April 3, 2024

Honouring a mother’s fierce devotion with a scholarship that promotes advocacy

Hélène Provencher Major Scholarship recognizes excellence in the Faculty of Law’s advocacy program
a man and woman stand on a seaside walkway
Jack and Hélène Provencher Major. Courtesy the Major family

There are many ways to describe Hélène Provencher Major. Life Master bridge player. Proud bilinguist. University graduate. Artist. Cat-spoiler. Dictionary-lover. Gossip-hater. Adventurous traveller. Mustard Seed volunteer.

But, according to her husband, being a parent trumped all.

“She really devoted herself to the children,” says Hon. Jack Major, Hon. LLD’05, a Supreme Court of Canada justice from 1992 to 2005. “I mean, that was a mission. My own mother was pretty considerate, but not with the same intensity.”

This is Hélène’s legacy, someone who took exceptionally good care of the family and enthusiastically advocated for sons Peter, Paul and Steve, and daughter, Suzan — no matter what.

When the family doctor discovered that one of the boys had 27 allergies — with remedies for all, except milk — an alternative source of dairy was suggested. Hélène swiftly determined she could get what her son needed from a then-remote farm (where the Canadian Tire in Dalhousie is currently located). Major says it remains a household mystery how she found the goat — this was decades prior to the birth of Google, after all — but that was Hélène, who made weekly cross-city treks to the farm.

“Unbelievable. She made my life so easy,” says Major. “Hélène never gave herself enough credit. I always thought she underrated herself, because the things she did, she did so thoroughly.”

bride and groom in wedding attire, posing for a photo outside

Jack and Hélène Provencher Major on their wedding day.

Courtesy the Major family

Retired judge establishes new law award

Now — as a tribute to his wife of 63 years following her death in November 2022 — Major has established the Hélène Provencher Major Scholarship in Advocacy at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law. The endowed award of $2,520 goes annually to a graduating third-year student, based on academic merit and achievement in UCalgary Law’s advocacy program.

Eager to meet recipients, their son Steve, LLB’94, says he welcomes the opportunity to open up about the inspiration of the scholarship — his mother and her integrity. “She herself was not a lawyer, but she was a very strong advocate for her principles,” Steve says. “There was right and there was wrong.”

To be considered for the award, students must participate — and excel — in UCalgary’s competitive moots, which feature simulated court and arbitration proceedings. “What every lawyer has to be able to do is argue and make a case and convince people,” says Dr. Ian Holloway, PhD, dean of the Faculty of Law. “That’s the core of the lawyer’s craft. It really is central to everything we do. That’s why it’s an award that’s really going to hit the spot.”

When Major approached UCalgary about creating the scholarship, he made sure to solicit input from Holloway, who appreciated the retired justice’s open-mindedness regarding the award’s basis. Not that he’d expected anything less.

“Jack Major, in my view, represents the very best of Alberta,” says Holloway. “He’s got a can-do spirit. He’s extremely hard-working, humble, down-to-earth. He doesn’t put on airs. You might have thought that it would be natural to have the award named after him — he’s the Supreme Court judge, after all — but no. He credits much of what he accomplished to the fact that he was married to Hélène.”

a young, smiling girl

Hélène Provencher Major as a young girl.

Courtesy the Major family

Celebrating Hélène’s life and legacy

Daughter of Paul Provencher — celebrated outdoorsman-author-artist and advocate of the Indigenous community — Hélène grew up a couple of doors down from the Mulroney family (and their son, Brian). With little interest in staying in Baie-Comeau, Que., however, she attended Marianopolis College in Montreal.

Convinced one day to go on a blind date, Hélène and a bright lad from Loyola College went to a Marilyn Monroe movie. They kept company for the rest of the school year, then, upon graduation, went their separate ways. But, three years later, there was a chance meeting at a metro stop — Major happened to be visiting a friend in Montreal and Hélène, back in Canada after hitchhiking through Europe, was working in the city. 

Major says 30 seconds either way and they wouldn’t have run into each other. “However, from that meeting, we renewed the dormant romance,” he recalls. They married, settling in Calgary and raising four children — three boys, all of whom became lawyers, and a girl who possessed artistic flair and scholarly brilliance.

“My mom helped guide each of us,” says Steve. He remembers coming home one day from school in Grade 4, upset about the teasing and mocking his new glasses had elicited from classmates. So, Hélène went out and bought him a copy of Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which he devoured. It turned out to be exactly what he needed. “That was a very pivotal moment — she gave me a change in direction,” says Steve. “I always appreciated that my mom reset my course.” 

Thanks to the freshly established scholarship, her name, fittingly attached to the principle of advocacy, will live on.

“My mom would be very proud and humbled,” says Steve, choking up. “She would be embarrassed that her name’s under the spotlight. She wouldn’t want the attention. But, boy oh boy, she deserved it. I’m really proud and happy that my dad’s doing this.

“She was always very loyal — loyal to my dad, loyal to the family, loyal to the community. A great person. It’s all very touching.”

a large group of multi-generational family members

Jack and Hélène with their family.

Courtesy the Major family

Just as a single spark can ignite a roaring flame, philanthropy is the catalyst that starts something special at the University of Calgary. Explore more stories about the difference we’re making in the community and around the world with the support of donors like you.

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