The Honourable Janice Filmon [BScHEc/63, LLD/11], Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor, is singing under the spotlight.
Really singing, with animated hands and enthusiastic eyes as if she’s performing for a packed house. Everyone at the photo shoot loves it.
“My God, I asked for it,” says the photographer, laughing. “That’s awesome.”
He had suggested the lieutenant-governor have some fun for the camera. She obliged, offering a rendition of an age-old song the home economics grad would perform during skits back in her days at the University of Manitoba. Just like that, Her Honour has reminded the room that leadership doesn’t have to be grandiose or formal. It comes down to making small, but meaningful, connections with others.
And leadership is something she takes very seriously. During her installation as lieutenant-governor at the Legislature a week earlier, Filmon shared her mandate to grow leaders in Manitoba. “In my experience,” she said during her official address, “most all of us have the spark to lead but just need a bit of encouragement to feel empowered.”
A tireless volunteer with not-for-profit organizations for decades, she is inspired by everyday people who shine a light in someone else’s life. She sees leaders everywhere: the driver of the Handi-Transit van at the park unloading his passengers with such care, a woman who puts her heart into being a mom.
They’re all in, Filmon points out. “Leadership in its broadest sense is that you have a commitment or a passion from within yourself to want to partake. You’ve got to believe in the project.”
At 72, Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor still believes. And she doesn’t worry or overanalyze (it’s a waste of energy) or watch TV (it’s a waste of time). She doesn’t have a bucket list (not yet anyway). And she can’t think of anything that scares her.
“Katie, these are funny questions,” she says with a smile.
I continue: “Do you believe in psychics?”
But she does know the mystical powers of a hug.
“I’m a hugger,” she affirms unapologetically.
Filmon shows me an email from Ted Dzogan, a man in his 40s who once took part in Manitoba ALIVE (A Leadership Initiative in Voluntary Efforts). She helped create the program to encourage high-schoolers to find their inner leader and squash racial stereotypes. Each year the program brings together 30 teens of all ethnicities from within Winnipeg, the province’s rural communities and the Far North.
One of the workshops was about hugging. Filmon describes how some participants would keep their arms out wide like something was preventing them from getting close. In the email, Dzogan wrote about how at first he felt uncomfortable with the idea, having grown up without hugs in his home—but that was going to change for his family.
“For all your other wonderful accomplishments, the one that means the most to me will be that hug you gave an awkward, lonely and anxious boy that won’t ever publicly define you, but is the starting point for most of what has ended up defining me,” Dzogan wrote.
He was at Her Honour’s installation.
“He said, ‘Can I have one of those hugs?’” Filmon recalls.
Seeing Manitoba ALIVE teens learn from each other was “pure magic” and their transformation, dramatic. “Kids develop masks,” says Filmon, at one time a social worker with the Children’s Aid Society in Winnipeg. She helped them to reveal their unique beauty and potential. “[When] they feel good about themselves and they believe in themselves—all of a sudden you have this amazing dynamic happening and parents would come back and say, ‘Who is this?’”
While her husband Gary [BSc(CE)/64, MSc/67, LLD/11] was leading Manitoba as premier, the couple was trying to empower their own kids—Allison, David, Gregg and Susanna.
As a mom, Filmon wanted not just to be there but to be present in every moment. She knew when to step back and let them climb that tree—“better a broken arm than a broken spirit,” she quips. Filmon wanted them to take charge of their own happiness.
“The whole business with parents saying ‘I just want them to be happy,’ well, I think being happy is their responsibility, not mine. It’s about the choices they make,” she says.
When she was a child, her father, Harold Wainwright, shared with his two daughters his curiosity about people and community. And he instilled in them a drive to push themselves. “He’d say ‘Is that the best you can do, young lady?’”
An executive with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he moved the family around a lot but within the instability, the love was steady. By age seven, young Janice Wainwright was already 4-foot-11, nearly as tall as her five-foot mother, Marjorie. In the pre-teen years that followed, she would grow up fast. An introvert back then, she had to dig deep for the confidence to be the new kid at six schools in five years. But the real game-changer came at 16 when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Filmon became mini-mom to her younger sister and only sibling, Judy, getting dinner in the oven after two daily visits to Misericordia Hospital squeezed in before and after classes at Gordon Bell High School. Her mom would survive six years, much of that time spent in hospital.
No longer could she greet her daughters from behind the counter at the local community club canteen, when they came inside to warm up from a skate. Away from the cold, the pungent blast of mustard and boiled hotdogs would hit their rosy cheeks. “It just smelled so delicious,” Filmon recalls.
