While the position itself is all about pomp and circumstance, the woman in the role of Lieutenant Governor not only has an open door policy, but an open heart as well
This province’s 14th Lieutenant Governor, Her Honour, the Honourable Judy M. Foote, P.C., O.N.L., sits quite comfortably behind her desk inside her office at Government House. Outside, in the sunshine, birds are singing away as a fresh crop of high-school graduates, all-dolled-up and fancy in their formal attire, pose for pictures on the immaculately manicured lawn.
It’s become home
The flowers went in the ground a few days ago, and Harvey, a six-year-old black male Percheron Cross donated to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s mounted unit by the Patten family, makes his way around the grounds led by his uniformed partner, Cst. Jason Coombs.
It’s just another day at Government House for Her Honour. She smiles, running her fingers along her historic desk, turning her attention away – however briefly – from the happenings outside in the sunshine to share a yarn.
“I always said it takes a lot to overwhelm me, and don’t get me wrong, this is a beautiful house. It’s lovely, and I enjoy being here, and having been here for a year, it has become home and will be for the next four years” she shares.
It’s where she and her husband, His Honour, Howard W. Foote, reside. It’s where they relax and enjoy time together. Perhaps most importantly it’s where they spend time with their grandchildren.
A moving history
“There’s Katie May who is 13. Katie has my middle name, which was my mother’s maiden name. Mom passed when I was three, so I’m thrilled we’ve carried that on. There’s Meadow, she’s 12, and Ruby Jude – not Ruby Judy – she’s seven. Then we have the boys, Elliott who’s six and Hunter is five.”
Her Honour, as grandparents will do, shares a few sleepover tales – who sleeps with whom and in what room – before continuing with her ‘it takes a lot to overwhelm me’ story.
“I come into this room, into the office. This desk has been here since 1831. When I sit behind this desk and realize that every governor and lieutenant governor since 1831 have used the same desk, and that the Ode to Newfoundland was written right here by Sir Cavendish Boyle – at this very desk – that is very humbling.”
One particular Saturday morning last summer, she was sitting behind that very desk and through the open window she could hear someone singing the Ode to Newfoundland. She looked out the window and there was a group of tourists with a tour guide. The guide was, quite proudly, singing the Ode.
“I hadn’t been in office that long and I think, ‘look at that.’ I run out the door, the guide turns around, and I said, ‘you’re singing the Ode to Newfoundland,’ and he said, ‘and I was just telling them we have the first woman lieutenant governor in Newfoundland and Labrador”. I explained I had been sitting behind the desk where Sir Cavendish Boyle wrote the Ode and I couldn’t resist coming out to tell them.”
The heart garden
Then again pausing with visitors to the property isn’t anything new for this province’s newest LG.
“If I’m here and I see some tourists on the grounds, I’ll talk to them because in my mind, they can’t hear too much about Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Then there’s the Heart Garden, a reconciliation project inspired by the Reconciliation Commission. It is near and dear to Her Honour’s own heart.
“When I came into this position there wasn’t a Heart Garden in Newfoundland Labrador and I thought there should be. We have five Indigenous groups in our province, and there were 6,000 Indigenous children who were through the residential school system, many of whom didn’t survive.’’
She reached out, and with the help of many, made it happen. The heart in the garden’s center was carved from Labradorite by Inuit artist Edmund Saunders. “Edmund’s sister, Loretta, is a murdered Indigenous woman. So it was a labour of love and it brought some closure to the loss of a loved one for him,” she shares with compassion. But there’s so much meaning to the entire garden and its design.
“Each bed represents one of the five Indigenous groups. Plants in those five beds are plants that mean something to Indigenous people, many of them would have been used for healing purposes. We have five benches behind each of the beds and again, those represent the five Indigenous groups.”
Her Honour was proud to have welcomed survivors of the residential school system to the sod-turning for the Heart Garden project in the fall of 2018. “It was very raw and very emotional.”
On National Indigenous Peoples Day this year, June 21st, the province’s first Heart Garden, and the first on the grounds of a Government House, was officially unveiled in the presence of those same survivors who are so appreciative that there now exists a reconciliation project on the grounds of Government House.
