Dr. Bette Stephenson, 95, was a trailblazer in Ontario politics with many ‘first female’ titles to her name

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Dr. Bette Stephenson in 1987.

JOHN McNEILL/The Globe and Mail

A tireless, outspoken and compassionate general practitioner of medicine, Dr. Bette Stephenson took those personal attributes, albeit reluctantly, into the political arena. As an MPP she distinguished herself by racking up a long list of “firsts” within the Ontario government. She was the province’s first female minister of labour, first female minister of education, first female minister of colleges and universities, and first female minister of finance. She was also the first female president of the Ontario Medical Association and the first female president of the Canadian Medical Association. “She liked being busy,” said Stephen Pengelly, one of her six children.

After retiring as an MPP in 1987, Dr. Stephenson continued serving on numerous boards. Steve Paikin, author, broadcaster and host of TVOntario’s flagship current affairs show The Agenda wrote a tribute for Dr. Stephenson’s 95th birthday. He recalled visiting her assisted-living facility in Richmond Hill, noting that while she was physically frail her mind was still sharp. He joked, “I’m delighted to see you’ve still got all your marbles.” Without missing a beat, she quipped, “Yeah I’ve got ‘em. I just can’t play ‘em.” Dr. Stephenson died on Aug. 19, less than a month after turning 95.

One of Dr. Stephenson’s childhood memories involved a visit to a doctor after which she announced her intention to become one herself. Prevailing public opinion of the day suggested she pursue nursing instead because there were no female doctors. “There are” she insisted. “I don’t know any but they’re out there.”

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Born on July 31,1924, in Aurora, just north of Toronto, Bette Mildred Stephenson, the eldest of three, was eager to begin her education. She badgered her father, Carl, owner of a Shell gas station, and her mother, Mildred, a homemaker. “I began a campaign of hectoring that reached high volume,” she wrote in a family memoir. It was her father who finally capitulated. She wrote that she didn’t know whether he argued successfully on her behalf or begged the school principal to take this child off his hands.

She had learned a valuable lesson. “It was clear to me that persistence paid off when the cause was worthy.”

She began Grade 1 a year ahead of the recommended age. A precocious child and avid reader, at age 8 she asked for a complete set of Dickens novels available on order from the Eaton’s catalogue. After reading them she turned her attention to books on the history of science and medicine.

In 1941, Bette Stephenson graduated from Earl Haig Secondary School intent on studying medicine at the University of Toronto. In Northern Lights – Outstanding Canadian Women, written by educator Joan Green, Dr. Stephenson stated, “I was a teenager from 11 to 16, when I finished high school, but when I started medical school at 17, I no longer considered myself a teenager.”

Starting medical school at such a young age was not without problems but she remained undaunted. University rules stated students had to be 18. As an added complication, she didn’t have $680 for tuition. She lay in wait, ambushing the university’s dean. So persuasive was she in her argument to be admitted that not only did the dean waive the arbitrary age requirement for admission, he waived her tuition fee as well. Her parents’ advice that she could do anything she set her mind to was proving correct.

She met fellow medical student Allan Pengelly at U of T and they married in 1948. Like his wife, he also became a general practitioner. In the days before the Ontario Health Insurance Program, he set up a free allergy clinic at Toronto Western Hospital.

“He was there for my mother through 65 years of marriage, no matter what,” Stephen Pengelly said. Allan Pengelly died in 2013.

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For many years, Dr. Stephenson ran her medical practice out of the basement of the family home in the city’s Willowdale neighbourhood. Parents, grandparents and siblings lived nearby, close enough to lend a hand with her growing brood. Mr. Paikin tells the story of a very pregnant Dr. Stephenson marching into Women’s College Hospital and asking the elevator operator to take her to 10th floor obstetrics. “For you or a patient?” was the reply.

Although Dr. Stephenson was not in provincial politics at the time, she was certainly familiar with the politics of medicine. In the early 1960s, as the first female member of the Ontario Medical Association, she had a meeting with Pierre Trudeau, who was justice minister at the time. He agreed to remove abortion from the Criminal Code but never began the process. Dr. Stephenson was furious. Years later, when she was head of the Canadian Medical Association, she confronted him. In her memoir she recalled: “He was taken aback at my forthrightness.” Mr. Trudeau, who by then had become Prime Minister, told her not to raise the matter in public or he would deny it. “Who do you think would be believed?” he added.

Canada’s Supreme Court eventually decriminalized abortion but Mr. Trudeau’s failure to keep his word continued to rankle Dr. Stephenson. If she gave her word, she did her utmost to keep it and expected others to do the same. In the eyes of her family, that integrity plus a generosity of heart made her an ideal candidate for public office. They held a meeting without her and decided she must be persuaded.

Dalton Bales, a Conservative MPP in the riding of York Mills who was stepping down for health reasons, called three times to ask her to run in his place. Each time she refused, but her family finally convinced her to seek the nomination. She ran in the 1975 provincial election, winning by almost 4,000 votes. Five days after the election, Premier Bill Davis asked her to be minister of labour. She told him “The only thing I know about labour is delivering babies.” Mr. Davis was adamant. Not only did he want to appoint the province’s first female labour minister but he felt her background would be helpful in making changes to the province’s health and safety laws.

Mr. Paikin wrote, “She quickly became one of the province’s most quotable ministers. At one of her first question periods an opposition member asked about a pulp and paper strike happening in Northern Ontario. In a place where verbosity and clock-killing reign, Dr. Stephenson replied, ‘The answers to your question are yes, no, and perhaps … in that order.’ She sat down to laughter and applause.”

Ernie Eves, Ontario premier from 2002 to 2003, had his first parliamentary assistant job working for Dr. Stephenson, then minster of education.

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“A lot of ministers are protective of their turf,” he said. “Betty wasn’t like that. She said ‘My door is always open. Any time you don’t agree with me on something we’re doing I want you to walk in here and tell me why and how we can fix it.”

He commended her for her work during his tenure as Premier as chair of a learning opportunities task force to study how students with learning disabilities could be accommodated in post-secondary institutions. “At the end of it she coerced many institutions into participating. It was something she believed in all her life,” he said. She also helped Mr. Eves set up a foundation named after his son Justin to assist underprivileged students with university tuition.

Dr. Stephenson received awards from a wide variety of organizations, as well as honorary degrees. In recognition of a life devoted to public service, in 1992 Dr. Stephenson was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada. She was later named to the Order of Ontario and honoured with the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals. The York District School board opened the Bette M. Stephenson Centre for Learning in 2011. Two years later she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. “It wasn’t the highest-profile of her awards but it really meant a lot to her,” Mr. Pengelly said.

Many of those who came into frequent contact with Dr. Stephenson associated her with a particular expression. Comprising two seemingly affectionate words, she tended to use them ironically, particularly with reporters. “Back then, if you were in a scrum and asked a question Dr. Stephenson didn’t like, she would proceed to surgically take your head off,” Mr. Paikin wrote. “Of course she’d call you ‘Dear heart’ as she did it.”

Dr. Stephenson leaves her daughters, Elizabeth and Mary-Katherine; sons, Stephen, Christopher, Michael and Timothy; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.