Nancy Guptill: A Political Life Not Planned

A political career was something Nancy Guptill never envisioned before moving to Prince Edward Island.

“In fact, if anybody ever told me I would be involved I would have said baloney,” she added, with a laugh.

Yet she would become an integral part of the province’s political landscape for almost three decades, starting with her work behind the scenes, her election to Summerside Town Council, and as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island, a Cabinet Minister, and the Speaker of the House.

THE EARLY LIFE OF NANCY GARRISON

How Guptill got there is a long, winding, and interesting tale.

It began in Nova Scotia, where she was born on April 28, 1941, the middle child of 12, to Lloyd and Evelyn (Hughes) Garrison.

Her father had a thirst for politics.

“Dad was the one who always made us, no matter what, vote when you became of voting age. It was always important that we had to cast a vote,” said Guptill.

“Of course, he was very Liberal, so it was important that we cast it Liberal. And my grandparents were the same on my father’s side, about going to the polls and making sure we voted.”

She recalled her first foray into politics while in high school.

“In school we had a political thing and we had to decide which party we were going to support,” Guptill said, a smile crossing her lips. “We were Liberal in our family, so I ran as a Liberal in that little school election.”

The result?

“I did win,” she said with a laugh and quickly added, “but that was because no one else liked being involved in the political thing.”

Known not to be afraid to share her opinion and someone who exuded confidence during her time as a politician, Guptill was not always so self-assured and often doubted her abilities.

“I was a terrible student. I was. I thought I was as dumb as can be,” she admitted. “I failed Grade 3 and I failed Grade 5. I was a terrible, terrible student. In fact, I thought I was so dumb that I would never learn a thing. That was the impression some of my older brothers and sisters had of me.”

As her confidence grew with age so did her fearlessness.

“It just overflowed somehow,” she said. “I don’t think I went out searching for anything. It just happened.”

Opportunities started coming her way, which allowed a young Guptill to excel in school and in life.

That inner strength, fearlessness and determination, all still very much present today, are traits she attributes to her mother, who instilled in the Garrison children a strong work ethic.

“She would give everything and anything she owned away to anybody,” Guptill said with great affection for her late mother. “She didn’t have a hard bone in her body.”

FAMILY AND CAREER

After finishing high school, Guptill set out to carve a place for herself in the world and enrolled in a secretarial course, adding with a hearty laugh that she was a terrible secretarial student.

“But I still did it,” said the woman who, throughout her life, rarely backed down from a challenge.

Guptill’s future in the secretarial pool would be short lived as she found herself soon working in the medical field after completing a radiotherapy program at age 19.

During this time, she began dating Gregg Guptill. Soon after, Gregg moved to Newfoundland for work, prompting the couple to take their courtship to the next step – marriage. With the help of Nancy’s mother, a wedding came together in the matter of weeks, and the couple tied the knot in May 1964. Within days, the newlyweds were on a plane and headed for Newfoundland to start their new life together. 

The Guptills spent about four years in Newfoundland, split into two different stints. While there, Nancy continued working in the radiotherapy field and was active in the community.

Four years after they wed, the Guptills moved back to the Halifax area. Soon after, the first of their three daughters, Krista, was born, followed two years later by Nancy Beth, born, coincidentally, on the elder Nancy's  birthday. In 1972, Peggy rounded out the family.

MOVING TO PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND, GETTING INVOLVED

In 1975, came the move that forever changed Guptill’s life, and marked the beginning of her path to Province House and her place in the history of politics in Canada’s smallest province.

After Gregg was offered a job he could not refuse, the family packed up their belongings and left Halifax for a new life on Prince Edward Island.

Guptill did not know a soul in the picturesque, small rural community of Bedeque, where the family decided to first plant Island roots.

She never expected that as a ‘come-from-away’ to receive such a warm welcome, yet their new neighbours, as Islanders tend to do, quickly embraced the Guptills and their young family. Members of her new home community immediately tapped the family’s matriarch to get involved.

“The generosity was unreal. The people there became best friends,” said Guptill.

She helped with community functions and became actively involved behind the scenes of the Liberal Party of Prince Edward Island. New friend, Helen White, was the first to introduce her to the province’s political scene.

“She was the one who steered me in the direction of being involved in the Liberal Party,” recalled Guptill. “I remember there was a function in Charlottetown, a Liberal function, I can’t remember exactly what it was, but Alex Campbell was Premier at the time.”

