The Honourable Sister Peggy Butts (Cape Breton Women Series)


June 15th, 2011

Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, there is a strong argument supporting the notion that where one comes from helps to shape the individual that he or she will become. This seems to arise more out of the sense of community in which one was raised as opposed to the actual physical earth, but then that is the sort of thing that shapes a community.

I am a Cape Breton girl, through and through.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Cordy: There are many reasons why it is a great thing to be a Cape Bretoner, and I am sure that Senators MacDonald and Murray will attest to that. Instead of trying to list these things, I would like to show you, by example, some of the company that I keep.

Over the next few months, I will introduce you to a number of Cape Breton women who have been influential and done a great deal for our country. I count these women to be among my personal heroes.

The first in my series is someone who has been referred to as the "rebel with a cross." That is Sister Peggy Butts.

Senator Butts, as she was known to many of you in this chamber, was born in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She later joined the Sisters of Notre Dame. Sister Peggy's life as a nun gave her incredible insight and experiences that served her well during her time in the Senate. She was certainly able to bring to the table a voice that was unique.

Sister Peggy made outstanding contributions to social justice in Nova Scotia. She was a founding member of the Eastern Regional Health Board of Nova Scotia, and she served on the provincial Task Force on the East Coast Fishery as well as on the Nova Scotia Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment.

In addition to this high level of involvement, Senator Butts had a brilliant mind that well qualified her for governmental work. To her credit, she had earned a B.A. in philosophy, a Bachelor of Education and an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science. Sister Peggy spent 18 years as a professor at Cape Breton University and was principal of Holy Angels High School while I attended there as a student.

Some of my fondest memories of Sister Peggy involve Saturday morning basketball practice at Holy Angels High School. Sisters, at that time — in the olden days — wore long black dresses and veils. As Sister Peggy ran down the basketball court, her veil sailing behind her, one could see white basketball sneakers peeking out from beneath her black skirt. Her love of basketball was surpassed only by her love of the Montreal Canadiens.

It was after she received the Weiler Award in 1995 in recognition of her contributions to community and social development in Canada, and after she received an honorary degree from St. Francis Xavier University, in 1996, that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed her to the Senate in 1997. Her very appointment was of interest in that it was the first one of its kind. She was the first religious sister to become a senator. Having taken a vow of poverty when entering the order, Sister Peggy did not possess the land requirements that make up our qualification law for senators. In this instance, the sisters transferred to her name a small parcel of land to fulfill these requirements. The sisters knew well the talent they had in Sister Peggy and believed in her capabilities and ability to serve and do great things in Ottawa for all Canadians.

Throughout her lifetime and, certainly, during her time in the Senate, Sister Butts worked tirelessly, never asking anything in return, even donating her entire salary to charity.

She was a remarkable woman, and our country was fortunate to have had her voice, that of a strong Cape Breton woman, in the Senate. I am sorry that I was unable to serve alongside her in the Senate, but appreciate that I had the opportunity to learn under her guidance at Holy Angels. She left a large legacy to fill and, while we make our best efforts in our day-to-day business, perhaps we can remember Peggy Butts and the enthusiasm she brought to our work.

Honourable senators, I look forward to sharing with you the stories of other great, strong Cape Breton women in the coming months.