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Former B.C. lieutenant-governor Iona Campagnolo dies at 91

She was B.C.'s lieutenant-governor from 2001 to 2007.

Iona Campagnolo rose from humble beginnings to the top of Canadian politics, serving as a minister in Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government in the 1970s and becoming the lieutenant-governor of B.C. from 2001 to 2007.

She was the first woman to be appointed B.C.’s lieutenant-governor. She was also Canada’s first minister of amateur sport. And in the 1980s, she was the first female president of the ­federal Liberal party.

Campagnolo died at the age of 91. In a statement announcing Campagnolo’s death, B.C. Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin called her “radiant and tireless,” an apt description for a woman said to have given 350 speeches per year as lieutenant-governor.

“She was a consistent, ­passionate, intelligent advocate all her life,” said former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt.

“She had a charisma, a charm, she was articulate … and tough-minded, all the things you want in a politician.”

Harcourt said: “She always was consistent in advocating for First Nations and Northern and rural communities, and she was very strong on conservation and climate change.”

She was born Iona Victoria Hardy in Vancouver on Oct. 18, 1932, and spent her early years on Galiano Island. When she was eight she moved up the coast when her father got a job at the North Pacific Cannery, on the Skeena River near Prince Rupert.

At 19, she married Louis Campagnolo, and the couple raised two daughters in Prince Rupert before divorcing. She was interested in education issues and was elected to the Prince Rupert school board in 1966. She also was elected to Prince Rupert city council.

Outside politics she had a thriving radio career at Prince Rupert station CHTK, where she was named B.C. Broadcaster of the Year in 1973.

In 1974 she switched to federal politics and scored an upset win over the NDP incumbent Frank Howard in the Skeena riding.

She was not intimidated in Ottawa.

“She was quite prepared to get into a fight with anybody,” federal Liberal party activist Tex Enemark told the Vancouver Sun in 2001.

“The first day, by God, she had some things she wanted to get done. She caused Trudeau, Otto Lang — who was transport minister — and Ron Basford a certain amount of heartburn. The last thing in the world they wanted was to get into a squabble with their own backbenchers. She was very much her own person from Day 1.”

Trudeau appointed her a parliamentary secretary to the minister of Indian affairs and northern development in 1974, then she was named minister for fitness and amateur sport in 1976.

But she was defeated in 1979. She returned to the media, hosting the CBC-TV show One of a Kind. She also worked as a consultant for organizations such as the Canadian University Service Overseas Organization and the Canadian International Development Agency.

She was elected president of the federal Liberal party in 1982. At an event during the 1984 election campaign, Liberal leader John Turner was filmed patting Campagnolo’s bum. She patted him right back, and the incident was shown on TV across the country.

Campagnolo ran in the 1984 federal election in North Vancouver-Burnaby, but was defeated.

In the 1990s she became the first chancellor of the University of Northern B.C. in Prince George, and was active as a director and chair of the Fraser Basin Management Program, which worked on environmental and sustainability issues.

She was active in feminist and First Nations issues.

“At a time when reconciliation was not at the forefront of people’s minds, lona Campagnolo was an early supporter, recognizing the importance of building relationships with Indigenous peoples and Northern communities,” Austin wrote.

During her swearing-in ceremony as lieutenant-governor, Campagnolo spoke in Chinook, an ancient B.C. trade jargon: “konoway tillicums klatawa kunamokst klaska mamook okoke huloima chee illahie,” which translates as “everyone was thrown together to make this strange new country.”

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