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Cattle woman trades ranch for government house

Oct 14 2012
Recently appointed, Judith Guichon, is only the second female Lieutenant-Governor in B.C history. 

Recently appointed, Judith Guichon, is only the second female Lieutenant-Governor in B.C history.

Photograph by: Lyle Stafford , Times Colonist

As the cattle roundup gets underway in the Nicola Valley this month, ranch owner Judy Guichon won't be there for the first time in 40 years.

B.C.'s best-known cattle woman is headed for something completely different: the lieutenant-governor's post in Victoria as the Queen's representative.

She won't need her gumboots. "The size of the job is daunting. Right now I can't get my head around the size of this house," she said this week after touring the grand residence at Government House for the first time.

Guichon, 65, figures to bring her own brand of homespun wisdom after decades of real-world experience amid the rocks and windfalls of the high country.

The jeans will stay in the closet during her five-year term presiding over official events.

She will soon be shopping for formal wear.

"I'm looking forward to meeting as many of the people of B.C. as I can. I want to get out to rural areas and country fairs," she says.

The Guichon family arrived in B.C. from France in the 1860s, looking for gold.

They found it, not in the ground as most prospectors do, but in the grasslands of the province's Interior. Although the area is extremely dry, it is perfect for raising cattle. The family's descendants have been in the business for the past 150 years.

Guichon sees it as a natural relationship with the land.

"The cattle are a wonderfully efficient tool to harvest grass and turn it into something fit for human consumption," she says.

"The terrain is straight up and down, 5,000 feet into the hills. It's a wonderful life. I feel sorry for people who live in cities and don't ever get to connect with the land.

Like the cowboys of TV's Lonesome Dove, she has been caught out in the weather, but maintains there is nothing romantic about it.

"There's a saying: If you've never been cold, wet and hungry, you'll never appreciate a warm fire, good bed and hot bowl of soup," she says.

She has feelings for the cows: She's "quite attached" to the mothers, less so to the yearlings which must be sold to provide the ranch's income.

The mothers, however, are "permanent" residents, walking for miles in summer temperatures, which reach 100 degrees.

"That old cow walks a long way. They work hard. I have nothing but respect for those cows."

Some numbers illustrate the scale of the operation: 1,400 cows, 25,000 hectares of pasture, much of it rented from the government, and 1,100 kilometres of fencing.

It makes the stone-walled perimeter at Government House look like small potatoes by comparison.

Her lifestyle will change dramatically from the Nicola Valley, where the Guichons operated a bed and breakfast for visitors.

At Government House, the granite mansion rises three storeys from one of Victoria's most picturesque hilltops.

There are spacious quarters and a permanent household staff. The ballroom is capable of serving dinner for 300.

It is surrounded by 15 hectares of urban gardens, which overlook the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Tended by an army of faithful volunteers, the Government House grounds are open to the public and are one of the city's best-kept secrets.

Guichon looks forward to connecting with the abundant wildlife amid the rare Garry Oak meadows: hummingbirds, owls, water fowl and a herd of deer.

"I'm a birder and I understand we have a lot of birds. I'll bring my books and binoculars. I also want to putter in the garden," she says.

She feels well prepared for her duties after spending years at meetings in Ottawa and Victoria lobbying for the cattle industry.

"I know a lot of people in Victoria on both sides of the house, and a lot of government staff."

She has four grown children with her late husband, Lawrence Guichon, and is currently married to Bruno Mailloux.

And if her life wasn't full enough, she started a recycling society in Merritt and plays the flute in a community band.

"This is quite an honour. It comes at just the right time. It's like my second or third career," she says.

The Honourable Steven Point, a Grand Chief of the Sto: lo Tribal Council, retires later this month.

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