Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, the impact of the arts on our lives should never be understated. People feel seen and understood when they see their lived experience reflected back to them. It can also foster understanding from those who are coming from a different perspective.
On behalf of the Progressive Senate Group, I rise today to recognize a former colleague and a friend who did just that. Former senator Viola Léger passed away on January 28 of this year at the age of 92. Before her appointment to the Senate by the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien in 2001, Viola dedicated her life to the arts as an actress and as a teacher, particularly known for her portrayal of La Sagouine, a role created in 1971 by her friend and author Antonine Maillet. It was a role she would play more than 3,000 times over her lifetime. Her humble, straight-talking washerwoman inspired pride among the Acadian people, but also reached far beyond the people who recognized themselves in her.
She has been described as an icon, and indeed, as the author responsible for her signature role said, if Viola Léger:
. . . hadn’t played Sagouine, Sagouine wouldn’t have had the success that it had, and therefore (I would not have) received the recognition I received as a writer.
Many Acadian artists regard Viola Léger as an inspiration and have endeavoured to pursue a life in the arts because of the path she carved. Without her influence, we cannot know the stories or the beauty we may have missed. What a marvellous legacy.
When she eventually came to this place in 2001, she was certainly someone who did not shy away from hard work. While she herself was tiny and quiet, her dedication was not. I recall that she was driven to get things done in the chamber and was not very fond of the partisan debate to which we are often prone.
She spent time as a member of the Aboriginal Peoples Committee, the Official Languages Committee and the Social Affairs Committee, and she certainly championed the arts throughout her time as a senator.
Senator Léger was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1989. She was the recipient of the 1995 New Brunswick government’s Arts Excellence Award, the Order of New Brunswick in 2007 and four honorary degrees. She was named Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters of France in 1991, member of the Ordre des francophones d’Amérique in 1998 and Knight of the Ordre de la Pléiade in 2004.
Honourable senators, while Canadians, and particularly the people of New Brunswick, have lost a cherished icon, La Sagouine will sit forever in our hearts. I send my deepest condolences to her friends and to her family. Thank you.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.