Home | Early Memories | The Love of Her Life | Daughters, Nieces and Nephews | A Heartbreak | Family Legacy
Nursing | Volunteering | Political Life | Reflections of Quesnel | Timeline | In Memory
A Note from the Author | Acknowledgements and References


Bonnie Joy Gavin, in Kamloops, ready to see the Queen, July 1959.

In 1949, Alex ran for the District Council of Quesnel and won a seat. Jack Rome was his opposition. In those days the senior elected official in town was called a Reeve. After H. J. Gardner died, Alex became Reeve. Later, the title of this position was changed to Mayor. Alex was the senior elected official in Quesnel for twenty years.


Being the wife of a politician
Gertrude remembers that the early days as a Councilman kept her husband occupied. "I remember that Alex was always busy. Since he was raised in Quesnel, he knew what he wanted to get done." Gertrude took her husband's new role as a politician in stride. "He's elected, and you're not. I don't remember any changes in my life because he was in elected office, except that I used to go out with him a lot to different functions."

Perhaps because she was from a small town as a girl, and because she was used to the Quesnel community where everyone knew each other, Gertrude did not feel that her life was negatively affected by being more in the public eye after Alex became an elected official. She did not seem to feel the pressure to which today's political families are sometimes subjected.

Princess Diana, Alex Fraser, and Prince Charles on a B.C. Ferry.

She said, "People knew me because I was Alex's wife. I tried to help him as much as I could. Once in a while, you felt that you had to do things that were a bit much, but you were young, so it didn't bother you. I was in public life in nursing, meeting people all the time." Gertrude chose not to elaborate on what she meant by "things that were a bit much," although in another conversation detailed below, She did mention her feelings acting Alex's voice during his battle with cancer.

Gertrude and her mother in law worked the political parties in Quesnel, raising money for the constituency. They would put on events like cabarets.

While Alex was Mayor, "We were privileged to receive a number of distinguished visitors to Quesnel. We met Governor General Massey and his family, Lieutenant Governor General George R. Pearkes, and Princess Margaret. We also met Queen Elizabeth when she visited Kamloops." Later, during Alex's years as an MLA, the couple met Princess Diana and Prince Charles.


A strong team, a unique partnership

Jesse Ketchum, Alex's assistant while Minister of Transportation and Highways from January 1978 to June 1983, feels that Gertrude's support was invaluable for her husband as a person and as a politician. According to Ketchum, Gertrude was involved in politics with Alex from his first position on Quesnel district council. He said, "She was Alex's closest political adviser, bar none. In later years, I always thought that I was very close to him, but he depended on Gertrude an awful lot. I think she had a keen political sense. People are political animals, or they're not. She definitely is. She knows what is a political problem, what is a political opportunity, and she always has."

Princess Margaret's visit to Quesnel, June 17, 1958. Names, L to R: Gloria Barclay, Miss Quesnel; Alex Fraser, Mayor; Gertrude Fraser; the Princess's Secretary; Princess Margaret; Lt. Gov. Frank Ross; Ray Williston, MLA; Sue Speare, wife of MLA Bill Speare.

Ketchum elaborated,

Gertrude really kept him going. And it was extremely important that he had Gertrude to go home to. People in the Cariboo don't even realize how successful Alex was, how influential he was. He accomplished an awful lot (in provincial politics). I always looked at Gertrude and Alex as a team, and she was a big part of his accomplishments. I want to make it clear I'm not taking anything away from Alex, I loved him dearly; this was a very unique circumstance. I know many marriages disintegrated because of political life. In politics, Gertrude seemed to be able to move in whatever circles Alex had to move in, and I think she was a keen observer of people that Alex had to deal with. I do know that Alex's view of many people was first determined by Gertrude's impression. He trusted her women's intuition. She was a filter. Gertrude knows a lot, has seen an awful lot, including some political intrigue.

Bonnie Joy Gavin says that her father "was very respectful of my Mom's opinions about health and social services issues. He trusted her completely when it came to medical things. He always asked her opinion." She noted that Alex came from a family of strong women, and adds, "If it weren't for my Mom, I don't think he would have been as successful as he was."

