A Sense of Vocation

by Helen Hunley

In the past, several acquaintances have suggested that I should write down some of the events which have both shaped and enriched my life. A more formal request received caused me to give serious consideration to recording events and influences which led me into an active and rewarding political career. How does one begin to extract just one portion from a life which has been busy with carving a living, and rich beyond any measure with sharing meagre available time with treasured friends?

As I begin this task, I am sitting at my kitchen table watching my very busy bird feeder. An immature rose-breasted grosbeak eyes me suspiciously while pine siskins indulge themselves on the seeds. In a nearby mountain ash tree chickadees and other species fly about waiting their turn at the feast. I am, of necessity, being somewhat introspective, and even, now out from my tumbling thoughts comes the realization that four things have always been equally important to me - nature, poetry, friendship and community service.

The intermingling of poetry and nature began early in my life, when, as a youngster, I rode across the prairie on horseback to school and thrilled to the song of a meadowlark perched on a nearby fence post or rejoiced at glimpsing a bluebird. In the early 1930s, along with my parents and four siblings I moved from the prairies to a primitive house in the woods northwest of Rocky Mountain House. My older sister was a qualified school teacher, but she was unemployed at that time. She undertook to provide us with “home schooling.” To suggest that this was private schooling would indeed be a misnomer. To qualify for my Grade 8 diploma, I was required to attend a regular school from Easter to the end of the school year. This meant each school day I would make the solitary trek, four miles each way, to the Crimson Lake School. My mother was concerned that we “prairie kids” might be nervous to find ourselves surrounded by dense forest. Her apprehension was unfounded, and I happily trudged through the woods reciting poetry and gazing at the beautiful mountains occasionally visible through openings in the woods and from hilltops. One poem that I remember to this day but I don’t remember the poet’s name:

I meant to do my work today
But a brown bird sang in the apple tree
The butterflies fluttered their shining wings
And all the world was a-calling me!

In 1936 I entered Rocky Mountain House High School, and since we still lived far from town, arrangements were made for me to work at the local telephone agent’s residence in exchange for room and board. It was there that I learned to be a telephone operator and was launched on one of my several careers. By 1939, when WWII was declared, I had successfully completed Grade 12. Without my parents’ knowledge I volunteered for service with the Red Cross but was not accepted. Meantime a job opportunity occurred where my experience stood me in good stead. I worked as a telephone operator in the offices of Carstairs, Acme and Calgary until I was old enough to enlist in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. Service in the military, especially when I was posted to wartime England, was to me as valuable and enlightening as a university education.

Finally the war was over and another decision had to be made. University was now a possibility, through Re-establishment Credit. The idea was tempting but for some reason, which I still don’t clearly understand, I opted to move to the farm where my widowed mother lived alone. A year of hard work was good for my physical and spiritual development but certainly didn’t offer a very promising future. When mother decided to move to town in 1947 I accompanied her and once again the door of opportunity opened for me. The local International harvester dealer offered me a job as bookkeeper, and as it turned out, “general factotum.” I soon became a partsman (probably now it would be referred to as a parts person) and a salesperson of machinery, vehicles and general insurance.

Life was busy but interesting. It was easy to get involved in the community life of Rocky Mountain House. Various organizations sought my assistance, such as the Wolf Cubs, Coal Branch, and the Canadian Red Cross. It seemed to me, and it still does, that we owe rent for the space we occupy on Earth and that rent is paid by public service. Besides, it was a wonderful way to be involved with different people and make new friends. Following the death of my employer, his beneficiary made it possible for me to purchase the business, and I stepped through another door to become the only woman franchised farm equipment dealer in the province. It is important to note that then, as later, it was usually men who encouraged me to accept new challenges.

Although I was actively involved with the lobbying which was necessary to make good things happen in our town, I had not, until this point, been involved in politics. However, my public service endeavours were recognized by residents of Rocky Mountain House whom I knew and respected. Several of them approached me asking me to seek election as a town councillor. I pleaded inexperience but they prevailed, and in due course I was elected for a three-year term. My election meant new things to learn, and new decisions to be discussed and decided. It was so interesting that I sought a second term and was re-elected. Our town was in an era of growth and development brought on principally by activity in the petroleum industry. The final year of my tenure was drawing to a close but my fellow councillors persuaded me to seek the office for mayor. Sometimes I think that vanity got the better of my common sense, but what could I do but accept the challenge? I was elected by acclamation, not once but twice. This should not necessarily be considered a vote of confidence, since not many citizens are anxious to take on the responsibilities of elected office. Unfortunately, I believe that this is still the case today. My fellow councillors and I worked diligently for the good of the people. Despite our differences in gender, occupation, and philosophy, we respected one another’s opinions and were able to arrive at consensus without fist fights or violent arguments.

The political scene in Alberta was changing. It was time to learn more about our federal and provincial governments and the politicians involved. Accordingly, I attended a meeting to assess the man who was seeking election in our constituency for the Federal Liberal Party. Despite my reservations, he persuaded me to put on a coffee party so that he might meet some of my friends and neighbours. I subsequently signed his nomination papers. During the course of our discussions he learned that I had no political affiliation and suggested that for a few dollars I could join a political party and make my views known more effectively and easily. In the 1967 provincial election I supported a local candidate who ran as an Independent. He lost to our long-term incumbent MLA Alfred Hooke, but our committee learned a lot.

