Anyone who believes that ladies’ lunches are full of stylish socialites idling the afternoon away with vapid conversations clearly hasn't been to Ladies Who Lunch Ottawa, organized by Catherine Landry, the CEO and founder of Call Betty Marketing.
The new Canada Room at the National Arts Centre was bustling Tuesday with a crowd of 220. They were mostly female business owners, entrepreneurs and non-profit sector leaders, all eager to make connections in a supportive, inclusive environment.
The sold-out luncheon also featured shopping experiences, a steady supply of generously donated gifts and prizes, and a gorgeous mid-day meal. As well, each guest was given a classy calla lily and a baby spruce tree to take home.
The event lined up two courageous guest speakers: Tina Boileau, who is best known for being the loving and devoted mother of local hero Jonathan Pitre, along with Sandra Perron, Canada's first female infantry officer. In her memoir, Out Standing in the Field, Perron writes about the harassment, abuse and misogyny she experienced during her time as a trailblazer in the Canadian Forces. The book was shortlisted for a Writers' Trust of Canada's 2018 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.
Some audience members were seen discreetly wiping away tears with their fancy table napkins as they quietly listened to the women, both of whom earned standing ovations.
The pair shared billing with former Ottawa radio personalities Sandy Sharkey and Wendy Daniels, who emceed together, as well as former TV host-turned-author Kathie Donovan and former CTV Ottawa news anchor-turned-municipal election candidate Carol Anne Meehan (she’s running for Gloucester-South Nepean, taking on incumbent Michael Qaqish).
The six women were celebrated for having faced adversity, whether in their careers or personal lives, and for having grown stronger because of it.
“They rose up; they didn’t sit down. They didn’t go, ‘Why me?’ Most importantly, they did not blame someone else," said Landry, who donned a Superman shirt in honour of Pitre.
The luncheon was the first public speaking engagement for Boileau. Her son, who was also known as the "butterfly boy," passed away this past April at the age of 17, but not before capturing the hearts of Ottawa residents and beyond.
Pitre went public with his battle with one of the most painful genetic skin disorders, epidermolysis bullosa (EB). He first shared his story in 2012 with journalist Andrew Duffy from the Ottawa Citizen in order to bring broader awareness to EB.
Boileau said it’s the encouraging words of her "Jonny" that keep her going during her darkest hours.
“Tomorrow will be a better day,” he used to say. She keeps his words close to her heart, in the form of a tattoo.
Throughout his life, Pitre suffered from open wounds that resembled third-degree burns. They covered more than 85 percent of his body. Yet, he always maintained a positive attitude, said his tearful mother.
“He loved to live, despite the challenges he faced, and he did it so gracefully."
Boileau is the volunteer president of DEBRA Canada, a charity that's committed to the care and support of families affected by EB and to improving their quality of life.
For Perron, she wasn't used to speaking to such a large group of women. It led her to lament the fact that female veterans – who spend their careers moving from base to base – don’t have the kind of women's network that has evolved through Ladies Who Lunch.
She spoke of the need for women to be more supportive of each other at the workplace.
“We are our worst enemies at work, especially in non-traditional fields like engineering, technology, math and science, and military and defence," she said. “We’ve never learned how to be mentors to one another; we’ve been taught to compete. It works well for men. It works for them. It doesn’t work for us. We need to promote one another and mentor and coach and be confidants and supporters and cheerleaders and sisters in arms.”
Perron also told the room how her ability to forgive has helped her to find peace.
“Believe me, there were days when I left the military that I was so angry. I could have single-handedly invaded a small communist country, like China,” she joked. “But, all that would lead me to would be ulcers and hatred and just poison in my life.
“I’ve turned that into a passion to help female veterans, to help wounded warriors and soldiers, to support our troops. They deserve it. I know more than most the sacrifices that the men and women make to defend our country, and they deserve all our admiration and respect.”
The luncheon raised $2,300 through the raffle ticket sales. That money was divided and given to Boileau and Perron.