Thinking back to when she first left her small home on the Burin Peninsula to begin university in St. John’s, Her Honour pauses, reflecting and relating.
“I think of someone coming here from Mary’s Harbour or from Cartwright. I know when I came to St. John’s to go to university from Grand Bank, a community of 6,000 people at the time, finding your way around was not easy. I see the Heart Garden as an area of reflection for Indigenous post-secondary students and others. A place to come, sit and walk. The Heart Garden, like the grounds of Government House, belongs to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Open door policy
From yoga and t’ai chi chih on the lawn, to wisdom healing, Her Honour is all about having an ‘open door policy.’
“I think of where we are located. Her Majesty’s Penitentiary is on one side, Stella’s Circle is on the other side and The Gathering Place is just beyond. With the most vulnerable in society around us, how can we help make life better for them? What can we do here in a place that was historically thought of as only for the elite?’’
The Heart Garden is but a starting point, she says. Her Honour is considering horticultural therapy in the greenhouse on the grounds of Government House, recognizing being productive is important for the soul.
“Someone can plant the seeds and see them grow. They can be involved in making sure plants are healthy. They can nurse them. They can, when the time comes, remove plants from the greenhouse and plant them in the beds on the grounds. They can leave their footprint on the grounds of Government House. Their grounds.”
Her Honour understands her role is an important one from a constitutional and ceremonial perspective. Legislation that goes through the House of Assembly doesn’t become law until it’s signed off by The Queen’s representative. But what’s really important for Her Honour goes beyond the pomp and circumstance. “What really convinced me that this was the right thing to do in terms of moving on with my life was the power to convene, the ability to be able to bring people together.”
Her Honour has done just that, inviting policy makers and those affected to her table. She has had what she calls ‘sharing circles’ on mental health and has some planned on other topics from immigration and literacy, to entrepreneurship.
“How do we make our province a better place? I’m not the government, I don’t write policy, but there’s nothing to stop us as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians from coming together and being able to have discussions about how we make Newfoundland and Labrador a better place to live and encourage people to talk and share their ideas.”
Making a difference
Of course, in her former life as both a provincial MHA and a federal MP, Her Honour was well versed in collaboration. But, at the end of the day, her decision to leave politics and plant her feet firmly in this province was a very personal one.
“In my old life I was able to make a difference. I thoroughly enjoyed representing the interests of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and thank those who made it possible for me to do what I did. But there are things over which we have little control, like our health” she says.
Her Honour fought cancer 20 years ago. It returned five years ago, while she was a very busy Member of Parliament.
“Being diagnosed with a BRAC 2 gene wasn’t easy, but as you know, things happen to us as individuals and we learn to live with them and do the best we can. But when things happen to those we love, it’s harder, much harder.”
Her Honour shares how difficult it was to find out she had passed the cancer gene to two of her three children.
“While I inherited the BRAC2 gene, what was really difficult to discover was that two of my three children inherited the gene, so that meant of course that they’re susceptible to any number of cancers and it can happen at any time. So being away from home to the extent that I was … weighed on my mind.”
Following her dreams
That reality made her decision so much easier, she explains. While busy, and always dreaming and planning ways to make Government House more accessible and open, having a chance to be together as a family is just as critical.
“As all grandparents will tell you, being a grandparent is amazing. When I talk about the BRAC2 gene … it makes being there for one another, so very important. My family allowed me the freedom to follow my dreams of serving my province and country, and that service brought me away from them quite often. Now, I can serve, and do it from home.”
Serving in the role she holds means being The Queen’s representative, which involves meeting The Queen.
What was that first meeting like? Her Honour laughs. It was this past November, and while she offers she doesn’t usually get overwhelmed, she was. “I was so nervous about meeting Her Majesty because there are so many protocols … I kept thinking ‘don’t get this wrong’.”
Her Honour prepared for her visit by carefully choosing the gifts for Her Majesty. “I’m from Newfoundland and Labrador. I brag about my province everywhere I go,” so gifts from home were a given.
“When it was time for His Honour and I to meet Her Majesty, and they open the doors and announced us, there she was, 93 years old and picture perfect. The photographers are taking photographs and then there is just the three of us. And I’m thinking, how wonderful is this? She invited us to sit down and we started to chat.”
