She’s been retired from public life for more than a decade but Marilyn Trenholme Counsell isn’t letting that stop her from continuing to throw herself into the causes that have always been near and dear to her heart.
Trenholme Counsell, a longtime champion for literacy, education and early childhood development in New Brunswick and in Canada, may no longer walk the halls of the Legislature of the House of Commons but she does what she can to stay involved and active on these issues.
She said she’s always enjoyed being immersed in politics and feels it was a great privilege to work for the people throughout her lengthy career as a physician, MLA, Lieutenant Governor and then Senator – and still does to this day.
“I loved the relationship with people. Whether it’s in medicine or in politics or whatever it’s been, if you try to enjoy each person and see what makes them tick and what their hopes are, that’s what it’s all about.”
Since her retirement from the Senate in 2008, Trenholme Counsell has served as co-chair of the NB Literacy Strategy, has been on the board of the Literacy Coalition New Brunswick, Early Literacy Friends and the Vanier Institute of the Family. She’s been a patron of the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada and even taught courses for five years at Mount Allison University, including a political leadership in Canada seminar, among other endeavors.
Her most recent involvement has been in a fundraising campaign for a new Beausejour Family Crisis Centre in Shediac, which has raised over $4 million and is opening this spring.
“It’s been very nice to have that new interest,” she said from her home on York Street in Sackville, where she once had her own family practice.
Trenholme Counsell has had to slow down a bit since suffering a stroke about three years ago, an incident she said forced her to adjust her lifestyle. At the time of her stroke, she said she was in the midst of traveling the province doing consultations on literacy, going full speed as was her way.
“In a matter of seconds, my life completely changed,” she said.
Other than a bit of balance troubles, however, Trenholme Counsell feels blessed to have almost fully recovered from her stroke.
But over the past couple of years, she has also since been hindered by two knee replacement surgeries and a hip replacement.
Not being able to leave her home as often as she’d like, Trenholme Counsell said she continues to have “armchair involvement” with the organizations she has become attached to, keeping her work going through conference calls and emails. She admits she misses the regular interaction with people so she tries to get out when she can but it’s often a challenge, particularly in the harsh winter weather.
Where it all began
Trenholme Counsell, who grew up along the shores of Baie Verte, attended a two-room schoolhouse there and then went on to high school in Port Elgin. From there, she moved to Sackville to attend Mount Allison University, where she earned a bachelor of science degree in home economics, majoring in nutrition.
Although her dream was to be a doctor, that didn’t seem to be in the cards for Trenholme Counsell. Not only were the costs too exorbitant for her family, “there were very few women in medicine back then” in the 1940s and so it was a career that was out of reach. She was also urged not to go into medicine because she had been sickly as a child, in and out of hospitals with infections due to a low immune system, and her family didn’t believe she would be well enough to pursue that career.
“No one thought I could do it.”
Trenholme Counsell worked as a dietitian for several years for the government of New Brunswick, then went on to get her masters in nutrition at the University of Toronto and was then employed with the Ontario government.
By then, she was 29 and she had a choice to make.
“The clock was ticking,” she said.
Back then, if you wanted a career in medicine, you needed to start it by the time you were 30 or you simply didn’t do it. So she made the decision to go back to UofT and earn her doctorate.
“It was just something very deep within me,” she said of her desire to be a doctor. “I had just been so sick as a child that I revered the doctors who made me well.”
After earning her degree, she interned at Canada’s largest hospital, the Toronto General, and then joined the staff there as a research and teaching doctor, where she worked for nine years.
She met her husband Kenneth, a journalist for the Toronto Star, in 1971 at a Liberal meeting and they were married the following year. They had two children, Giles and Lorna, in 1972 and 1974. Then, in 1975, the family received a devastating blow – Kenneth was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Knowing she would not want to remain in Toronto as a single mom with two children, Trenholme Counsell decided to move back home. She purchased her home on York Street and opened up her practice and also served as an on-call doctor at the Sackville hospital. Kenneth died in 1981. She also opened up an office in Port Elgin in 1984 three days a week so patients in that area wouldn’t have to travel to Sackville.
Trenholme Counsell first got into politics in 1986 when she served on the executive team for federal politician Romeo LeBlanc. That same year, on the cusp of a provincial election where Frank McKenna was running, she was being coaxed to enter the race for the Tantramar MLA seat. She drove up to Fredericton to meet with McKenna, and an hour later she walked out and knew she was going to run.
“He just really inspired me, he was so visionary.”
She was elected to the Legislature in 1987 and went on to serve a 10-year reign in the MLA post. She kept her busy practice going in the early days of that tenure but was forced to finally close it in 1994 when McKenna appointed her the province’s first Minister of State for the Family.
“He gave me a wonderful opportunity,” she said of the prestigious post. “So much of it was what I had been living and doing.”
She was appointed Lieutenant Governor in 1997 and served in that role until 2003.
“I loved it. I loved the relationship with the people all over the province.”
She was appointed to the Senate in 2003 and was there until 2008, when she reached the mandatory retirement age.