Revisiting the Rise of Women in Canadian Politics

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Between November 2008 when Eva Aariak, the only woman elected to Nunavut’s 19-member legislature was sworn in as premier and January 2013 when Kathleen Wynne became premier of Ontario after taking over as Liberal leader, six women in five provinces and one territory rose to the top.  Four – BC’s Christy Clark, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Kathy Dunderdale, Alberta’s Alison Redford, and Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne, like the Canadian women leaders before them (Rita Johnston in BC and Kim Campbell federally), became premier /prime minister by winning the leadership of their party and not by seeking an electoral mandate.  Unlike Johnston or Campbell, all but Wynne have won subsequent elections – defying the polls and all expectation in the case of Alberta and BC.  The “rise of women in Canadian politics is unmistakable and unstoppable” remarked The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson (11 September 2012); Kelly McParland of the National Post asked “what happened to discrimination?” (28 January 2013).

A year after Wynne became the country’s sixth sitting female premier, it is time to re-evaluate the seeming triumph of women in politics.   The claim that political equality has arrived seems, at best, premature.  In addition to obvious under-representation in other political offices (only 25% of Members of Parliament and only 16% of mayors are women, for example), women’s success in the role of premier has not been sustained.  In October 2013, Eva Aariak lost her seat in the Nunavut legislature. After that election less than 14% of the territory’s representatives were women and none was the leader.

On 24 January 2014 Kathy Dunderdale, Newfoundland and Labrador’s tenth (and first woman) premier resigned.  She had faced low opinion polls and challenges from within her own Progressive Conservative party.  Criticisms both from within her own ranks and from her political opponents frequently seemed based on expectations arising from her gender – she was accused of lacking empathy, her communication style was deemed too abrupt, and she was seen as too aggressive.

Less than three months later much the same story played out in Alberta. On 19 March 2014 Progressive Conservative premier Alison Redford resigned her post.  Redford had been facing growing challenges from her caucus, including the resignation of one veteran MLA and one member of the front bench. Legitimate concerns abound with Redford herself condemned for excessive spending on personal entitlements. As was the case with Dunderdale, however, some attacks on Redford were undeniably gendered.  One opponent, denied a cabinet position by the premier, argued that “she is not a nice lady” who frequently had  “temper tantrums”.

It is far from clear, however, that being “nice” strengthens political leadership, particularly in the conflictual parliamentary and party system used in Canadian provinces.   In contrast, the female frontbencher who resigned denounced gendered criticisms of the Alberta premier. When asked whether Redford’s supposed ‘bully’ style played a role in her decision to sit as an independent, she replied that she would not engage in the sexist discussion. For her, the problem lay within a party that had been unable to evolve.

In a coincidence of events, media stories containing allegations of Redford’s bullying have appeared alongside a social media campaign to “ban bossy”.  Launched by Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and her ‘Lean In’ organization, Ban Bossy argues that the term discourages girls from speaking up and taking charge.  In fact, attacks on both Redford and Dunderdale indicate that women leaders still face demands that they be “nice” or “empathetic” rather than assertive or indeed bossy.  More concerning, both cases demonstrate the power of such attacks in removing women from positions of power.

In March 2014, female premiers remained to lead the country’s three largest provinces (Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta).   In Quebec Pauline Marois, is in the middle of an election and slightly behind in the polls. In Ontario, Kathleen Wynne continues to govern uncertainly with a minority and a late spring or summer election looks likely.   In British Columbia, Christy Clark, while securing her government a four year mandate in an unexpected 2013 election victory, has faced marked sexism – from comments on her cleavage to media questions on what it’s like to be a MILF.

Should Marois lose the Quebec election on 7 April, female premiers will drop to two.  If she fails to produce a majority, her tenure as PQ leader will be uncertain.  Although an election date is not yet set, the same is true for Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne.  In other words, just over a year after Wynne’s victory made it six, the number of female premiers could be cut to two and may, by the end of summer, even drop to one.

The likelihood of a new female premier in most provinces is small.  In Newfoundland and Labrador, three men and no women have entered the race to replace Dunderdale.  It’s too early to speculate on potential leaders for the Alberta Progress Conservatives, but Dave Hancock has been chosen as the interim premier.  Danielle Smith heads Alberta’s official opposition.  Only if her Wild Rose Party can do in 2016 what none other has done in more than 40 years and replace the Conservatives, the province may see a second female premier.  In Quebec, both the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec are led by men and although Françoise David holds the top spot in Quebec Solidaire, it only has two seats and polls suggest little growth, although she was received well in the 20 March leaders’ debate. Ontario’s third party is led by NDP Andrea Horwath but the Liberals’ more obvious main competition, the Progressive Conservatives, are captained by Tim Hudak. In British Columbia, the opposition NDP is in the midst of a leadership race but no women have expressed interest, hardly surprising after Carole James was driven from the office in 2011. Although she insists that it was not the only reason, James has recognized sexism as contributing to her fall.

Those who applauded gender equality in Canadian politics in 2013 responded to an unprecedented group of female leaders.  Their success does not, however, represent “the end of discrimination” nor the “unstoppable rise of women”. It is time to re-assess just where women (and indeed other disadvantaged groups) are and what remains to be done to achieve full democracy.  If we are too quick to declare equality, the sexism undermining women in leadership positions and the persistent inequality in a range of political offices will remain both unrecognized and unchallenged.

Lore, Grace

Lore, Grace

PhD Student in the Department of Political Science - University of British Columbia

This article was written by: Lore, Grace

PhD Student in the Department of Political Science - University of British Columbia