Imagine That: Kathy Dunderdale, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador

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By Maria Afonso [CC-BY-2.5-ca (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/ca/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tiffany Johnstone

 

In 2011 Kathleen (“Kathy”) Dunderdale (née Warren 1952-) became the 10th premier of Newfoundland and Labrador and the first woman to hold this position in the province. She was the sixth woman to serve as a provincial premier in Canada. Dunderdale replaced premier Danny Williams when he retired in December 2010. In April 2011, she became the leader of the Newfoundland Progressive Conservative Party, and in the provincial elections in October she won a majority government.

When Kathy Dunderdale first took office in December, 2010, all three major political parties in Newfoundland were led by women (including Liberal Yvonne Jones and NDP Lorraine Michael). Upon being sworn in, Dunderdale noted the historical significance of the event by remarking, “[a]s I see my grandchildren smiling at [me] here today, I am reminded of how different life was for my own grandmother,” and adding, “[u]ntil 1925, a woman could not even vote in Newfoundland and Labrador and today for the very first time in our province’s history a woman serves as premier [. . .]. Imagine that” (“Dunderdale Becomes”). In a 2010 interview with The Weekend Telegram (St. John’s), she said she “couldn’t have imagined” being premier (Bartlett). 85 years after women in Newfoundland won the right to vote, a new tide of female political leaders in Newfoundland emerged in a political landscape so often dominated by powerful men such as Joey Smallwood, John Crosby, Brian Tobin, and Danny Williams.

Dunderdale’s story is all the more remarkable considering her humble beginnings in Burin, Newfoundland and Labrador, a remote fishing community with a population of about 2500. The daughter of Alice and Norman Warren, Dunderdale was the middle child of 11 children (eight girls and 3 boys). Norman worked as a trawlerman, a career that was labour-intensive and low-paying, particularly for a father of 11 (Gatehouse). Dunderdale also recalled her frustration at the restrictive gender stereotypes enforced by both her family and the town of Burin, noting that she and her sisters were forced to cook and serve her father and brothers, and that she was excluded from the local soccer team on the basis of her gender (Gatehouse).

Dunderdale left her social work degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland to marry Captain Peter Dunderdale, a British Sea Captain with whom she had a son and a daughter. While raising her children, Dunderdale was a stay-at-home mother and volunteer. Like many such ‘non-working’ spouses, she also assisted her husband in his consulting company. More public contributions included membership in a lobby group that stopped the closing of the Burin fish plant. In a pattern typical of many female politicians, she worked for the Department of Social Services and served on the Burin town council from 1985 to 1989 and as mayor from 1989-1993. Dunderdale also worked with the school board and for the Status of Women Canada. She was also more partisan, serving as president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Newfoundland and Labrador. In 1995, she moved with her husband to her current district, Virginia Waters, located in a northeast section of St. John’s. In 2006, her husband died of prostate cancer. One major chapter of Dunderdale’s life was over and her political career was ready to take off.

After election to the House of Assembly in 2003 with 58% of the popular vote, Dunderdale served as Minister of Innovation, Trade and Rural Development, and Minister Responsible for the Rural Secretariat. In a 2006 cabinet shuffle, Premier Williams signaled her rising star and made her Minister of Natural Resources and Minister Responsible for the Forestry and Agrifoods Agency. In 2008, she was also appointed as Deputy Premier and Minister Responsible for the Status of Women. After becoming premier in 2010, Dunderdale went on to become the party leader in April 2011. In the fall 2011 elections, the Conservatives took home 37 out of 48 seats and she became the third woman in Canada (after PEI’s Catherine Callbeck and the Yukon’s Pat Duncan) to successfully lead her party in a general election.

One of Dunderdale’s main projects as premier has been to focus on developing the Lower Churchill Project, also known as Muskrat Falls. Anyone familiar with NFLD and Labrador politics knows the controversial history behind the 1969 Churchill Falls deal between Labrador’s Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation Ltd. (CFLCo) and Hydro-Québec whereby the latter signed on to buy the plant’s output at a fixed discounted rate (only to resell it at highly inflated prices) until 2041. The legacy of this deal lingers as a painful reminder of the vulnerability of the province’s resource-based economy. Dunderdale has pursued the development of Muskrat Falls, the part of the Churchill River not yet developed by the CFLCo. Prime Minister and fellow Conservative Stephen Harper sanctioned a loan and in December 2012 Dunderdale announced that the project was on track.

Dunderdale has stuck for the most part to fiscally conservative goals in reducing the province’s debt through cuts to social spending, just the choice most likely to increase women’s vulnerability. The conservative think tank, the Fraser Institute chose her as the country’s best fiscal performer among Canada’s premiers (Palacios et al.). Despite her past efforts to sustain the Burin fish plant, in the fall of 2011 Dunderdale had to admit that “[w]e’ve got too many people chasing too few fish, and these plants are going to collapse and fail because they’re not on sound economic models” (McLeod). The need to cut back on fish plants (a traditional source of female employment) and improve the financial sustainability of the fishing industry was now part of her political agenda. What this meant for local communities was a difficult question, only sharpened by simultaneous efforts by the federal government to cut back on employment insurance and regional supports. As Newfoundland and Labrador’s economy continued to be bolstered by off-shore oil, the 21st century seemed at first glance to offer greater stability and opportunity for the still young province that just 20 years previously faced the growing pains of the cod moratorium. The promise of the oil industry was, however, accompanied by the loss of traditional employments, such as those provided by fish plants.

In 2012, Dunderdale ran into special criticism for Bill 29 that altered the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The Bill reduced transparency in a number of ways and resulted in a four-day long filibuster by opposition leaders. In a manner later echoed by the attempt on the life of Quebec premier, Pauline Marois in 2012, Dunderdale appears to have come under threats to her personal safety (“Bodyguards”). However, on the whole, public opinion of Dunderdale remained positive. In late 2012 polls, 58% of respondents were fully or mostly satisfied with her government.

On the one hand, Kathy Dunderdale’s transformation from a trawlerman’s daughter in a remote outport turned politically engaged stay-at-home mother and finally the premier of the province suggested unprecedented opportunities both for women and perhaps for a more diverse group of citizens. On the other hand, those possibilities had nevertheless to be weighed against the decline of longstanding employments, notably in the fisheries, and the continuing threat to smaller communities. Large-scale lay-offs announced in March 2013 provoked criticism of Dunderdale’s approach to managing the deficit (Bailey). Popular outrage against Bill 29 also indicates that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are suspicious of the secrecy surrounding their economy being marketed to the highest bidder. Lack of transparency is reminiscent of other famous Newfoundland and Labrador politicians who left their mark on the province and goes hand in hand with the folk hero status allotted to many leaders.

Figures such as Joey Smallwood and Danny Williams have been as notorious for impulsive and unilateral decision-making as they have been celebrated as underdog-advocates for a province so often labeled as ‘have-not.’ Media coverage of Dunderdale tends to evoke the persisting populist mythology of such previous leaders by accentuating her rural and local roots even as preoccupation with her roles of wife and mother and her self-deprecating and seemingly reluctant transition to politics inscribe her in traditionally feminine terms. What this means for a Conservative politician charged with managing provincial, federal, and global relations of production that have produced a growing gulf between rich and poor remains to be seen.

Bibliography

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