In a ceremony which elicited as much laughter as it did tears, the life of former Sudbury MP Diane Marleau was celebrated Feb. 2.
Hundreds of people, including many of the city's movers and shakers, as well as politicians of all stripes, showed up at St. Andrew's Place for the secular service, officiated by Marleau's former constituency assistant, Fern Cormier.
Marleau, 69, who served in several cabinet portfolios in the Liberal government of former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, passed away after a battle with cancer Jan. 30 at the Maison Vale Hospice.
Marleau is survived by her husband Paul, her children, Brigitte, Donald and Stephane, and grandson Julian. She was the daughter of Yvonne LeBel, who is predeceased.
One of her two brothers, Dr. Roger LeBel, gave one of several eulogies at the service, offering the crowd an insight into Marleau's early life.
The siblings were raised by a single mother who managed to make ends meet, despite her “meagre” teacher's salary.
LeBel said his mother was a behind-the-scenes political organizer, which he thinks inspired his sister's interest in politics later in life.
As a child, Marleau was “cute as a button” and “smart as a whip,” and was always at the top of her class, he said.
“She knew what she wanted, and she knew how to get it, even at that time,” LeBel said. “You just had to get out of her way.”
Marleau also had an incredibly generous spirit, he said. He shared an anecdote about how, when she was about 10, she gave away her favourite doll to a little girl living in the rooming house down the street.
“Diane was beaming from ear to ear,” LeBel said. “It's a perfect example of how sometimes giving offers us more pleasure than taking. I personally thought she was going crazy.”
It was when she was studying political science at the University of Ottawa that she met Paul Marleau.
“They were married in the summer of 1963, just a few weeks after her 20th birthday, and what a couple they made,” LeBel said. He said the two fit together “like the pieces of a puzzle.”
It wasn't until their children were pretty well grown that Marleau entered politics.
She first served at the municipal level as a city councillor, and then as the MP for Sudbury, an office she held for nearly 20 years, until she was defeated in 2008 by the NDP's Glenn Thibeault.
“Paul, standing in the background, using his incredible organizational skills, was the main power behind what was to become the Diane Marleau phenomenon,” LeBel said. “With all of her attributes and people skills, the rest is history.”
One of Marleau's nephews, Maurice Levac, also offered his thoughts with the crowd.
Even though he's a relative, as a Canada Revenue Agency executive who, for a time, was the agency's liaison with MPs' offices, he said he also gained an insight on his aunt's political career, especially her constituency work.
He said his aunt had a way of making miracles happen for constituents who had made mistakes on tax forms, and now were suffering financial hardship as a result.
“If I told Diane it would take a week for us to produce the cheque, she'd tell me she wanted it the next day,” Levac said. He joked that “because I was scared of her, I did it the next day.”
Paul and Diane Marleau are known for their generosity to family, he said.
Their home is known as the Hotel Marleau, because they always offer a place to stay for visiting family, Levac said. They even took in several of their great-nieces attending school in Sudbury for the entire school year, he said.
On a personal level, when Levac's marriage ended a few years ago, his aunt and uncle invited him to go on vacations with them, at which time the three became close friends, rather than just relatives.
His single status even inspired his aunt to appoint herself his “dating adviser.” “She said 'Take your time, make sure she can cook, and make sure she has teeth,” Levac said.
He said he's going to miss Marleau. “We know that Diane's spirit will be with us forever,” he said.
Former Nickel Belt NDP MP and Greater Sudbury Mayor John Rodriguez also offered a eulogy. He said he came to know Marleau very well during his time on Parliament Hill, as the two often travelled to and from Ottawa together.
He related a story about a conversation he and Marleau had with United States Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.
The two were serving on a political committee together, and were tasked with learning more about the United States' move to deregulate its bank system, as Canada was being lobbied to go in the same direction.
Greenspan advised the politicians in no uncertain terms that Canada needed to deregulate its bank system to let it grow.
“I remember very vividly Diane saying 'Well, Mr. Chair, when you finish all your deregulation of banks, to whom then will the banks be accountable when all of this deregulation is done?” Rodriguez said.
“I think, sadly, we got the answer to that in 2008.”
He characterized his late former political colleague as feisty.
“If she had something to tell you, she would,” Rodriguez said. “You knew where you stood with her.”
Speaking to Northern Life before the service, former Sudbury NDP MPP Sharon Murdock said Marleau was a trailblazer for women in politics.
She said not long after she was elected in 1990, she bumped into Marleau at a restaurant one evening, and they ended up having a two-hour-long conversation, where they discussed everything from their families to political life.
“Diane led the way for most of us,” she said. “As an MP, she was outspoken and had major portfolios. She was a model that most women today can look up to.”