It all began with what seemed like an innocent interview with Le Soleil, a French-language newspaper. Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, the wife of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, mused that she was overwhelmed by all the requests for her to participate in public events since becoming Canada’s “first lady”.
“I’d love to be everywhere but I can’t,” she pleaded, after appearing at an event in Quebec for a nonprofit that encourages teenage girls to be physically fit. “I have three children and a husband who is prime minister. I need help. I need a team to help me serve the people.”
Sophie, a 41-year-old former TV presenter, yoga instructor and sometime blues singer, has touched off a Canadian-style political firestorm. Nikki Ashton, a member of Parliament for the opposition New Democratic Party, said Gregoire-Trudeau was disconnected from reality. “Let’s talk about Canadian women feeling overwhelmed,” she said.
Coming just months after it was revealed that taxpayers were paying for the Trudeau couple’s two nannies, this proved too much for many Canadians. Dripping with sarcasm, they’ve been attacking Gregoire-Trudeau on Twitter using the hashtag #PrayforSophie.
“Jokes on Canada. We elected the Kardashians,” said one comment.
— Glen A. (@Glen_Allan_) May 12, 2016
“I’m setting up a lemonade stand this weekend, all proceeds going to fund help for Sophie,” said another.
— M-Diddy (@Mattyg7G) May 13, 2016
— Stephen Taylor (@stephen_taylor) May 12, 2016
The role of “first lady” has no real formal status in the Canadian system. Gregoire-Trudeau has one assistant but no office in the Langevin Block, the government building housing the prime minister’s office. She complains that she’s been forced to deal with a flood of correspondence and event requests from a corner of her dining room table.
Gregoire-Trudeau certainly hasn’t avoided the limelight since her husband was swept into power last October, posing with him in a romantic Vogue photo-shoot, modeling Canadian-designed fashions, and even crooning her own composition at an event on Martin Luther King Day. And she got plenty of attention when she accompanied her husband on an official visit to the White House in March.
The contrast with Laureen Harper, wife of former prime minister Stephen Harper, couldn’t be more striking. No Vogue photo-shoots for Laureen. Raised on a ranch in Alberta, Laureen’s favorite pastime was riding her motorcycle and her preferred charity, the local humane society. She apparently tended to stray cats in the official residence, which has been shuttered for a long-needed restoration after the Harpers moved out.
Canada has had high-profile “first ladies” in the past, notably Justin Trudeau’s mother Margaret, who was famous for many of the wrong reasons. She married Pierre Trudeau when she was just 22 (he was 30 years older) and went on to have three boys in less than five years. It was all too much for her, later describing 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence, as the “crown jewel of the federal penitentiary service. I felt it was like a prison.”
Seeking an outlet, Margaret took photography courses and partied with The Rolling Stones and was seen dancing at New York’s Studio 54 disco. She filed for divorce from Pierre in 1983. She has since admitted to suffering from bipolar disorder and has become an advocate for mental health in Canada.
Mila Mulroney, the wife of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, was a notorious fashionista and consummate spender, which led her to being dubbed Imelda, in honor of the Philippines’ Imelda Marcos and her love of shoes. Her prime minister husband once opined that if Mila ever had her credit card stolen, he wouldn’t report it to police because the thief would probably spend less on it than Mila.
Mila did have her own office and a staff of three. That may be the way things are going for Gregoire-Trudeau. The prime minister’s office said this week it’s looking into ways of providing more staff support for her activities and appearances.