“I’m a black and white person,” says Bobbie Sparrow, the spunky 76-year-old who is now an active Sustainer in the Junior League of Calgary, which she joined in 1961 after moving to town from Toronto with her husband. “I’m really honest.”
The simplicity of this self-assessment seems just a tad misleading for the mother of four who was widowed at the age of 37 and who by all accounts has led a very complex life in an array of arenas including business, politics, philanthropy, and volunteer service.
After serving as the president of three different businesses, Sparrow entered the realm of politics, and was elected to the Canadian Parliament as a Member of the House of Commons where she worked from 1984 to 1993 under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and then Prime Minister Kim Campbell.
While in Parliament she chaired two Standing Committees, first heading up the country’s Ministry of Natural Resources—which she is quick to point out encompassed not only mining, but also forestry, energy, oil and gas (mainstays for the Alberta province where she lives), coal, zinc, and gold, among other assets and industries—and then the Ministry of Industry, Science and Technology, a post she was asked by the Prime Minister to take when it was created in 1988. In addition, from 1990 to 1993, she worked as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health, where her training as an operating room nurse came in handy.
Though she says she’s slowed down in the last year, her reduced velocity still includes serving on four boards at one time, including the Calgary Southwest Federal PC Electoral District board on which she represents her “riding”—or electoral district—the Calgary Glenmore Provincial PC Association, and two medical boards, one of which studies the issues of infection, inflammation and immunity worldwide, and another that advises Calgary Laboratory Services.
“I thank my mom, my dad, and my brother for the fact that I am well educated,” she says, adding proudly that like many Canadians, she knows a lot about the world. “Every week at school we studied the news, not just in our city, but in the world. Politics were always a topic of supper-table conversation and there was always a news magazine lying around.”
Sparrow, who held an array of positions during her career at the Junior League of Calgary before being elected League president in 1969, went on to use many of the skills she acquired in the League as the Residential Chair of the United Way of Calgary, a volunteer role in which she raised money from the residential sector.
“I learned a lot from all of the projects and initiatives in which I was involved,” she says, adding that being so networked and leadership-oriented as a result of both her experience in the League and in running Student Council at her boarding school helped her handle her responsibilities with composure. “The League taught me a lot and it was full of such wonderful women with such wonderful backgrounds.”
In addition to being inspired by the AJLI conferences she attended over the years—San Diego, Boca Raton, Seattle, among others—one of her most memorable experiences was her work in the early days of the League’s Next–to-New shop, which sold clothing to disadvantaged families in the city.
“Getting to know these moms who didn’t have very much enabled me to learn so much about the world.”
Indeed her knack for grasping global issues—immunological diseases, the health insurance system, taxation, government funding for education, emergency services, and hospitals—and appreciating multiple points of view simultaneously is what enabled her to understand the motivations for Canada’s radical revision of its Social Security system in 1988, a move she says she hears echoing in the debt and deficit crisis currently playing itself out around the world today.
“We’re living longer and we had to learn that we have to put more money in now and take out less later,” she says. “It’s like taxes. Yes, you may have to increase them, but you could also argue that increasing them lowers inflation—you have to be able to see the other side of the coin.”
During her Active tenure in the League Sparrow says she was deeply affected by her work in the 1960s both with children with special needs and children with autism, a newly diagnosed condition at the time.
“There was a trailer next to a children’s hospital out of which we ran a school and the kids could go over to the hospital for their psychiatric treatments,” she explains. “There was a little boy named Tommy that I worked with every Wednesday morning and every once in a while he would look at me and suddenly I knew he was in the same world that I was in.”
Summing up a lifetime’s worth of achievements, Sparrow says she has been fortunate to have been healthy and to have “good genes.” She walks seven miles a day and still skis cross-country.
“I’m not 80 yet,” she says. “That’s when I go Emeritus . . . and that’s a big word.”