Doctor, politician, force to be reckoned with: Bette Stephenson turns 95

She blazed trails for women in both politics and medicine — and struck fear into the hearts of reporters and opponents alike
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jul 31, 2019
Bette Stephenson, pictured here in 2012, was Ontario’s first female minister of finance.

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Bette Stephenson celebrates her 95th birthday today. Many of you have probably never heard of her — but that’s all the more reason to keep reading. Born in Aurora in 1924, she blazed more trails for women in politics and medicine than perhaps anyone else in Canadian history:

  • First female minister of labour in Ontario history
  • First female minister of education in Ontario history
  • First female minister of colleges and universities in Ontario history
  • First female minister of finance in Ontario history
  • First female president of the Ontario Medical Association
  • First female president of the Canadian Medical Association

Anyone who remembers Stephenson as an Ontario cabinet minister in the 1970s and ’80s will recall what a force of nature she was. That forceful personality dates back to her childhood: when she was five, Stephenson was told that she couldn’t go to school until she was six. (There was no kindergarten in Aurora in 1929; Grade 1s had to be six.)

“I began a campaign of hectoring that reached high volume,” she says in her memoir, A Short Book About a Long Life. She lobbied both parents ceaselessly and eventually got her way.

It was also at age five that Stephenson decided she was going to become a doctor. At the time, people told her that women became nurses. “There are no women doctors,” they assured her.

“Yes, there are,” an adamant Stephenson would respond. “I don’t know any, but I know they’re there.”

Both parents encouraged her to be whatever she wanted to be, and young Bette clearly took them up on that. Starting in Grade 9, she routinely won prizes for elocution. She began Grade 12 in September 1939, only days after Germany had invaded Poland and sparked World War II. Stephenson had read Mein Kampf and came first in her school’s public-speaking competition, warning of the evils of Adolf Hitler.

In 1941, she was the only girl in her high-school graduating class at Earl Haig Secondary School, in North York, to go on to university.

She wanted to go to medical school at the University of Toronto, but, once again, her age was a problem. The rules said that you had to be 18. Stephenson was 17. And, moreover, she didn’t have the $680 for tuition. She waited for hours outside the dean’s office in hopes of persuading him to overlook the arbitrary age requirement. The dean not only did that — he ended up waiving her tuition costs as well.

If you’re getting the impression that few people stood any chance of successfully opposing Stephenson when she wanted something — well, you’re right.

By 1946, she had become Dr. Stephenson and met another med student named Allan Pengelly. They married in 1948, whereupon she informed him that she intended to have six children.

Guess how many kids they had?  Yep: four boys and two girls. A very pregnant Stephenson marching into Women’s College Hospital, getting onto the elevator, and asking the elevator operator to take her to 10th-floor obstetrics became a familiar sight.

“For you or for a patient?” was often the humorous reply.

In 1962, she became the first female board member of the OMA (she became its first female president in 1970).

She later crossed swords with Pierre Trudeau as part of a CMA special committee. Stephenson was trying to have abortion removed from the Criminal Code and says that Trudeau confirmed in their meeting that he would do so. But, at some point, he changed his mind, and when new legislation was introduced, abortion remained illegal.

“I was angry that our position had not been accepted and furious that Trudeau’s verbal commitment to us had not been honoured,” Stephenson recalls in her memoir.

Years later, Stephenson and Trudeau met at an event, and she confronted him about his broken promise. “He was taken aback at my forthrightness,” she says, adding that Trudeau warned her not to raise the broken promise in public and told her he’d deny having made it.

According to Stephenson, Trudeau then said somewhat aggressively, “And who do you think would be believed?” Eventually, Trudeau introduced a new bill offering an exemption for abortion when the life of the mother was at risk. But it wasn’t until the Supreme Court ruled Canada’s abortion law unconstitutional, in 1988, that Stephenson eventually had her way. However, the issue would always dog her. When she became the first female president of the CMA in 1974, she was welcomed to the job with 500 letters from irate social conservatives who considered her position on abortion blasphemous. For years, she held on to those letters and re-read many of them — they kept her humble, she says.

Stephenson had never considered running for public office. But, one day in 1975, York Mills MPP Dalton Bales called her saying that his doctor was insisting he retire from politics due to poor health. “We’re in the market for a credible candidate, and the first person that came to mind was you,” he told her.

Stephenson turned him down — three times. But unbeknownst to her, her eldest son, Stephen, was plotting with Bales behind her back to muster the family’s support. The family decided that Stephenson should seek the nomination and run in the September 1975 provincial election.

“Somehow my protestations had become irrelevant,” she notes in her memoir.

Although the Tories were reduced to a minority government, Stephenson won her seat handily, by almost 4,000 votes. She assumed that she would continue to practise medicine and learn the ropes of being a politician on the backbenches.

She assumed wrong.

Five days after election day, Premier Bill Davis called her in for a private meeting. She’d met the premier only once before, at an event during which he’d seemed to be in pain.

“Back trouble?” she’d asked him.

“Yes,” Davis responded. “I’ve got these exercises I’m supposed to do, but I never do them.”

“Well, it’s time you started,” Stephenson said pointedly.

That’s Stephenson: her proclivity for straight talk didn’t leave her, even when she was addressing the premier.

At the post-election meeting, Davis asked her, “How’d you like to be minister of labour?”

