Inside the giant tent, retiring senator and birthday girl Catherine Callbeck was greeting well-wishers. A live band was playing in the background, loud enough to entertain a few hundred people waiting in line outside the tent.
Two abreast, the line stretched towards an open field where half a dozen volunteers were directing hundreds of drivers to park.
It was about 5:45 p.m. when I stepped into the line, a stone’s throw away from the historic Seacow Head Lighthouse (which is also celebrating its sesquicentennial this year). To my chagrin, the line was hardly moving. To my delight, no one was jumping the queue — Charlottetown MP Sean Casey and former UPEI president Wade MacLauchlan were among a steady stream of patient well-wishers who settled in behind me on this sun-soaked late July afternoon.
By 6:10, it was clear Callbeck couldn’t shake every hand in the long tine before the speeches started so we were all hustled inside the tent. It was standing room only, a crowd I estimated at 300-400 people.
A town crier feigned reluctance to reveal the guest’s age, although for anyone willing to do the math he did break it down into days, hours, minutes and seconds (2.66 billion, for the record, “give or take a second or two.”)
Expressed another way, he smiled, it could be said Ms. Callbeck was 7.5 decades old (in reference to the controversial 7.5 per cent public service wage rollback the Liberals legislated when Callbeck was premier back in 1993.)
Myrtle Smith-Jenkins, who worked in the premier’s office during those years, was the emcee. She introduced a short list of speakers including Callbeck’s older brother, Bill, Sibyl Cutcliffe, former MLAs Marion Reid and Marion Murphy, and Tom Sherry, chairman of the Friends of Seacow Head Lighthouse. He had a special honour for the retiring senator. While her days as MLA, premier, cabinet minister, MP and senator may be over, the Friends made sure the summer resident of their community still has a title— Lady of the Light.
When she took the podium, Callbeck reflected on her 29 years in public service and on the celebration that brought an estimated 1,000 people to her birthday/retirement party.
“You know you have retired from public life when the press starts to say some positive things about you,” she said. “This is a day I’m certainly going to remember for a long time.”
Callbeck said she was honoured and privileged to serve the people of P.E.I. and while it was “extremely challenging” at times, she said it was always fulfilling. She thanked Islanders who took the time to share their stories, give her advice and ideas, “and helped me in so many ways along the road.”
Though she’s now a private citizen, I’d be surprised if Callbeck slows down very much. Without elaborating, she said she hopes to be active in several areas of interest. At 75, she clearly has lots of energy to bring to the table of any worthy cause she chooses to champion.
“It’s been a good life and I’ve enjoyed my 29 years (in public office),” she said. “I look forward to a new time, wherever that takes me.”
It’s unfortunate that Callbeck is stepping away from the Senate (by way of mandatory retirement) at a time when the “chamber of sober second thought” is facing a serious identity crisis. Her 17 years in the Senate epitomized exactly the kind of representative Islanders should expect and demand from their senators — ones who makes intelligent and insightful contributions to the business of parliament and who does so with honesty and integrity.
Callbeck’s voice will be sorely missed in Ottawa. Unfortunately, the current prime minister is in no rush to appoint her successor and the current Island premier seems reluctant to lobby him to do so.
As I left the tent last weekend, I turned to see Callbeck still hugging well-wishers, exchanging pleasantries and posing for pictures — something she’s likely done on the campaign trail going back to her first election in 1974.
But this time, she wasn’t glad-handing for votes or support, simply to express a genuine thank you to hundreds of Islanders who came to wish her well in retirement. No scandal, no drama — a rare feel-good story about a senator from P.E.I. We could use more of those.
Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.