She wanted to make an impression during her big introduction to upper echelon of the Liberal Party.

“I remember going out and buying a new dress just for that function,” said Guptill, adding that the new frock was red, the Liberal Party’s trademark colour.

It was quite the impression that the new Islander made, one she will never forget.

“I remember they had lobster and spilling lobster all over my dress and it stinking,” Guptill recalled, roaring with laughter. “It was a fun night.”

PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1

Despite the inroads that she and her family made in her new home community, Guptill’s time in Bedeque was not always smooth.

“Aw, the closure of the school,” Guptill said, her mood turning more somber. “I almost got kicked out of Bedeque. And that’s a fact.”

The school in the community had been in a state of disrepair, with two rooms, little insulation, and no bathroom. It was an eyesore and not a place that Guptill felt children in the community should attend to receive their education. She took it upon herself to lobby to have it closed, and was successful in her crusade.

“People were really annoyed with me, and I thought I was doing it as a good gesture. I really felt I was doing the right thing,” recalled Guptill. “It was to the point that they wouldn’t even talk to me when I would go to the stores. They would just ignore me. It was horrible, and all because I hadn’t really thought I had done anything wrong at the time.”

She fought to get the decision reversed, saving the community’s school from closure.

“In the end what happened? I became their best friend.”

It was then she learned a great lesson, one she carried with her throughout her future political career -- listen to what the people want.

THE MOVE TO SUMMERSIDE AND A SEAT ON COUNCIL

In 1978, the Guptills moved to Summerside and immediately became involved in various groups and organizations, building a solid reputation, one that served Nancy well in the years to come.

Guptill’s involvement in the community would be an asset when, after bearing the brunt of a rather rude off-the-cuff comment, she decided to run for a seat on Summerside Town Council in 1982.

She and Gregg were attending a fundraiser for the local minor baseball association and struck up a conversation about the upcoming municipal election with a fellow member of the Kinsmen, who also sat on council.

“He said, ‘You don’t have a chance in hell because you are a woman, number one, and you are from away’. That is what he said, ‘You don’t have a chance’,” said Guptill, expressing shock, still to this day, with such a comment.

With that fearlessness, determination, and strength instilled in her by her mother, she said:

“You son of a b*%#$, I just made up my mind. Watch me.”

She hit the campaign trial, and won the seat representing Summerside’s centre ward to become the only woman at that time on the town’s council.

FROM TOWN HALL TO PROVINCE HOUSE

Guptill relished the role of town councillor, and enjoyed committee work. She worked hard on behalf of her friends, neighbours, those in her ward, and the town to make Summerside a better place to live.

A seat on council was comfortable, and a place where she had planned to stay.

Moving from town hall to the Legislative Assembly was something Guptill had not actively sought.

“They came to me.”

When first asked if she was interested in putting her name forward to represent the Liberals on the ticket in the then dual-seat riding of 5th Prince, Guptill’s answer came quick and without hesitation.

“I said 'no' to them.”

Guptill was committed to serving the Town of Summerside after easily securing a second term in 1985. However, that term would soon be short lived when Premier Joe Ghiz came knocking on her door.

Exactly what the Premier said to Guptill remains a secret to this day, yet it convinced her to seek the party’s nomination to represent 5th Prince in the 1987 byelection.

She beat three other candidates – all men – to win the nomination.

“I never really thought I had the qualifications to run, whatever they would be, because I had no idea what those qualifications would be,” she added. “I just didn’t think I had the know-how, nor the support. I never dreamed I had it.”

On Sept. 14, 1987, Guptill won the seat by a rather large margin.

“It was a shocker to think that I had that kind of support. I mean it was overwhelming.”

The work-home-life balance proved challenging, but Guptill was determined to make it work. She had Gregg to help and her girls were at an age where the juggling act was somewhat easier.

“It can be done, if you put your ducks in the right order and you line up and make sure that you take care of every individual part of your life that way,” she added, offering up advice to future women politicians.

“You’ve got to give time for your family, to make sure that they are happy, that you can make sure you can give them what you need and provide.”

A LONG POLITICAL CAREER

For 12 years, Guptill sat in the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island, a time she looked back on with great fondness.

