Laureen Harper is a natural. She’s found the secret to balancing her official duties, being a mom and finding time to do what she loves most.
There is more to Laureen Harper than meets the eye. Charismatic and unpretentious, her personality is a refreshing reminder that although she may be the woman alongside Canada’s Prime Minister, she’s also busy with work of her own.
Laureen Harper grew up in Turner Valley, a rural town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, southwest of Calgary, where she developed a lifelong passion for the outdoors and a love for animals at an early age. Today, she advocates for the proper care of animals and opens her home to kittens waiting to be adopted from the Ottawa Humane Society. Known for her extensive volunteer work and her support of important community causes, Laureen Harper’s focus on family, community and charity is a reflection of her down-to-earth sensibilities.
I caught up with the on-the-go mom at 24 Sussex Drive to talk about raising a family in the spotlight, her no-fuss fitness regime and what makes Canada the best place to live in the world.
ALEXANDRA GUNN: Being in the spotlight day in and day out must be difficult to manage. How do you separate your personal life from your public life or is that even doable?
LAUREEN HARPER: You’d be surprised; a lot of people don’t recognize me. I walk around Ottawa and no one knows who I am. I think it’s because most of the time no one knows who you are or they don’t put two and two together. The other day, I was coming out of Walmart and a woman came running after me to see my receipt.
AG: I’m sure you’re always recognized at public functions and political events. I would assume that a lot of people want to respect your privacy.
LH: That woman wanted to see that receipt! She was making sure I wasn’t stealing (laughs). In Ottawa, I go to a lot of events, so people are used to seeing me, but most of the time I just think they don’t know who I am. I’m not a celebrity or a movie star, so I can run down Wellington Street right in front of the House of Commons, past all the reporters who don’t even notice. It makes me smile because they are so busy talking that I go running on by with no makeup in my running gear and they don’t even look twice. I think sometimes they are going to say hello but they keep on walking.
AG: You may be able to go unnoticed on your runs, but raising a family in the public eye while juggling your official commitments must be tricky at times, so how do you stay grounded?
LH: I am a stay-at-home mom, so I spend a lot of time with my kids. They’re getting older, so they don’t want to spend as much time with you (laughs).
AG: Family always comes first but you’re also generously donating your time to a variety of charities. Are there any particular organizations that you believe support a great cause?
LH: I’m always focused on animal charities and animal welfare, so when I’m in Calgary or Ottawa, I work with the Humane Society. There are so many great charities doing wonderful work, so if I can help them I will. I work with the Trans Canada Trail and the National Arts Centre Gala benefitting the National Youth and Education Trust. In 2017, the Trans Canada Trail is going to go from coast-to-coast-to-coast. It’s 75 per cent done now and I’ve already been on sections of it and I’m hoping Canadians will take advantage of it when it’s done. The National Arts Centre has really become the National Arts Centre. It brings in artists from across the country and bring music to Canadians from all over. The NAC Gala allows for the foundation to do work across the country. It isn’t just here in Ottawa; it goes across the country and helps a lot of kids who otherwise wouldn’t get music education. I really think they do a great job. I also really like regional theatre. I love all of these regional theatres that we have across the country; they’re little treasures. We are really lucky to have great theatre houses. Some are them are in the middle of nowhere and they are creating jobs and opportunities for actors and playwrights.
AG: It’s nice to see that you dedicate so much time and effort to Canadian charities. If you had a few extra hours every day, how would you spend them?
LH: I would go hiking or doing something outside. I love being outdoors.
AG: Growing up near the Rocky Mountains must have inspired your love for adventure and hiking. What are some of your favourite outdoor activities that you like to take part in?
LH: I love to snowshoe – that’s my favourite. I try to snowshoe as much as I can in the winter. In the spring, I like to hike because there’s always something interesting going on in the hills. Anytime of the year I can snowshoe or hike. I love the Gatineau Hills in Quebec, but when I’m in Calgary, I hike in the Rockies or along some great hiking trails in and around Calgary. I don’t care if there’s a hill – I just like hiking. When I was growing up in Turner Valley, my family loved to hike. People were poor and so there wasn’t much to do. There was no going to theatres or concerts. We had the mountains 20 minutes away so we did what was available. We would head to the mountains to hike and camp and it was great because it didn’t cost any money.
AG: Do you encourage your two children, Ben and Rachel, to enjoy the outdoors as much as you do?
LH: Yes, as much as I can. There are some great parks in Ontario and Quebec and we’ve recently learned to canoe. And we always do one mother-daughter canoe trip every year, which I really enjoy.
AG: You must know some great spots across Canada. Where do you usually go?
LH: (laughs) I don’t want to say because then other people would go there! Where we go is such a great place and it’s so close to Ottawa, but very few people know about it. Rachel and I usually canoe and camp for three days and two nights, but you can’t make kids go too long because they can get bored. It’s our secret canoe spot.