My interest and commitment grew. Peter Lougheed was leader of the Progressive Consevative Party (PC) and I noted with interest his comments and came to admire his philosophy. Ironically, I took the advice of my Liberal friend and joined the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta at the cost of $2. Now I had invested money – a paltry sum but an indication of my interest and intentions. My term as mayor would end in 1971, a provincial election would be held sometime soon, and pressure mounted from local citizens and other Albertans for me to seek the PC nomination and, if successful, seek election as the MLA for the Rocky Mountain House constituency. The recruitment pressure mounted by Peter Lougheed and his fellow Conservatives was persistent and eventually successful. It was time to take politics very seriously and to work hard, first of all, to win the nomination, and then to try and win the upcoming election. I was inexperienced in organizing political campaigns, as were most of my supporters. The encouragement and support I received was invaluable. A hard-fought campaign for the nomination was successful; in the second ballot I defeated two worthy opponents. Now on to the impending election.

The Rocky Mountain House Constituency is large, and it was necessary to devote a great deal of time to making myself known to the voters. Fortunately, my business affairs were in safe hands with my trusted employees, so I was able to travel those many rural roads to seek support on the ballot when the election was called. My campaign promise was “Elect me and I will work hard to promote your best interest.” It was a promise I knew I could keep. The philosophy expressed by poet Robert Service that “a promise made is a debt unpaid” is one to which I have always subscribed. We had many desires in the riding, and most of them were realistic and, I thought, achievable. My early life had made me a very practical person and I well realized the truth in the comment of one of my elderly neighbours, “Wantin’ ain’t gettin’!”

It is worth noting that not all of my friends were enthusiastic about my venture into provincial politics. When I related my plans to one of my dear elderly friends she said: “My dear, I wish you wouldn’t do that. The will sing Hallelujah one minute and crucify you the next.” Nevertheless, I pressed on with vigour. House to house and farm to farm the campaign for election continued. It increased in intensity after the election call for August 30 until late into that fateful night when PCs won the election and I won the Rocky Mountain House riding. Such jubilation, such excitement – such apprehension.

Throughout the campaign I had considered the possibility of serving as a member of the Opposition. It seemed reasonable that the duties could be handled easily and I could still manage my business, which by this time dealt only with general insurance. After all, as mayor, a great deal of my time had been spent on public service and I was financially secure but certainly not rich! My greatest insurance was my capable and trusted employees who would manage my affairs in my absence. I counted on my business to be my pension plan when the time came to retire. An unexpected call came from Peter Lougheed – then Premier-elect – inviting me to visit him in Calgary to discuss the future of the Province and our role in its development. How exciting! What a pay off for the $2 investment made some time ago. The hard work and anxiety of those many months faded into the background, only to be replaced by more hard work in a different arena. I was invited by Peter Lougheed to become a member of the cabinet (officially called Executive Council) as a Minister without portfolio with a variety of assignments. In September 1973 I was privileged to become Alberta’s first Solicitor-General and, it was subsequently brought to my attention, the first woman in Alberta to hold a portfolio. The news media questioned the appointment because I did not have a legal background. To this I replied: “Legal advice I can buy. I bring a lifetime of common sense thinking and experience to this job.” Rather a flip comment but on analysis it still seems to be correct.

In 1975 I was re-elected and became Minister of Social Services and Community Health. Along the way I had learned to operate on the “need to know” philosophy. Despite our best efforts most of us cannot know everything. I directed my efforts to learning thoroughly everything I needed to know. All else was, no matter how interesting and rewarding, luxury learning. I was fortunate again in my career in having around me capable and trusted employees. We were part of a team. I have always been a good team player, and it was not hard to recruit other good team players. The responsibilities of this new portfolio were arduous as were the hours required to “get the job done well.” The support of my family and friends, along with my constituents, made it all worthwhile. Many new programs were designed and many of them were implemented. It was exciting and gratifying to be a part of this government which was pragmatic, dedicated and ethical. Our principles and standards were high and our goal was the betterment of our province and our community. What a fortunate time for me to be able to be involved at such an important level.

Wear and tear on my energy and nerves was extreme, so in 1979 I decided somewhat readily to take my retirement. By that time I had been in public life almost one-third of my lifetime – not counting the years of military or community volunteer service. So, to Rocky Mountain House I returned, and, I thought, to a leisurely life. However, my years of experience were not overlooked and I was often called upon to serve on various committees in both government and the private sector. Although the remuneration was modest, sometimes nil, I accepted these assignments willingly. It saddens me today that there is a prevailing public attitude of derision about people with extensive public service experience being asked to use their expertise by serving on commissions or committees. Perhaps occasionally someone does enter into additional service with remuneration being the main motive. In my opinion and experience, however, that is a rarity and “public service” is the paramount driving force.

In 1985 I was again invited to serve my country and province, this time as Lieutenant-Governor. What an honour it was to represent the Queen. What a responsibility it was to protect the office while making it meaningful to people. The responsibilities of the office are much greater than is realized by most of the public. However, if no constitutional crisis arises, the true worth and meaning of the office is not usually recognized. For those who decry the monarchy as being no longer relevant, may I suggest they consider what alternative they would choose. I was often quite awestruck by the honour which was bestowed upon me, and I recall thinking as I was driven to Buckingham Palace for a private audience with the Queen: “What is this kid from Rocky Mountain House doing here?”

Finally, in 1991, I really retired “full-time” and I now content myself with viewing from the sidelines, but never ignoring, the events occurring around me. In my retirement I hope to be remembered as someone whose word “was as good as her bond” and who always tried to give it her best shot! So, finally, I am able without any sense of guilt, to react to the final words of the poem from which I quoted earlier:

The breeze went sighing across the land
Tossing the grass to and fro
A rainbow held out its shining hand
So what could I do but laugh and go.