Muriel Smith, Alex's secretary during his tenure as Minister of Transportation, agrees that his wife was an asset for the politician. She said,

She was a wonderful partner for him as far as constituency work was concerned. People would speak to her just as easily as they did to him. She was outstanding for that type of political life - she was always there to help him and was happy to do it. She enjoyed meeting the people, and they enjoyed meeting her as well. I don't think you could ask for a better partner in a political life. Any discussion they might have had about people would have been private; it would have been between the two of them. He valued her opinion, there's no doubt about that. Because she was so personally interested in people and had a big concern about their troubles, and it wasn't just a casual 'OK I'll do it because I'm here,' she was interested in what people had to tell her and how she could help them. You have to have humour and tremendous flexibility to do what she did for all those years and do it at her age and for as long as she did.

Mrs. Smith noted in 2002 that as recently as four or five years ago, more than five years since Alex passed away, Gertrude phoned her to see if she could help a Quesnel resident with a concern.


The Minister of Transportation was frequently on the move

Alex Fraser, August 1986. This photo was taken the day Alex was sworn in as Minister of Highways at the Parliament Buildings.

While Alex was Minister of Transportation, he traveled extensively all over the province. The Social Credit party had its own planes and pilots so that its ministers could travel with ease to various areas in the province. Alex may well have traveled more than any other minister, because so much of the province's highway and bridge infrastructure was built during the years he held the portfolio. He was known to have driven over just about every stretch of public road in British Columbia at one time or another while Minister.

His wife explained his extensive traveling took place because Alex "wanted to see (the construction) for himself, because the government in Victoria didn't always feel that they were being given the right information," and he couldn't always travel by car from Victoria. Gertrude cautions that this need to see what was happening with Ministry projects "wasn't because he didn't trust people. It was such a big Ministry, with people in every town employed in it."

His wife reports that one of the things that Alex made sure his Ministry did was to build or upgrade small airports all over the province so that air ambulances could land. The Anahim Lake airport was built because of Alex's initiative. His wife recalls that "Every year, he tried to get 20 miles out from each small place paved, because "he knew what the side roads were like."

Gertrude frequently joined Alex on his travels if there was a free seat on the government plane. She remembers the trips fondly. She said, "I always felt that Alex liked me to be with him." Never one to enjoy being idle, Gertrude would try to keep occupied on these trips. "If he was traveling and attended meetings, I'd scribble notes if he didn't have his executive assistant. I didn't want to stay in the motel room. Sometimes he depended on me to remember things, since he had so much on his mind." On occasion, she said, "I used to think, 'Oh, dear, another weekend I have to go away.' But you have to take it all in your stride." This travel schedule would often involve two weekends in a row out of town, the next weekend in Victoria, and the next weekend traveling again.

Gertrude christens the B.C. Ferry "Quintsa."

Muriel Smith enjoyed spending time with her boss's wife. "Talking with her was very easy, very pleasant, and certainly she was a lovely lady for me to be with when we went on trips. She was always careful to make sure that I was comfortable and always feeling a part of what they were doing at that time. She was wonderful in that way. We were in Altin once and Mrs. Fraser and I were walking around the town when Mr. Fraser was in meetings, and we walked into a church and she played the organ, and I found that to be a really lovely time. She is so comfortable, such a motherly person. If we were going to Williams Lake, she would always take something for her daughter Bonnie, buns or cookies or something she had made the day before."


A Great Sense of Humour

Many of Gertrude's friends and relatives fondly recall her strong sense of humour. Jesse Ketchum remembers,

With Alex, we were always in a hurry. One day, we were down in the Okanagan and going to meet the government jet in Kamloops. I was always running late with Alex because he always wanted to continue meeting people; you couldn't stop him. Gertrude was in the passenger seat, Alex was in the back. I was pulled over, and got a speeding ticket. I get my ticket, take off, drive down the highway about 20 miles, and then get pulled over again. The cop who stopped me said, "Who do you think you are, Phil Galardi?" Galardi was a former Minister of Transportation who was infamous for getting speeding tickets. He didn't realize that the current Minister of Transportation was in the car. Gertrude said, "Oh, Jesse is much faster than Phil Galardi ever was."


