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Friday December 23, 2011

Canadian High Commissioner helped bring Constitution home

The daughter and wife of a politician, Jean Casselman Wadds was the 10th woman to sit as an MP

Special to The Globe and Mail

Jean Casselman Wadds was the daughter of a politician, the wife of another and then an MP in her own right as the 10th woman to sit as a member of the House of Commons. She went on to become the Canadian High Commissioner in London from 1979 to 1983.

Her posting to London came at a dramatic time. Margaret Thatcher had been elected prime minister in 1979 and Pierre Trudeau, back in office after his re-election in the spring of 1980, was intent on repatriating the Constitution. Casselman Wadds, as a Tory appointee and a woman with a diplomatic charm and political wiliness learned at her father's knee, was on good terms with Thatcher and was credited with helping bring Canada's Constitution home.

"I always said it was thanks to three women that we were eventually able to reform our Constitution. The Queen, who was favourable, Margaret Thatcher, who undertook to do everything that our Parliament asked of her, and Jean Wadds, who represented the interests of Canada so well in London," said Pierre Trudeau in his memoirs.

She was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1982, in large part for her work in London.

Jean Rowe was born on Sept. 16, 1920, in Newton Robinson, then a rural hamlet north of Toronto. Her father was Earl Rowe, a local politician who went on to become a member of Parliament and Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.

She went to a one-room schoolhouse for grade school and then to a boarding school in Cookstown, Ont., for high school. At home she met many of the top provincial and national politicians as her father was a leading Tory, first at the legislature in Toronto and then in Ottawa.

Rowe graduated with a BA from the University of Toronto in 1940 and then took a course at a business college. She worked for several years before marrying A.C. Casselman - Azra, always known by his initials - of Prescott, Ont., the member of Parliament for Grenville-Dundas. He was 58, she was 26.

Her husband died in 1958, just after the election in which John Diefenbaker won a record 208 of 265 seats in the House of Commons. Casselman ran in the by-election that same year and won the seat. She entered the house in January of 1959, along with three other new members, including Paul Hellyer, the future Liberal defence minister.

"The Prime Minister, the Hon. John Diefenbaker and my father, the Hon. Earl Rowe, walked smartly down the length of the House to escort me to the Speaker," wrote Casselman of her first day in Parliament.

She served as a backbench MP for her solidly Tory riding and then was made parliamentary secretary to the minister of health and welfare in 1962 and 1963. She was the first woman to act as a parliamentary secretary. As part of her duties she represented Canada at the United Nations, the first woman to do so.

She had a spirit of adventure. She and another MP, Margaret Aitken, travelled to China in 1959, along with Diana Michener, the daughter of the speaker of the House of Commons and the future Governor-General. China was all but closed at the time, but this trip was the first commercial tour.

Two years later, Michener and Casselman travelled by car across Europe and on to Moscow where Michener was attending a science conference. Michener bought a Volkswagen in Germany for the trip, which she took home to Canada. When driving in the Eastern Bloc countries they were told which roads to take, but never given maps.

They arrived in Berlin a day before the Berlin Wall went up and in Moscow the day of the return of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. The next day they went to the parade in Red Square to honour the cosmonaut.

"We marched with the crowds through the street and when we stood in Red Square we looked at each other and laughed, saying all we need now is some Western journalist to take our picture. You a member of Parliament and me the daughter of the Speaker of the House of Commons," said Michener.

Jean Casselman was re-elected in 1962, 1963 and again in 1965. Her husband had first won election in 1921. The Casselmans had been such a well-known family in the Eastern Ontario riding that two of his opponents for the riding nomination were also named Casselman, both relatives.

But in 1968 she faced two forces over which she had little control: Trudeaumania and redistribution. The sparsely populated riding expanded and was renamed Grenville-Carleton, reflecting that it took in some southern Ottawa suburbs, places suspected of having a Liberal bias. And she was facing the popularity of Pierre Trudeau running in his first election as Liberal leader.

In the 1960s she married a Toronto stockbroker, Robert Wadds, and always used both names, Casselman and Wadds, though the marriage lasted only 10 years.

She was hardly idle in life away from Parliament. From 1971 to 1975 she was national secretary of the Progressive Conservative party. Then she was appointed to the Ontario Municipal Board, which rules on things such as zoning changes. Casselman Wadds said she found the work interesting.

"I would never be given the longest, heaviest cases, but knowing also that the small, what one colleague called Mickey Mouse cases, suited me," she wrote in her diary. In spite of her modesty her rulings were used as a kind of textbook for new commissioners.

"The applications by individuals for changes in their land holdings, either by severances or minor variances, produced daily skits for me. The endless variety, the human qualities of greed, courage, nervousness, intelligence all interested me enormously and total concentration became automatic when I entered a hearing."

It was while she was at her OMB office in late 1979 that she received a call from Prime Minister Joe Clark offering her the post in London. She took a few days to consider it. Her father, then 85, told her she couldn't turn it down. She never had any intention of doing that.

When she returned from London, Casselman Wadds was one of the 13 commissioners on the Macdonald Commission into the economic future of Canada. Its final report recommended free trade with the United States.

"She was a remarkable person and a class act during her time in London," said Donald Macdonald, the former Liberal cabinet minister who was head of the commission and a High Commissioner to London from 1988 to 1991.

Because of her diplomatic, political and economic experience, Casselman Wadds was in high demand as a member of blue chip corporate boards, including Bell Canada, Canadian Pacific and Royal Trust. She received honorary doctorates from four Canadian universities: the University of Toronto, Dalhousie, Acadia and St. Thomas University in Fredericton.

Casselman Wadds loved the town of Prescott and her house on the St. Lawrence River where she had lived since 1946. Her daughter recounts the story that when her mother first moved into the house she didn't know how to swim. "She took lessons in the same class as young children and she became such a keen swimmer she would sometimes swim five times a day."

She was active in the local community and was on the board of local theatres and museums, including a museum across the river in Ogdensburg, N.Y. During the summers when the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival was on she held parties at her house for the cast and crew. The headline announcing her death in the Prescott Journal read: "Community mourns the loss of one of its greatest people."

Casselman Wadds enjoyed the peace and isolation of the house - known as the Isaac Wiser House - in Prescott and the time it gave her to read. During the ice storm of 1999 her daughter called to see how she was coping. Her only worry was about the cost of candles.

"She asked, 'How much do candles cost?' I asked why and she replied 'I've just reread all of Voltaire by candlelight and I was just wondering.' " When her daughter arrived a few days later she said there was wax on every table.

Jean Casselman Wadds died at home in her bedroom overlooking the St. Lawrence River. She was 91. She leaves daughter, Nancy and her son, Clair. There was a memorial service for her in Maitland, Ont., near Prescott, on Dec. 10.

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