“I couldn’t be minister of anything,” she insisted. “And the only thing I know about labour is delivering babies.”

But Davis was adamant. He had three reasons for his choice. First, he wanted to appoint Ontario’s first female labour minister; second, he thought Stephenson’s background as a doctor would help inform some of the changes that the government wanted to make to the province’s health and safety laws; and third, “All my advisers have advised against it,” Davis said.

Stephenson was in, and she quickly became one of the government’s most quotable ministers. At one of her first question periods, an opposition member asked her about a pulp-and-paper strike happening in northern Ontario.

In a place where verbosity and clock-killing reign, Stephenson replied, “The answers to your question are yes, no, and perhaps — in that order,” and then she sat down to laughter and applause.

On another occasion, opposition leader Stephen Lewis asked about a strike in Windsor. Stephenson answered that she thought management and the union should work it out.

After she sat down, however, a cabinet colleague asked her what she really thought.

“I think we should cut Windsor off and float it down the river,” she whispered. Lewis either overheard the remark or was a very good lip-reader, and he busted the minister on the spot. For several days, Stephenson was in hot water, and the newspapers had a field day with the story.

A 1978 cabinet shuffle doubled her workload. She became the first-ever female minister of education and of colleges and universities. One day, while she was giving a speech at the University of Waterloo in which she defended tuition increases, a student protester snuck up behind her and shoved a lemon-meringue pie in her face. The audience was shocked — but Stephenson was undaunted. She cleaned herself up, finished her speech, and, when it came time to give her next address, at York University, she came prepared.

“You’ll see that this time, I have come armed with my own pie today,” she said, placing it on the lectern. “And I’m a pretty good aim.”

“Never have I spoken to a quieter, more attentive group,” she recalled, years later.

On June 12, 1984, Davis intended to announce that he would be reversing two decades of provincial policy by extending public funding for the Catholic school system to the end of high school. He knew that Stephenson opposed the move and didn’t have the heart to tell her. So he asked her deputy minister that morning to inform Stephenson of his plans. When Stephenson reiterated her opposition, Davis was unequivocal: “I need you to support me, and I need you to be there supporting me,” she recalls the premier’s telling her.

Stephenson later admitted that she’d considered resigning over the matter, but, she explained, “Bill Davis had provided me with so many opportunities and had shown such faith in me on so many occasions that there was no way I could abandon my post when I knew there would be tense moments.” Her loyalty to the premier won out. (Stephenson never has any trouble remembering that day, incidentally: it was her 36th wedding anniversary.)

Less than four months later, Davis retired from politics, and Stephenson briefly considered running for the Progressive Conservative leadership. She would have been a champion of the more conservative wing of the party, which also wanted fellow cabinet minister Frank Miller to consider a bid. Miller and Stephenson agreed that one of them should run, and each pledged to support the other. Stephenson assumed that Miller probably wouldn’t run, given that he’d previously mused about quitting politics altogether and had a history of heart problems. However, the next thing Stephenson knew, Miller had called her to say that he was in — and that was that. Stephenson, true to her word, supported Miller.

“My sense is that she would have liked to be involved in the leadership contest,” her son Stephen Pengelly told me earlier this month. “But she was probably content to let Frank have a go.”

Miller won the convention, and, six weeks later, called an early election. But the Tories lost their majority. The party held only a four-seat lead over David Peterson’s Liberals, meaning that Bob Rae’s New Democrats held the balance of power. Once again, Stephenson made history, becoming the first-ever female finance minister in Ontario history.

“Her family was very proud of her being appointed finance minister,” Pengelly says. “However, I think Bette just sort of took it in stride, as she had always assumed, correctly, that a woman could do anything a man could do — and sometimes do it much better.”

But her tenure was short-lived. Six weeks after election day, the Liberals and New Democrats joined forces to defeat the Miller government, and Stephenson found herself on the opposition benches, having not had time to present a budget. She served out the rest of her term and retired from politics at 63, before the 1987 election.

“She could be tough without being nasty, firm without being stubborn, direct but always professional,” says Janet Ecker, the only other female finance minister in Ontario history. “You always knew where you stood with her, but you always knew there was a great human being beneath the professional demeanour. There weren’t a lot of female role models around politics in those days, but she was certainly one of mine.”

In her post-political life, Stephenson stayed extremely active, serving on the OPP’s police-services board, as well as the boards of the Education Quality Assurance Office, the Ontario Innovation Trust, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and the Learning Opportunities Task Force, which she chaired.

“I was never bored,” she has said of her life after politics.

Her husband of 65 years died in 2013. Stephenson called it “the darkest period of my life.”

She was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1992 and was awarded the Order of Ontario in 1999; in 2013, she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. The York District School Board opened the Bette M. Stephenson Centre for Learning in 2011.

For several years now, Stephenson has called an assisted-living facility in Richmond Hill home. I visited her last month, and, while she is physically frail, her mind is still sharp as hell. When I said to her, jokingly, “I’m delighted to see you’ve still got all your marbles,” she responded — without missing a beat — “Yeah, I’ve got ’em; I just can’t play ’em.”

We reminisced happily for a couple of hours about the old days, which was quite a change from the old days. Back then, if you were in a scrum and asked a question that Stephenson didn’t like, she would proceed to surgically take your head off.

Of course, she’d call you “dear heart” as she did it.

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