A Ste Anne resident and former Senator was recently nominated to the Order of Canada.
Maria Chaput says she was surprised to hear the news. Though she doesn’t know who it was that nominated her, she appreciates it very much and says, “I was mighty proud, no doubt because the Order of Canada is a recognition of Canadians, and I was one of them. I was also humbled because I know of so many great Canadians that could very well have received the Order. But of course, I was proud.”
Chaput is being recognized for her work on official languages and as a Senator.
She was the first Franco-Manitoban woman to sit in the Senate of Canada when she was appointed in 2002. “So, when I think of when I was first appointed to the Senate, it was foreign to me.”
She says, becoming a Senator had never been a life goal of hers. “It was not even something I knew about. So, when I was told that there would be a vacancy in the Senate and I would be a good candidate and, whether would I accept to have my name put in, prompted me to start reading about the Senate and discussing it and following the work of other Senators. And when I saw what the Senate was all about, and when I read that the Senate had been put into place to represent all Canadians from all walks of life and for the protection of minorities, that spoke to me, and I accepted to have my name given to Jean Chretien who was then the Prime Minister of Canada.”
Chaput says her experience as a Senator was like any other political appointment she has received. “I was so proud of it. It made me aware of the great work that the Senate does for Canada. I also got to know another part of our country and I got to work towards the advancement of minority rights.” Which she confesses was really where her passion was.
She notes, once she was appointed as Senator, she needed to choose which committees she wanted to join. She says, since most of her work, prior to becoming a Senator, had been focused on minority issues and language rights for minorities and official languages, she requested to be posted to the “Languages Committee”.
“But, at the time, it was full. So, then I sat on the Aboriginal Committee. But it didn’t even take a year and there was a vacancy on the Official Languages committee. And after another year I became the chair of that committee, and that's what I really wanted to do.”
Chaput explains that that committee was so important to her, was because of her heritage.
“I come from a family of French-speaking Canadians. We all spoke French. We lived in France over the years, that’s where we started our own family. I fought to have our French schools (in southeastern Manitoba) and then the French school division. I was aware of how important it is to have your rights respected by the federal government. I was aware that Canada has two official languages and that equality of rights in federal institutions has duties in regard to that, but it doesn't always happen. And I knew about the official languages. And I knew it needed to be repaired to be changed because it had been there for years, and things had not changed.”
Chaput continues, “So now that I had a link with the Official Languages Committee. The French-speaking community (in Canada) told me that they expected me to go on fighting for their equality of rights, which of course I was going to do.”
She notes that she understood that her job would be to serve and that she represented all Canadians. Chaput saw this as an opportunity to fight for minority rights and to see to it that they were respected by the Canadian government. She confesses, “that spoke to me. That was my objective.”
She says one of her main objectives as Senator was to update the Official Languages Act. “We worked hard. I brought it to the Senate three or four times, and it didn't pass. But every time that it was rejected, we worked at it again. It allowed us to have discussions at committee. We had heated debates. We had people from across Canada who came. We had witnesses who came and told us what they thought about it and how their rights could be better.”
“What this did was, it got the country talking about the Official Languages Act. We talked about minority rights whether the English-speaking in Quebec or the French-speaking across Canada. It allowed us to revise the bills that I was bringing to the Senate. It was never passed because it was a touchy issue.”
“My last bill was revised and brought before the Senate in December 2015. But then, as we say, “it died on the order of paper” because an election was called. After the election, the president of the treasury board personally phoned me, because then I was already retired and told me that the government would revise the Official Languages Act and that their revision had been inspired by the work that I had done.”
Chaput says she is grateful to have had the opportunity to work on the bill. She continues saying that the Official Languages Act is continually changing, and revisions continue to be made. But she is proud of the work they had been able to do on it, during her time as Senator.
She says she feels being a part of the process hasn’t been a burden to her, because it’s been a passion of hers. It was work that she wanted to do. “It was in my DNA.”
These days, Chaput and her husband reside in Ste. Anne and she enjoys visits from her daughters and grandchildren.
She says, “Never for a moment did I ever think that my work as a Senator was not worthwhile. It was an honour. I was in the right place at the right time. I did what I had to do.”
Regarding the Order of Canada recognition, Chaput says, “The first thing that came to my mind, and I'm sure it does to many of the ones who receive awards, is all the people around me that could have received it too. I'm lucky. I'm honoured. I mean I couldn't have done the work alone. I had a whole community that was with me. People across Canada who were with me. So, thank you.”
In June 2021, the Government of Canada introduced a parliamentary bill to modernize the Official Languages Act to a changing and more digital society.
As of 2022, the Government of Canada is proposing Bill C-13 which is an update to the Official Languages Act.
The Order of Canada is a Canadian state order and the 2nd highest honour for merit in the system of orders, decorations and medals of Canada, after the Order of Merit.
As of January 2023, 8,216 people have been appointed to the Order of Canada, including scientists, musicians, politicians, artists, athletes, businesspeople, film stars, and benefactors, among others.
Here is a tribute to Maria Chaput on the news of her retirement, from the Honourable Jane Cordy, Senator, Nova Scotia, “When she was appointed to the Senate in December 2002, Senator Chaput had already established herself as a leader and businesswoman in the francophone financial sector. She is the first Franco-Manitoban woman to be appointed to this chamber and has done much throughout her time here to support her community and to encourage pride and interest in her culture and in her language. She has made great strides in trying to improve francophone life in Manitoba and across Canada.”
“Impressed by her efforts to raise awareness of and to promote Canada’s francophone communities, the French ambassador to Canada, François Delattre, had her received into the Legion of Honour. Maria Chaput thus became the first woman from Western Canada to receive France's highest decoration.” The University of St. Boniface, Magazine – Winter 2012-2013