Cecile Gauthier, 1891-1979

A community force

Ken Clavette

Cecile Gauthier’s own prime ministers’ row included Louis St. Laurent (top and on screen, middle), Lester Pearson (at podium and above) and Pierre Trudeau (below).

Several years ago when I started this column I had hoped that people would open their albums and scrap books and share with our readers their family stories of a bygone life in Sandy Hill. This winter, that finally happened when I got a chance to sit with Ann Van Regan a long time member of the Sandy Hill Housing Co-op.

Her family’s history stretches back over 100 years in the community. Her grandmother Cecile Gauthier came to Ottawa at the age of 12 in 1903 and spent most of her life living in Sandy Hill. She attended the Gloucester Street Convent of Notre Dame girls’ school. In 1911 she married William Thomas O’Regan. With the exception of a few years spent in Manitoba they raised three children in Sandy Hill, Peter, Pauline and Laurette. Both Cecile and her husband were very active in the sporting life of the city. They played tennis, often as doubles. Bill was a noted championship paddler with the New Edinburgh Canoe Club.

Cecile and her husband William O’Regan (who died July 2, 1954) are on the right. Location unknown but the photo was taken around 1935.

Cecile’s life was marked by historic moments. Bill was a native of Nova Scotia and the family was in Halifax in December 1917 when the city was devastated by the explosion of an ammunition ship in the harbour. Fortunately the family survived unhurt. She celebrated the nation’s Diamond Jubilee of Confederation. In her album is a photo of an 1867-1927 archway erected near Parliament and one of Charles Lindbergh’s famed “Spirit of St. Louis” which he flew to Ottawa on July 2, 1927 to be a part of the celebrations.

She was much more than a mother and wife however; she was active in charity work and the political life of Ottawa and the nation. The local papers are peppered with her name attached to fundraisings and charity. She seemed to be always hosting receptions and teas for a number of city organizations.

As President of the Senior Alumnae of the Gloucester Street Convent of Notre Dame, she spoke in English and French to the 1925 graduation class telling them, as they “packed their baggage to be taken with them upon their journey through life,” that among the necessary things to remember were: “toleration of the views of others, which does not imply a sacrifice of principle; laughter; and a sense of humour.”

She was clearly a lady of action: Governor of the Ontario Chapter of the Marguerite Bourgeoys Circle of the Congrégation de Notre Dame Alumnae Association; head of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Saint-Vincent Hospital; life member of both the Ontario and Canadian Women’s Hospital Auxiliary Associations; member of the Joan of Arc Institute and la Fédération des femmes canadiennes-françaises. Even with all that she found time for selling shamrocks to raise funds for the St. Patrick’s Orphanage and Home for the Aged.

It may have been her work with these associations that lead her into a life of politics. She became the President of the Lady Laurier Liberal Club of East Ottawa in the 1930s. That led her to the Presidency of the National Federation of Liberal Women and into contact with four of Canada’s prime ministers. The O’Regan album I was shown is filled with photos of Cecile with prime ministers and letters they sent her. She worked alongside Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent, Lester Pearson, and Pierre Trudeau, organizing the women’s vote for the Liberal Party.

While she was considered as a possible Liberal Party candidate in the early 50s for Member of Parliament for Ottawa East, it was in municipal politics she made her mark. In spite of Charlotte Whitton’s Conservative Party affiliation, Cecile joined her election team in 1952 doing her part to have a woman representative at City Hall. In 1956 she stood as a candidate in the municipal election as Alderman for Sandy Hill’s St. George’s ward. While 1956 was not to be her year, in 1960 she was appointed to council to fill a vacancy and she served Sandy Hill on council until 1966. While an Alderman she was only one of three women on council. Her earlier social activism came out in her work with the Housing Standards Board where her goal was to “replace ‘beaten down’ houses and apartments with larger and more livable quarters.” A year after her election the Ottawa Journal ran a cartoon of her in a hard hat smashing an old shack with a sledgehammer. She was also a strong voice of the francophone community on City Council.

In a 1962 Ottawa Journal article in the album, she summed up her political approach, “I like to be able to voice my option. While I may not always win my argument at least I will have a chance to express myself.” Her option was not all she expressed; the lady loved her hats and it is hard to find photos of her where her millinery is not on display.

Cecile Gauthier passed away in 1979.

Photos courtesy of Ann Van Regan