A woman’s place, increasingly, is in the Premier’s office and in charge

There was nothing like a personal encounter with the formidable Indira Gandhi, India’s longtime prime minister, to cure anyone of the notion that women are the weaker sex.

“She kept five Irish wolfhounds, each bigger than her predecessor, and there was nothing small or weak about her,” historian Paul Johnson wrote in his 1983 book, A History of the Modern World: From 1917 to the 1980s. During a 1975 crisis, Johnson writes:

She invited her frightened party leaders to her house to put some courage into them. She said: “Do you know the famous proverb, ‘When the great eagle flies under the stars, the small birds hide’?” Then, turning to one M.P., she asked fiercely: “What was that proverb? Repeat it!” Petrified, he replied: “Madam, when the great evil fries under the stars, the small birds hide.”

Nor was there much weak about Margaret Thatcher, the 1979-90 British prime minister who, depending on who you ask, either saved the U.K. from descending into chaos and helped win the Cold War for the west, or whose narrow focus on monetary policy left a legacy of urban decay and social ills throughout the country.

Helen Suzman, who held a lonely vigil for 13 years as the only member of the South African parliament unflinchingly opposed to apartheid, also displayed remarkable courage in the face of persistent harassment. Supporters of the apartheid system would phone her, hoping that obscenities and threats would make her ease up on her criticism of the status quo. In response, they got an eardrum-piercing blast from the police whistle she kept handy for such callers.

Yet for many years, women remained poorly represented in politics. It wasn’t until the late ’80s and early ’90s that women started to make major gains, starting with the election of Audrey McLaughlin as the first female leader of a major federal party, the NDP, in 1989; followed by Rita Johnston becoming the country’s first female premier during her few months at the helm in B.C. in 1991, and then Kim Campbell’s brief time as prime minister following Brian Mulroney’s 1993 resignation.

Even then, things got off to an inauspicious start. Johnston and Campbell were handed unpopular governments nearing the end of the political road, and were both out of politics within a year. McLaughlin, once the novelty of her election wore off, had neither stage presence nor a coherent message, and was already becoming a forgotten figure by the 1993 election.

Who would have thought then that, within 20 years, we would see three of the country’s four largest provinces — perhaps even all four — led simultaneously by women.

Just a couple of years ago, First Ministers Conferences were still largely an all-male affair. Not any more.

First Christy Clark won the B.C. Liberal convention in February 2011, and succeeded the departing Gordon Campbell as premier the following month. This came just a few months after Kathy Dunderdale took over the premier’s job in mid-term from Danny Williams in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In October 2011, Alison Redford succeeded Ed Stelmach as Alberta’s premier in a come-from-behind leadership convention victory; and Dunderdale romped home to re-election victory in Newfoundland and Labrador, her Progressive Conservatives winning 37 of 48 seats in the legislature on 56 percent of the vote.

The year 2012 brought more signs that the country was ready for more women premiers. Redford returned to office with her own mandate following the April 23 general election, in which the only other serious candidate for the top job was Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith. The following September, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois became Quebec’s first female leader after defeating Jean Charest’s Liberal government at the polls.

Today, women hold five of the 13 provincial and territorial premierships in Canada, with the addition of Nunavut premier Eva Aariak to the list.

The total could soon become six, as there is a strong possibility that Ontario, the country’s most populous province, will have its first female premier within a month.

The wheels went into motion when Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty unexpectedly announced his political retirement, just weeks after a Liberal Party convention endorsed his leadership by an 86 percent majority.

Soon, seven candidates entered the race to be not just Liberal leader, but also Premier of Ontario, including former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray.

But the race is really between the three perceived front-runners: former economic development minister Sandra Pupatello, municipal affairs minister Kathleen Wynne, and former education minister and federal Liberal leadership candidate Gerard Kennedy.

If Pupatello or Wynne become premier next month, Canada’s four largest provinces — Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta — will simultaneously have female premiers for the first time in history.

That might last just briefly, though. British Columbians go to the polls in May to elect a new government, and Christy Clark’s Liberals are far enough behind in the polls that the NDP’s Adrian Dix will probably be premier by the summer.

Top row, L-R: Newfoundland and Labrador premier Kathy Dunderdale, Quebec premier Pauline Marois, Alberta premier Alison Redford.Bottom row, L-R: B.C. premier Christy Clark, Nunavut premier Eva Aariak, Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Kathleen Wynne, Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Sandra Pupatello.

Top row, L-R: Newfoundland and Labrador premier Kathy Dunderdale, Quebec premier Pauline Marois, Alberta premier Alison Redford.
Bottom row, L-R: B.C. premier Christy Clark, Nunavut premier Eva Aariak, Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Kathleen Wynne, Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Sandra Pupatello.

Here in Manitoba, our first female premier — or First Nations premier, or New Canadian premier, or second Metis premier (John Norquay was the first and, so far, only) — is probably some time away from taking office, barring Greg Selinger unexpectedly leaving the premier’s post before the next election. Either he or Progressive Conservative leader Brian Pallister will emerge from that election as premier-designate.

A Selinger loss in 2015, however, would open the way to a leadership race possibly including health minister Theresa Oswald, one of the more visible cabinet ministers, or children and youth opportunities minister Kevin Chief, who is of First Nations ancestry and reportedly considered popular in NDP ranks.

One’s likelihood of even caring who becomes premier is presumably linked, however, to one’s merely knowing who the current premier is. The 2011 Canadian Election Survey, taken both before and after the May 2011 federal election, tested Canadians’ awareness of politics by asking them to name their provincial premier.

Many could not. As you can see below, 35 percent of the 211 Manitoba respondents simply didn’t know who the Premier of Manitoba was, while a further six percent gave a name other than Greg Selinger’s — most likely that of former premier Gary Doer or Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz. (One person identified Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty as the holder of Manitoba’s top political job.)


It was New Brunswickers who were the least likely to know who their premier was, with barely half (53%) correctly naming David Alward, even though he had just led his Progressive Conservatives to power the previous year. Prince Edward Islanders, on the other hand, were the most likely to know who was in charge, with 87 percent correctly identifying premier Robert Ghiz as the province’s leader.

More than 80 percent of constituents were able to correctly identify their premiers in Quebec (then led by Jean Charest) and Newfoundland and Labrador (under Kathy Dunderdale) as well.


New Brunswick premier David Alward isn’t used to getting so much attention.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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