While on the government side of the House, she sat in cabinet as Minister of Tourism and Parks from 1989 to 1991, as Minister of Labour and Minister Responsible for the Status of Women from 1991 to 1993, and as Speaker from 1993 to 1996, a role she greatly cherished.

While in Opposition, from 1996 until her retirement in 1999, Guptill held the roles of Opposition Critic for health, tourism, and justice.

Guptill held various positions within her party, sitting on the 4th Prince Women’s Liberal Association; an executive member of the 5th Prince Liberal Association; holding most offices including president of the 5th Prince Women’s Liberal Association; fundraising co-ordinator in 4th and 5th Prince; campaign worker in 4th and 5th Prince, Egmont and Malpeque; as well as co-chair of a provincial leadership campaign.

She is extremely proud of the work she accomplished both behind the scenes and as an elected official, adding she feels that translated into incredible and often overwhelming support she received from the electorate each time her name was on the ballot.

Guptill boasted an impeccable record, one that is reported to be unmatched in the history of Prince Edward Island politics.

She lost only one poll by one vote in all the elections in which she ran for a seat in the legislature. 

ONE OF THE FAMOUS 5

The role of Speaker of the Legislative Assembly would be the position that would cement Guptill’s place in the political history of Prince Edward Island.

Guptill is one of this province’s Famous 5.

In June 1993, she and four other women members of the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island posed for a photo to commemorate that they held the five positions of political power in this province, a feat that had never happened before that day nor since.

“I never dreamed about the history of my involvement would amount to trailblazing,” said Guptill. “I can only tell you that it was something that I never thought about, never dreamed about and, even sitting here now, it is more important as we sit her now than it had been previously.”

Looking at the PEI Famous 5 photo now, one she proudly displays in her home, its significance rings true.

“It is a wonderful thing that we accomplished, here on Prince Edward Island,” Guptill said with great pride. “You felt like you were surrounded by the best. I felt that my presence there was probably over my head, but, to think that I was with this group was a bit overwhelming because I never pictured myself of being of any importance at all.”

She firmly believed then and still does today that women have an important place in the political landscape of Prince Edward Island. In reflecting on her political career, Guptill admitted that sometimes gender did come into play.

“You are thinking that you have to do everything right, how do you do it right and are you right, and the judgmental part, that maybe you are a weak person – those things that go alone with being a woman when there weren’t that many women involved to begin with.”

ADVICE FROM A VETERAN POLITICIAN

On Sept. 14, 1999, on the 12th anniversary of her election to the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island, Guptill announced her resignation.

She remains, to this day, interested and involved in politics in Prince Edward Island, and often attends fundraisers for the Liberal Party of Prince Edward Island. At these events, Guptill shares her experience and advice with current and future politicians.

Some of the best advice she would give women considering a life in politics is to be true to yourself.

“Be yourself and be honest,” she said. “Don’t change your nature, don’t change your ways. Be you. Always be you. Always put yourself in a position that you are going to be helping others. That’s what you are elected for.”

Does Guptill have other wisdom to share with women – or men -- who want to follow her footsteps?

“They have to become very much involved at the ground level, to always be thinking of the other person first, putting yourself in a situation where you are going to be helping others, and prioritizing your time so you can attend functions and be at several functions.

“That is where people get to know you and know your worth.”

Guptill strongly asserted that gender should never be an issue when it comes to politics.

“That whole standard of a woman in politics is still there. It is diminishing as time goes on, I believe, but I think that there are those that believe and feel that… they judge you differently than a man, by far.”

She added, “There is more expectation for women to be strong, to fight harder, and to be more involved. Women should be able to be at the forefront at everything they do by the outsiders looking in.”

PERSPECTIVE

Listening – and hearing – what the people have to say is what she believes are fundamental to being a trusted and successful politician.

Guptill asserted that she did not do anything out of the ordinary or out of character to secure her place in history, reiterating she had never set out to be a politician.

All she ever wanted to do was get to know her community, her neighbours, to get involved and become engaged in the place in which she lived, and, when and where she could, offer a helping hand.

When asked if she would do all again if given the chance, Guptill’s answer came quick, without pause. It was a reply delivered with intensity and confidence, much like the woman herself. 

“In a minute. I sure would, without hesitation. I loved it that much. I loved that life so much.”

 

Nancy Guptill, her husband Gregg and daughter Peggy at Government House /N. Guptill collection