July 1971, Parliament Hill, Ottawa
The summer sun was so hot that Charlie Leduc could feel it, even see it, shimmering up from the pavement in front of the Peace Tower. And still his mother was taking photos!
“I’ll just be a minute or two, mon beau,” his mother called. “The flowers are so pretty!”
Charlie climbed up the steps toward the beautiful old stone buildings. There was a bit more of a breeze at the top. He leaned back, back . . . there! He could see the flag at the top of the tower, but on such a hot, humid day, it was flopping more than flapping.
All of a sudden he lost his balance and fell backward, right into a grey-haired woman in a trim suit. She hadn’t seen him because of the box of books and papers she held out in front of her.
“I’m sorry! Excusez-moi!” Charlie was so used to speaking both languages at home that he apologized in French and English without realizing it.
“De rien. It’s nothing,” said the woman with a friendly grin. “It’s a long way to the top of the Peace Tower, isn’t it? If you’re feeling dizzy, let’s sit down for a moment.”
The elegant woman folded her skirt and sat down on the top step, Charlie beside her. “I’m Charlie Leduc,” he said, holding out his hand. “My mum and I are visiting from Sherbrooke.”
“That’s a lovely part of Quebec,” the woman said with a nod and smile. “I’m Madame Casgrain,” she added as she shook his hand.
“Why do you have that box?”
The woman sighed. “I have to clean everything out of my office today. They say I’m too old for my job. I don’t think 75 is that old, do you?”
Charlie didn’t want to be rude. “Well, it is a bit old,” he said, trying to be kind.
Mme Casgrain burst into laughter. “You’re right, Monsieur Charlie. It is a bit old. But I don’t usually let the rules stop me from doing what needs to be done. I think everyone should be treated equally, don’t you?”
“Of course!” Charlie answered. “But everybody’s pretty much equal nowadays.”
A brief look of sadness on Mme Casgrain’s face was chased by a warm smile. “Things are better now, Charlie, but that’s only because people fought for everyone to have an equal voice. Like you, I am from Quebec. And I have only been able to vote in our province for 31 years.”
That sounded like forever to Charlie, but this time, he stayed quiet. Mme Casgrain seemed to read his mind.
“I know it’s an awfully long time at your age, but 1940 seems like yesterday to me. We started in 1928, and every year, we went to the government to ask for the right to vote. For 12 years, the answer was no.”
“Twelve years? That’s longer than I’ve been alive!” Charlie said. “That’s just silly. Why wouldn’t they let you vote?”
“It seemed silly to us, too,” Mme Casgrain said. “We even sent a petition to the King. Ten thousand people signed it, but still nothing.”
“Don’t you mean the Queen?” asked Charlie.
“It was in 1935, my friend,” she said. “It was still King George back then.”
She started to say more, but turned when she heard someone running up behind them. A worried looking young man burst out, “Madame Casgrain — there you are! I would have helped you carry that box!”
Then he saw Charlie. “Is this kid bothering you?”
Mme Casgrain held out her hand to Charlie and they both stood up. “Quite the opposite. Our conversation has been the nicest part of my day.”
Just then, Charlie’s mother saw what was going on and rushed up the steps. “I’m so sorry! I — ” Her mouth fell open when she saw Charlie’s new friend.