Fit for a queen
Of course, being The Queen, she already knows everything there is to know about the individuals in her presence, still Her Honour had some surprises for Her Majesty.
“We were having a wonderful chat … and then it was time to present the gifts. Before we travelled, the question was, what am I going to bring to The Queen? She has everything. I decided to get her a lap blanket, which was purchased from NONIA and made of wool in the Newfoundland tartan. Attached to it was the Ode to Newfoundland.”
Her Honour also gave The Queen a forget-me-not broach from The Rooms.
“I took great pride in those simple gifts because of their significance to our province, which I explained to Her Majesty. We are the only province with our own anthem, which was written by a former Governor, Sir Cavendish Boyle. I explained the significance of the forget-me-not flower and that in Newfoundland and Labrador, on July 1st, while we are proud Canadians, we commemorate Memorial Day before we celebrate Canada Day.”
The Queen was not familiar with the significance of the forget-me-not, and that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador wear it in their lapel.
“It was so important for me to share with her what happened on July 1st and why it’s Memorial Day for us in Newfoundland and Labrador. We never forget what happened on July 1st, 1916.”
Her Majesty remembered being here for the province’s 500th anniversary. “What she remembered especially from that visit was the huge iceberg that dwarfed The Narrows that year.”
While impressed by the Queen, people seem equally as taken with Government House and its latest residents. Her Honour smiles.
“I welcome people to come here. We offer wellness activities where people can lie on the grass, feel the breeze, hear the birds, and leave relaxed. I’ve been really fortunate in my life so now it’s an honor to pay that forward, by among other things, opening up Government House and inviting others to take a tour and discover its history, walk the grounds, and see the many trees planted by dignitaries.”
There’s plans. From expanding the walking trails, building a labyrinth, to including features that represent the entire province.
Being the first woman in the role of LG has already left an impression.
“I said at my installation that this appointment was not about me. It’s about every woman, every young girl, in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
While others say she has always been a role model, she says holding the highest position in the province provides a unique opportunity. “For a young girl to come here and see that there’s a woman in this position sends a message to them that they can aspire to this position. They can become the Lieutenant Governor. I came from humble beginnings. We were comfortable but my dad had to work hard to make ends meet.”
Nothing was handed to her, she continues. She worked hard and believed in herself. Her message to anyone with a dream, especially young women and girls, “Have confidence in who you are and never give up on your dream.”
She also encourages young girls and women to have a firm handshake. “Don’t be afraid to say, this is who I am. People know if you exude confidence you will undoubtedly be successful.”
Her Honour has been married for 46 years. She takes a moment to walk down memory lane.
“We’ve been together since we were 16. It’s been a journey that I have been blessed to share with Howard. He’s been such a big supporter, and to have accomplished what I have would have been much more difficult without him. And now, on this new leg of our journey he’s the province’s first male consort.”
Thinking on what’s next for herself and her family once five years in the position has passed, she pauses. All she knows for sure is this; she will continue wanting to make a difference both for the province and for her family.
“I want to make sure that I’m there for my grandchildren.”
Having faced cancer, she knows anything can happen at anytime. Her current role allows her the privilege to remain on home soil.
“My family has given me so much time off in their lives to allow me to do what I wanted to do over the years and to be able to make a difference, that my thoughts now are, I need to stay here and be here with them. I can’t imagine doing something after this that would take me away from them because time is precious with your children and your grandchildren.”
Losing her mother at such a young age makes her think and appreciate the time she has so much more, she reflects quietly.
“I think losing your mother makes you aware of the importance of being there for your loved ones. I remember doing an interview with Lynn Burry, who did an amazing job and I so appreciated it, and we talked about humble beginnings and how it’s important to never get too big for your shoes. I think about my father, who was my greatest supporter yet also my harshest critic. Having someone like that there for you, in your corner but also holding your feet to the fire, is so important.”
She wants to be that for her own family, she stresses.
Her Honour takes a moment to excitedly share her plans, dreams, and hopes for the next four years.
“This house, these grounds, belong to every person in Newfoundland and Labrador. Anything I can do to make this house more their home and these grounds theirs, I will do.”
For more, follow Her Honour on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: Lieutenant Governor Judy M. Foote.