Marjorie died at 54.
When Filmon got a phone call from her doctor’s office years later—at 46—the mother of four knew something was awry. They had asked her to change her appointment and instead come in at the end of the day. Before a word was said, Filmon remembers pondering what this doctor sitting across from her must have been feeling in that heavy moment. She wanted to put him at ease.
“I thought, imagine having to tell me this. So I said, ‘You don’t know me very well and I’ve driven down here and I just want you to know that I’m going to be okay to drive home,’” she recalls.
She would drive home to Gary, who was near the beginning of his 11-year run as premier. Their profile was public, but she fought her breast cancer battle out of the spotlight, going through three dozen radiation treatments and then chemotherapy.
“And then years later,” Filmon’s voice falls, “it was Allison.”
One of her most cherished memories: the moment their eldest child, Allison Filmon Carvey, came home carrying baby Lexie, a sweet bundle of love. It was Christmas and the glow from the tree lit up their home in holiday perfection. “I can still see her walking in with our first grandchild.”
Allison, a mother of two, was also 46 when she was diagnosed with cancer. During the three years before her death of melanoma in 2013 it was hard to wriggle away from cancer’s hold. “You’re aware of that uninvited guest,” says Filmon, a long-time chairperson for the CancerCare Manitoba Foundation. “What you’re doing is going through a circumstance as best you know how, with who you are at that point, with whatever skills you have and the love that surrounds you…. She was a beautiful, beautiful woman in every way, in spirit, inside and out.”
Gary, a loving father, has always offered his wife a steady hand to hold. When there are questions, he pursues answers. When there is a problem, he tries to fix it. “If the plane was going down, you would want him at the controls,” she says.
While her husband was premier, she didn’t read the newspaper or watch the news. She wanted to be free to just be herself. “I didn’t need to know that stuff,” Filmon says. “I needed to know that I could be me and if I went out into the community and met somebody I was meeting them on my terms and without a whole lot of background. So that allowed me to go about the community and be.”
Filmon is good at remembering people’s names, and she’ll make a point of calling you by yours several times during a conversation. She describes herself as “a relationship-based thinker” which will serve her well during her five-year appointment as the Queen’s representative in Manitoba. She says it’s about time a female was chosen; she is only the second woman to hold the vice-regal post since 1870, following Pearl McGonigal [LLD/83] in 1981.
“Because first comes a single step, and then a stride and before you know it someone may even ask you to lead.”
Filmon admires another Manitoba-raised woman who broke new ground: Nellie McClung. As founding chair of the Nellie McClung Foundation, Filmon led a team of volunteers who put a bronze sculpture on the Legislative grounds and who honour McClung for her role in helping Manitoba women win the right to vote before any other jurisdiction in Canada.
“Nellie was doing this back in 1916, married with five children. There were no cell phones. It was not cool for a woman to leave her husband and go riding the rails, right? This is phenomenal,” says Filmon.
There’s a stack of thank you cards Her Honour is working through in response to all of the well wishes for her appointment. She’s handwritten about 500 so far.
Among them: former classmates from the U of M.
How many have you kept in touch with?
“Oh, everybody,” she says before laughing.
The first from her family to go to university, Filmon would become Alumni Association president, a Distinguished Alumni Award recipient and an honorary degree recipient.
The campus was where she met her husband and home to some of her earliest volunteer efforts, from the blood drive to the Snowball Prom. (Her dad’s shovel might still be floating around; she left it behind after building snow sculptures and he never let her forget it.)
Filmon soaked up the tight-knit spirit on campus. “It was just such a sense of community and of pride,” she says.
Her Honour also talks about the pride she feels for the province as a whole. “There is something about prairie people,” she says. “They are very rooted, family-oriented, community-oriented, great volunteers.”
As lieutenant–governor, she wants to develop leaders no matter how old they are, whether they’re from a big city or a tiny town. It begins with saying yes. “Because first comes a single step, and then a stride and before you know it someone may even ask you to lead,” Filmon said in her installation speech.
And that leadership grows out of human connection.
“Sometimes to empower a person, it takes just a word of encouragement, a squeeze of the hand, or the simple words, ‘You are not alone. I’ll help.’”
Before I leave her home, the woman whom Prime Minister Stephen Harper hailed as “a strong leader” and “an exemplary volunteer” is apologizing that she never offered me biscuits.
But I did get a hug.
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