Catherine Callbeck looks back fondly on her time in Senate

Prince Edward Island Senator turns 75 Friday, which means mandatory retirement from the Red Chamber

Nancy MacPhee
Published on July 24, 2014

Catherine Callbeck looks over scrapbooks that were compiled and given to her by Janet Warren. Callbeck, who turns 75 on Thursday, officially ends her time in the Canadian Senate that same day. A celebration marking the event takes place Friday from 4 to 7:30 p.m. at Seacow Head Lighthouse, Lighthouse Road, Fernwood. 

©Nancy MacPhee/Journal Pioneer

CENTRAL BEDEQUE — Catherine Callbeck’s job is done.

Friday is her 75th birthday. That means mandatory retirement from the Senate.

An open house marking Callbeck’s birthday and retirement from the Senate will be held Friday from 4:00-7:30 p.m. at Seacow Head Lighthouse, Lighthouse Road, Fernwood.  

In her family home in Central Bedeque, Callbeck reflected on her time in the Red Chamber.

“There were all kinds of rumours going about that I was going to be appointed to the Senate before anyone had ever approached me,” recalled Callbeck.

“I made it my business to look into it and talk to some people I knew that were in the Senate. If I was going to think about this, I wanted to really know what the Senate did and if it was something of interest to me.”


Seeing it as an extension of community service, when she did get the call from then Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Callbeck accepted the offer.

But first Chretien asked her why she wanted to be a senator.

“I thought, with my background, I could do a lot for Prince Edward Island,” said Callbeck.

“The Senate is a very valuable institution. I felt that when I went into it and I still feel that way.”

She calls it the most misunderstood institution in Canada.

“It is very unfortunate that Canadians do not understand more of what the Senate does and how it functions.”

So, on Sept. 23, 1997, the former MLA, provincial cabinet minister, Member of Parliament, Liberal Party leader and premier took on the job.

It’s been a role, for the most part, she has relished.

During her time in the Red Chamber, Callbeck has sat on various committees, all of which she chose to be part of.

She said committee work is at the heart of the Senate and vital when it comes to forming public policy.

She touched on her work during her 17 years, particularly a report on health done by the Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee.

“Roy Romanow did a report on health and it cost $15 million. The Senate did one and it cost less than a half million. I have been told by a lot of health professionals that our report is superior,” said Callbeck.

“Out of that grew the 2004 Health Accord, where Prime Minister (Paul) Martin put millions of dollars into certain areas, for example pharmaceutical coverage and wait lists. It was a 10-year plan. Unfortunately, this year the government did not renew it.”

A report on mental health by that same committee — Out of the Shadows of Mental Health — paved the way for improvements in that area, including the establishment of the Mental Health Commission, although, she added, there was still a great deal of work to be done.

An entrepreneur herself, Callbeck enjoyed travelling from coast to coast speaking with other women in business and, as a result, making several recommendations that were implemented by government.

“The committee that I loved the most was finance because you could get into every department in government and you had the opportunity then, whether it was the Department of Fisheries or Industry or whatever, to really get into the programs where P.E.I. was affected and to ask questions and to make sure that we are getting a fair deal.”

It’s that work — giving Islanders a voice — that has been most fulfilling.

“My greatest work within the Senate ... was bringing the concerns of Islanders to the floor of the Senate, whether you do that through question period or motions or inquiries,” said Callbeck.

And that, she feels, is the role of senators — to represent their constituents, review and reform policy and help implement change that helps Canadians.

If the Senate were to be abolished, if would be that much more difficult for the voice and concerns of Islanders to be heard in Ottawa.


July 25, 1939 — Catherine Sophia Callbeck was born in Central Bedeque to Ralph R. Callbeck and Ruth (Campbell) Callbeck.

1960 — Bachelor of commerce degree from Mt. Allison University.

1963 — Bachelor of education degree from Dalhousie University.

1974 — Elected to the P.E.I. legislature as member for the Fourth District of Prince

1974 to ’78 — First female minister of health and social services, minister responsible for the disabled and minister responsible for non-status Indians.

1988 — First woman elected as the Member of Parliament for Malpeque, making her the second woman ever from P.E.I. to be elected to the House of Commons.

Jan. 25, 1993 — She is sworn in as the first female premier of P.E.I.

March 29, 1993 — Callbeck is elected as the member for First District of Queens.

Sept. 23, 1997 — Called to the Senate.