Nun-sense: Sister Peggy goes to Ottawa

Senator Mary Alice “Peggy” Butts, CND (Congrégation de Notre Dame de Montréal), wants people to think of her as plain Sister Peggy. “That’s what all my friends call me,” beams the newly appointed Senator, who also happens to be a nun. “They have to use the Senator part for protocol, but I like things a bit less formal.” Sister Peggy, born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on Aug. 15, 1924, holds a B.A. in Philosophy, a B.Ed., an M.A. in Political Science and a Ph.D. with a major in Political Theory and a minor in Canadian Government. She taught and was principal at schools in Nova Scotia, Montreal and Toronto, and until 1994 was a professor of political science at the University College of Cape Breton. Last year she added the title of honorary Doctor of Laws from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish to her impressive lost of honors, and on Sept. 23 she was summoned to the Senate.

Academic credentials aside, how does a “Down East” nun get appointed to the Senate? “Well,” quips Sister Peggy, an activist par excellence, “I guess they were tired of reading my briefs, and decided I may as well be where they could keep a closer eye on me.”

Prior to her appointment, Sister Peggy rked as Co-ordinator for Social Justice for the Catholic Diocese of Antigonish, and represented the Church on the Coastal Communities Network of Nova Scotia. She was a founding member of the Cape Breton Transition House (a women’s shelter), and a member of the Seton Foundation for Housing for the poor. In addition, she served on the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women and on a provincial task force on the disaster with the East Coast fishery. To top it off, she’s a member of the Nova Scotia Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment, and was chair and founding member of the Eastern Regional Health Board of Nova Scotia. In 1996 she won the prestigious Weiler award, which honors exceptional contributions to community and social development in Canada.

With such a formidable list of accomplishments, one might expect an equally formidable personality. But while Sister Peggy is obviously a force to reckon with, she’s also very approachable. Her office on Parliament Hill is devoid of decoration, but the Senator is a bright spark in a Kelly green blouse, sweater and Irish plaid skirt. Her eyes light up as she talks about this latest opportunity to help Canada’s poor.

“The Senate is a wonderful institution,” says the new recruit. It’s an honour to work with such great minds — I marvel at the expertise here. Because it’s the vehicle for ‘sober second thought’, we can truly make a difference.” Sister Peggy sits on the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, the Cape Breton Development Corporation, the Fisheries Committee, and was recently on the Joint Committee on Child Poverty. “I want to help everyone I can,” she stresses. “It’s what my life is all about.”

Her committee work is over and above the time spent sitting in the Senate itself — a task which Sister Peggy has been criticized. “Time sat is the least of what you do here,” she states firmly. “The committees work extremely hard to make things better for people.” It’s a constant race against time, she admits, but trusted assistant Claire Charpentier keeps her from running off in the wrong direction. The Senator doesn’t stop outside the meeting rooms, either. “I take my work home with me — something I didn’t always do as a student!”

The world according to Sister Peggy
What are Sister Peggy’s thoughts on seniors in Canada? “One of the things I have tried to do in the Maritimes is to maintain a decent level of healthcare,” she reports. “I chaired the Eastern Regional Health Board, all of whose members are seniors, and I think we developed a good Pharmacare system. While you do pay a premium each year, if you don’t use it up, it gets added to your “kitty” the next year. We also promote more home care as much as possible.” But it’s hard enough to maintain the level Nova Scotians have now, she adds. She works intensely on these health and homecare issues with the provincial Department of Health and with Human Resources Development Canada.

Given ongoing public disaffection with the Senate, does Sister Peggy think our tax dollars are being spent wisely? “With all that brain power and experience, we’re bound to come up with worthwhile solutions,” she declares. “Look at the money spent on bank presidents and professional athletes. I personally know senators and politicians who gave up much larger incomes for the opportunity to serve Canada. We’re not getting rich here!” Certainly she is not. Sister Peggy’s own senatorial income of $64,400 a year, plus a tax-free allowance of $10,000, goes to various charities. The Church gives her a stipend for living expenses. While other senators and politicians live in Ottawa hotels or condos, she boards in a convent. Assistant Claire Charpentier reveals that although senators are allowed to fly business class, her boss prefers to travel economy class. “Sometimes she even asks me to get a discount fare,” says Ms. Charpentier, “I have to remind her that if her schedule changes at the last minute, we can’t get the money back.”

What about the timeless question of Church vs. State? “So far I haven’t found any conflict,” says the nun. “You can’t look at issues as black and white — there are a lot of grey areas. God helps me use my own conscience.”

And what does an activist nun and Senator do for relaxation? “Well,” she twinkles, “I like to watch the hockey game on Saturday nights. I get in trouble here because I cheer for Montreal! I also read, but it’s mostly heavy reading at the moment. If I get a relaxed moment, I like biographies and autobiographies.” And although her office in Nova Scotia “never closes,” she carves out time for celebrations at her home convent in Sydney and visits with her three brothers when the Senate breaks for the holidays.

When Sister Peggy was first appointed to the Senate, the media inundated her with interview requests. “It’s calmed down a bit now,” she says. “I used to tell them I’d be glad when the Blue Jays got a new manager — then they’d have a hot story!”

Senator Mary Alice “Peggy” Butts celebrated her 73rd birthday last August. Even after mandatory retirement from the Senate at age 75, she has no plans to take it easy. “Older people need to socialize, to be busy,” she says. “I feel young and I feel fine! I may as well do what I can while I can — and I hope when I’m in heaven I’ll still be able to help. It’s what I believe.”