldest in the class and the only mother, and actually had my third child while I was doing that program – I went back to class about three weeks after she was born. I had three children and I graduated with honours, because I thoroughly enjoyed what I did.

We moved back to Newfoundland and I went back to work with Here and Now. I was working at CBC with three children under the age of five and I was busy. That media experience led to my first job at Memorial as the manager of information services in University Relations and then later as director of University Relations.

At that time, I was one of two women who were part of the executive team. We had the opportunity to debate, discuss and contribute. Men and women working together can accomplish so much because of our different experiences. I thoroughly enjoyed working at the university.

LP: How did you get your start in politics?

JF: During the time I was working at Memorial, I received a call from the Office of the Premier asking me to put together a communications strategy for the government as a whole. I had never been involved in politics and had voted NDP, Liberal and PC – depending on the individual or a particular platform. I was very reluctant to leave the university after being there for 10 years and loved my work, so I didn’t act on the opportunity right away. I received another call inviting me to meet with then-Premier Clyde Wells and I felt that as a courtesy it was important for me to do so. Premier Wells gave me a lot of freedom to work the way I wanted to and the university agreed to give me a leave of absence, during which time Meech Lake happened and my leave extended to two years.

After that time I still felt like I had more to do for the government and the province, in terms of communications, so I resigned from the university and stayed with the government.

When Premier Wells decided to step down and Premier Tobin came back, he brought with him his own communications people. I was thinking, “What’s next?” and Premier Tobin asked me if I would consider running. I thought it would be an excellent way to make a contribution and to support your province.

And after a long career in politics I still believe that to be true. Ultimately when you’ve been involved in political life and you are able to make a difference, it’s rewarding. That includes being able to help on an individual level, often acting for people who have nowhere to turn.

LP: You decided to resign from cabinet and as a federal MP in August 2017 for reasons associated with health and family. Can you tell me a little about that?

HH: My first bout of cancer was 20 years ago. It was breast cancer and I had a lumpectomy and I received chemo and radiation. I had so much support at that time because I was in provincial politics surrounded by caring colleagues. If you’re going to go through something like that, in addition to having the support of family, having the support of your colleagues makes all the difference in the world.

My second bout came when I was in opposition federally. I remember having chemo and losing all of my hair again and taking time to try and recover, but also going back and forth to Ottawa because you need things to take your mind off of it and there was work to do.

Unfortunately, on the second bout of breast cancer at a young age, it meant that I should probably do genetic testing. When the results came back, it was determined that I had the BRCA2 gene.

You can deal with anything, if it’s you, but the problem is that since it’s genetic, it meant that my children had to be tested, and my sisters. Neither of my sisters have the gene, which is wonderful because that means that none of their children have it. But for me, of my three children, two have the gene. That makes a difference.

When you have the BRAC2 gene, you’re susceptible to any number of cancers and there’s really nothing you can do about it. So you know you have this, you live with it, but you can’t focus on it. The problem is when your children have it. How do you deal with that? How do you help them cope? And that’s hard to do when you’re in Ottawa. All of my children and grandchildren live in St. John’s.

“A good education is the foundation of success.” –Lt.-Gov. Judy Foote

So it was a hard decision. But it wasn’t hard making the right decision. I loved what I did and if it hadn’t been for the diagnosis, then I would still be there. But the right decision was to step down. I needed to be here with my family and they needed me to be here. And now I’m with my children and my grandchildren.

LP: What does it mean to you to be the first female lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador? What message would you like to send to the girls and women of our province?

JF: Being lieutenant-governor, the Queen’s representative, is an important position. It’s the highest position in the province. So having a woman in the role is long overdue. The constitutional parts of the job are so important, as are the ceremonial aspects of the job; it gives us a chance to recognize people who are doing so much for our province and those who accomplish great things.

It’s so important for young girls and women to know that anything is possible if you believe. And I always say to young women, when I shake their hand, and sometimes they have this little limp handshake, and I’ll squeeze their hand and say, ‘Let’s do this again!’

In life when you meet people, you’ve got to show them how confident you are. So being the first woman, for me, is sending that message that anything is possible. Being female should not even factor into the equation if you don’t let it.

LP: What is your vision for this role? What are your plans and priorities for the upcoming term?

JF: Coming here was a wonderful opportunity and I’m very appreciative for it. But what I needed to be able to do was to make a difference by looking at issues that people are dealing with in our province. This is a totally non-political position, so the political stripe of the government doesn’t matter. My job is to be here to support the government, to advise when they need advice and be available for them if they feel the need to do that.

We don’t do policy here, but I have, as lieutenant-governor, the power to convene, to bring people together, to invite discussion, to bring in the appropriate minister if they wish to hear what’s being said.

Sometimes we think when we elect a government that they should have all the answers, but they don’t. We should always listen and draw on the experiences of others. I think one of the ways we can do that here is with roundtable discussions.

The first one that I want to do is on mental health; in my own hometown we lost six people through suicide within a short span of time. Let’s have that discussion and invite policy makers so they can hear what’s being said and be part of that conversation, which ultimately should result in better policy.

I’m also excited that people are looking at this place [Government House and the grounds] as their place – and social media has played a big part in this. What a treasure we have here, yet so many people have never been inside this provincial historic site.

So I’m saying, let’s open it up, have tours and give visitors and the people of Newfoundland and Labrador an opportunity to learn this part of our history. It’s their house!

LP: You have accomplished so much in your lifetime. What is the secret to your success?

The fact that I’m here, from Grand Bank, having lost one of my parents at a very young age, being the mother of three children and now the nanny of four, and having worked in so many different careers – it proves anything is possible.

A good education is the foundation of success. There are life experiences that can contribute immensely to how successful you are, but that combination of a good solid education with life experiences, will kind of guarantee success.

I have a plaque that quotes Mother Teresa. It says, ‘God doesn’t require us to succeed, He only requires that we try.’ Such a smart woman. She knew that in trying, there is a good chance that you are going to succeed.

I think that’s the answer. You really have to give it your all. You just have to try.

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