The Late Gretta Chambers, C.C., O.Q.Published on 20 September 2017 Hansard and Statements by Senator Joan Fraser (retired)
Hon. Joan Fraser:
On September 9, Canada lost an illustrious citizen. Gretta Chambers had lived for 90 years, and there’s hardly a part of the community that she did not influence for the better.
She was born into both of our official language communities; her father was English and her mother was French. All her life, Gretta worked to build bridges of understanding between the two language groups in Quebec.
Her family was always politically engaged, although in diverse ways. Her brother, the philosopher Charles Taylor, was once an NDP candidate, and her son Jeffrey has been a close aid of NDP leader Tom Mulcair, but her late husband Egan Chambers was a president of the Progressive Conservative Party and a Tory MP.
Egan and Gretta had five children in six years. That would be enough to occupy most women, particularly with a husband away in Ottawa, but not Gretta. She was a tireless volunteer even while building a professional life as an analyst of public affairs at a time when women were not noticeably welcome in that field.
She began with a weekly radio show telling the English audience what the province’s French newspapers were reporting, an early example of her bridge building. She went on to host a TV show and wrote a column in the Gazette for many years. I was her editor for 15 of those years and our meetings were highlights of my week.
Those were tumultuous times in Quebec. With the aftermath of the Quiet Revolution and the rise of the sovereignty movement, emotions often ran high and it was dangerously easy to foment ill will, but Gretta was always a voice calling for and helping to build mutual understanding. She was respected and trusted on both sides. She was a staunch federalist, but her analyses were always fair and her approach moderate. She was, I think, incapable of demonizing opponents. She was more likely to disarm them with her warmth.
For this, she was derided by the people we used to call “angryphones.” They in turn called Anglo moderates, especially Gretta, the “lamb lobby.” It was a label some of us were proud to bear.
Gretta’s brother said at her funeral that her essence was to give of herself. She gave and gave, on both the personal and community levels. There is not enough time to list all the committees, commissions, task forces and institutions where she served. Here are just two: She chaired an important provincial task force on English-language education; and in 1991 she was the first woman in McGill’s long history to become chancellor of the university. She was a woman of boundless good humour, generosity and curiosity about the world, always elegant, physically tiny but great of heart.
To her children, her grandchildren and her brother, my deepest sympathies.