AG: Hiking and adventure are high on your list, but do you have a particular fitness regime that you try and stick to during the week?
LH: I know I should, but I don’t. I love to run and that’s what I do. Everybody does different activities but I try and run five times a week. In the summer, I run outdoors and in the winter, I just go on the treadmill. There are no excuses with the treadmill. If you run outside, it can be too windy, too hot or too cold. I love the treadmill. There are so many great activities, but they go in and out of style, so I stick with what works.
AG: There are quite a few big races in Ottawa throughout the year. Do you ever participate?
LH: We do charity races but I only compete against myself. I like doing charity runs for fun, but I’m not under any illusions! I tried to keep up with Peter MacKay for the Army Run and I only lasted about a kilometre and told him to go on without me. He did five kilometres in 22 minutes and I can’t!
AG: Aside from running, what are some of the things you do to stay healthy?
LH: I try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Well…we try (laughs). I think snacks should be snacks, but we try to stick with fruits and vegetables and then we have one day a week where we cheat. Salt-and-vinegar potato chips are the perfect cheat food. I want the whole bag, which is why I hate those 100-calorie bags – there are only four chips in there!
AG: You’ve had the opportunity to travel the world with your husband and as a solo traveler many years ago. Now that you’ve seen so much of the world outside of our borders, what do you most appreciate about Canada?
LH: The space. It’s so clean in Canada. When I come back from trips, I think how we are the luckiest people to have a country that is as big and beautiful as it is. Canadians appreciate what we have.
AG: What do you recommend to an out-of-country guest as a must-see if they will be traveling across Canada?
LH: Every region of the country has something amazing. So many Canadians travel outside the country on their vacations, which I think is a real shame. There are people from Western Canada who have never been to Eastern Canada and there are lots of Eastern Canadians who have never been to Western Canada and I think they should travel around Canada. Anyone who has been to Newfoundland knows it’s a great time. Niagara has great wineries. I’d recommend Toronto’s theatre district. Vancouver is one of the most amazing cities on earth. And, of course, head to Calgary for the Stampede! Every region of the country has fantastic festivals and it’s the people who make Canada a great place to live and visit.
AG: The Calgary Stampede will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Will you be attending?
LH: You betcha! I’m inviting every person I know to come to Calgary. We will likely run out of space and will need to put mattresses down, but it’s a great festival that everyone needs to experience at least once. It’s difficult explaining the Calgary Stampede to someone who has never been to one. The entire city gets involved in the Stampede festivities – every street, every shopping centre and every community centre. I think it’s going to be the biggest party we’ve seen in a long time. This is the year to go. You have to experience it!
AG: Now that the warmer weather is here, what else are you looking forward to doing?
LH: I always do a big hike somewhere in Canada in the summer with a group of friends. We try to pick a different place every year. Last year, we went to the Yukon and this year, we are going to go hiking in the Kootenays in British Columbia. It’s nice to go somewhere where no one else is, even if it takes two or three days to get there. It’s always a wonderful feeling. A couple of years ago, we hiked for five days and only saw two people and one grizzly bear.
AG: Your keen sense of adventure must translate well when you accompany your husband on official business at home and abroad. What are some of the memorable moments that you often look back on?
LH: Traveling across this great country and getting to go to every province and every territory, which most Canadians don’t get to do. My husband and I get to do that all the time, but it never gets old and we love it. Every time you go somewhere you’ve never been before, it’s amazing and I always say that I want to come back here and spend more time.
AG: Looking back on the past few years, is there anything you’d wish you had done differently?
LH: No, I don’t think so. My husband works very hard and sometimes I wish he didn’t, you know? But that’s the nature of the job and he loves his job. He loves going to work and we are very lucky that we get to spend time with our kids. We miss our families back in Alberta, since we only see them three or four times a year. I’ve made lots of good friends across the country so there are no big regrets. We just miss our family in Alberta, so we’re thankful we get to go back so often to visit. All in all, it has been amazing.
Canada’s First Lady, Laureen Harper Supports These Charities:
The Humane Society The Humane Society of Canada (HSC) works across the street, across Canada and around the world helping people, animals and the environment. www.humanesociety.com
Canada Army Run The Canada Army Run is about Canadians and the Canadian Forces – Air Force, Army and Navy – joining together in the spirit of camaraderie and mutual respect. It’s a chance for the troops to extend the military esprit de corps to Canadians and to thank them for their support. www.armyrun.ca
Trans Canada Trail The Trans Canada Trail promotes and assists in the development and use of the Trail in every province and territory. Today, more than 16,500 kilometres of trail have been developed. When completed, the Trail will stretch 22,000 kilometres from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic Oceans, linking 1,000 communities and all Canadians. www.tctrail.ca
National Youth and Education Trust (NYET) provides funding for the performing arts, programming and educational initiatives for young artists, young audiences and schools across the country.
Photography by Deborah Ransom
Hair & Makeup by Noah at facesbynoah.com