A partnership and a love story

Gertrude and Alex in his office in the Legislature, Victoria, November 1987.

Gertrude and Alex had an extremely close marriage. Their daughter Bonnie Joy says that "for him, the sun rose and set on my Mom, and she felt that same way about him." Their closeness appeared to extend to Alex's political work. However, when asked what role she thought she played in relation to Alex's elected positions, Gertrude replied, "I don't think I had a role (as part of his work.) I helped him out when I could."

About being a political wife, Gertrude said, "You have to put up with a lot, but you don't let it bother you. If he has some criticism, he has to answer for it, I don't … Alex never had too much criticism, because I don't know why, but he always tried to do his very best. He spent a lot of time with people, helping people with their problems. There was always something (to work on)." Gertrude also remained the same gracious person from Bienfait that she always had been. She said, "I didn't think I had a different social standing than anyone else in town. We were all friends, you knew everyone."

Apparently, Alex didn't have support from absolutely everyone in the riding. Gertrude remembers one evening when Quesnel New Democrat Party supporter Steve Hilbert "came over to our house with a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse wine. The reason was that one of the Socred Cabinet Ministers had recently been in Whistler, and entertained a number of people and served him that wine, which was expensive, I guess. He lost his cabinet portfolio over that. So Steve Hilbert brought the wine over to Alex. I still have that bottle."

Jesse Ketchum tells a story that he believes illustrates Gertrude's unflappable, take-things-as-they-come style. One day, as Jesse, Gertrude, and Alex were driving from Quesnel to Vancouver, rocks from the top of a Ministry of Highways dump truck flew at their windshield with such force that it smashed the glass completely. The three passengers were quite shaken and covered in glass. After they pulled over, Gertrude said, "Do you think we can go back to Williams Lake and get it fixed, or will we have to drive to Vancouver like this?"

Alex and Gertrude enjoying Billy Barker Days, Quesnel's family festival.

Towards the end of Alex's life, Gertrude's function as a spouse took on an unexpected and weighty turn. In 1986, Alex's voice box was removed as he fought throat cancer. That year, in his last election campaign, Gertrude spoke for Alex at meetings or public events. She recalls, "I felt a lot of pressure when Alex lost his voice. He would write out the answers to questions, and I would read them."

Victoria political writer Jim Hume's column "A look at the legend of Alex Fraser" gives insights into Gertrude's character as she helped Alex win this last election. The Premier, Bill Vander Zalm, had promised Alex that he would retain his position as Minister of Transportation if he won the upcoming election. Hume wrote, "Alex, so his indomitable wife Gertrude informed the world, took the promise seriously, and entered his name yet one more time as the MLA for Cariboo. She never left his side during that voiceless campaign. She traveled with him, spoke for him and he won again, some 6,000 votes ahead of his nearest rival." Hume notes that Vander Zalm's promise was forgotten after the campaign, and Alex was not retained as Minister of Transportation.

Nephew James Watt feels that his aunt "always played a supporting role as opposed to a principal role in the political arena until the 1986 election. At that time, she had to play a larger part, but was only doing so in support of her husband. She wouldn't normally step forward or stand out, that wasn't her personality. When she was thrust into that position of speaking for him, I'm sure it was very difficult, very foreign and very uncomfortable."


Political ambitions of her own?
When asked if she ever thought about going into politics herself, Gertrude replied, "Oh, no. When your husband's in politics, you see how much pressure is on them. Especially Alex, because he knew everyone. People would ask him to do things for them, and he would, so he had much to do."

The opening of the Alex Fraser Bridge
The opening of the Alex Fraser Bridge was a wonderful day for the Frasers, their family, and friends. It was not long after the Premier, Bill VanderZalm, had relieved Alex of his duties as Minister of Highways.

Gertrude has a lovely photo of her and Alex during the Bridge opening. Gertrude, in a royal blue suit, is reading Alex's speech and smiling. As he stands by her side, Alex watches her. The two of them, married 44 years, are holding hands. Their expressions and contact appear very genuine, and do not look like they were posed for the camera.

 

A pass that was given to Gertrude to be in the official party accompanying HRH Princess Margaret, July 17, 1958.

Living Landcapes