Premier club for women

A new generation of female politicians are suddenly making a mark provincially

Premier club for women
Darryl Dyck/Cp

The defining moment of Christy Clark’s recent campaign was neither a barn-burning speech nor a howling gaffe, but an offhand remark made during her first televised debate—just a week before B.C. Liberals were to choose a new leader. Fellow contender Kevin Falcon had been pressing Clark, a former talk radio host, on whether she would run in the next election if she failed to win the leadership. And Clark, to general astonishment, spoke her mind. “I have to make sure that I am able to make a paycheque,” she shrugged. “I am not running in this so I can be just another politician doing the same old thing.”

Candour is not generally considered a virtue in politics, but it worked for Clark. Up against three male candidates perceived to represent “the same old thing,” the 45-year-old from Burnaby swept to victory and, in doing so, became the next premier of British Columbia. Her paycheque remark gave ammunition to opponents, who questioned her commitment to the party. But Liberal members who actually voted seemed to appreciate her unabashed ambition. If she didn’t want more for herself than four years warming a seat in Victoria, they reasoned, what kind of leader would she be?

With her unapologetic appetite for power, Clark represents a new generation of women carving space these days in the upper echelons of provincial politics. No less than 14 women are running for, or already hold, the reins of provincial and territorial parties, including two who are sitting premiers (Kathy Dunderdale of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Eva Aariak of Nunavut). Clark is to be sworn in as premier in mid-March, and the female contingent at the first ministers’ table might well grow before the year is out. Alberta’s next provincial election could conceivably feature three female leaders—Alison Redford, a leadership candidate for the Progressive Conservatives; Laurie Blakeman, a candidate for the Liberal helm; and Danielle Smith, who leads the upstart Wildrose Alliance.

Premier club for women
Toronto Star; Jeff McIntosh; CP; Reuters

The influx of high-calibre women candidates to these races has puzzled observers, coming as it does amid an overall slump in female political participation. Only 24.9 per cent of provincial ridings are currently represented by women, a share that drops further if you include the three territorial assemblies in the calculation. Females hold just 22.4 per cent of seats in the federal House of Commons, placing Canada 52nd among 188 nations in the Inter-Parliamentary Union. We rank just below Pakistan and slightly above Eritrea.

Those figures are thought to reflect long-standing barriers to women in politics—from the ingrained reluctance of donors to invest in female candidates to the challenge of raising children while holding elected office. But to advocates of greater female representation, they also speak volumes about modern political practice, where all but the leader, select cabinet ministers and a handful of advisers are kept outside the circle of true power. “Women don’t want to be a cog in the wheel, with little capacity to effect change,” says Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, an Ottawa-based organization dedicated to getting more women elected. “Most professional working women today are balancing so many things, and are accustomed to getting things done. They don’t waste time. They’re not there to spend five years with nothing to show for it.”

That will to lead rather than follow may be what sets the new generation of star candidates apart. Some, like Dunderdale, had lengthy political track records, and were natural candidates for leadership. Others, like the former broadcaster and journalist Smith, have arrived from successful careers outside of politics. Either way, they’re unlikely to abide years of banging a desk during question period or toiling in obscure subcommittees. It’s not that they can’t play nice with others. But being part of a team isn’t enough for them.

Smith, for one, got involved with an upstart party because she wanted to shake up Alberta’s calcified political scene. Four years ago, she’d considered seeking a riding for the Progressive Conservatives, whose four-decade grip on power had left them in desperate need of renewal. “My intention was to work to change the party from within,” the 39-year-old says. “There were others trying to do the same thing.” But the reformers were getting nowhere, and the launch of the Wildrose Alliance—with its iconoclastic spirit and libertarian strain of conservatism—offered the chance to actually be the change.

Premier club for women
Toronto Star; Jeff McIntosh; CP; Reuters

Smith won the Wildrose leadership in October 2009, and these days sounds like someone who would make a lousy second violinist. “I’m in this to win, not to gain a handful of seats and be the conscience of the legislature,” she says. “I’ve spent my whole career in public policy trying to advance different ideas to get better government, whether I was at the Fraser Institute, or working as a property rights advocate, or working as a broadcaster and a journalist. Every job I’ve had is trying to push for good government policy. And in the last 10 years, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with how hard it is to move the government from the outside. For me, this was just a natural progression.”

But why provincial politics? Why aren’t these women opting for the federal scene, which has been a relative wasteland for accomplished women since the departure of Belinda Stronach and the failed Liberal leadership bid of Martha Hall-Findlay? Smith figures geography plays a part. “If you’ve concerns about work-life balance,” she says, “it certainly makes sense to be travelling in and around a province than back and forth across a country.” Andrea Horwath, the leader of the Ontario NDP, says some women may see the bread-and-butter nature of provincial affairs as a better fit than federal politics, which tends to be charged with partisanship, and where issues are often freighted with ideological symbolism.

As a rookie candidate in 1997, Horwath lost in the federal riding of Hamilton West to Liberal warhorse Stan Keyes, yet soon found her political feet on Hamilton council. There she gained traction on issues that directly affect the daily lives of women like herself—from housing to garbage removal. To her surprise, she found the same sense of relevance in provincial politics. “Whether it’s child care, education, affordable housing, midwifery services, all of these issues are dealt with at the provincial level,” she says. “They’re all of importance to women.”

Advocates for better female political representation hope the recent wave of female leaders encourages more women into the arena. But it’s too early to declare a turning point, says Peckford, because none of these women has passed the acid test of a general election. Indeed, only one woman, Catherine Callbeck of Prince Edward Island, has ever led a federal or provincial party to electoral victory in Canadian history. Meantime, the memory of former prime minister Kim Campbell, who led the Progressive Conservatives to a crushing defeat in 1993, remains a cautionary tale for women who take over unpopular parties anxious to signal “change.”

Happily, few of the new leaders find themselves in that predicament. Clark takes over the Liberal helm from the toxically unpopular Gordon Campbell, yet has spent the last three years talking politics on CKNW radio, occasionally chewing out her old party. Polls suggest she is not weighed down by the Campbell regime’s luggage. Dunderdale, meanwhile, inherits the mantle of Danny Williams, the most popular premier in Newfoundland history, so next fall’s election is hers to lose. Smith’s Wildrose party hasn’t been around long enough to acquire much luggage, good or bad.

It’s also possible that the “novelty” of women running for top office has finally worn off—that command of the issues, not identity politics, will determine the fortunes of today’s female leaders. Smith, Alberta’s new flag-bearer of libertarian conservatism, hopes so. But even she can recite Alberta’s lineage of pioneering women, from Nellie McClung to Nancy MacBeth, and is stirred by the thought of making political history. “I remember seeing a photo taken during a first ministers’ conference about 10 years ago,” Smith says. “There were all these pudgy, middle-aged guys in their white golf shirts. I thought to myself, ‘Okay, we’re gonna need to mix that up little.’ “