Kathleen Wynne

from flickr Paul Schreiber

from flickr Paul Schreiber

Kathleen Wynne (b 21 May 1953- )

When Kathleen Wynne was sworn in as Ontario’s 25th premier on 11 February 2013, the event marked notable “firsts” in Canadian politics. Wynne became the first female leader of the nation’s largest province and Canada’s first openly gay premier. In 2013 Ontario had only 28% female MLAs and Equal Voice reported that very few identified as members of the LGBTQ community. Wynne’s election nevertheless represented a significant shift in electoral politics towards increasingly diverse representation.

The multilingual Wynne (English, French, German, Dutch)(Wells) holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Queen’s University and a Master of Arts in Linguistics from the University of Toronto, as well as a Master of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She completed a one-week course in mediation training at Harvard University, a skill that promised to be critical in her role as leader of a minority government. Like many others, she built her political career on early community activism, notably founding membership in Citizens for Local Democracy (1998), and the Metro [Toronto] Parent Network (1996).

Wynne’s formal involvement in politics began when she ran as an openly gay woman for the Toronto School Board in 1994 in Ward 12. Defeated by only 72 votes after a homophobic smear campaign, she returned six years later as a public school Trustee for Ward 8 despite continued attacks. During her term, she opposed government cuts and encouraged the purchase of teaching materials that included gay and lesbian parents.

In 2003, Wynne entered provincial politics as part of a Liberal assault on a Conservative administration well-known for its attacks on the public sector and environmental protection. Representing the suburban seat of Don Valley West, her star rose quickly. In the 2007 election she gained the reputation of a “giant killer”  in defeating Provincial Conservative leader John Tory (Adam). After she proved her mettle as a parliamentary assistant, the Liberal premier, Dalton McGuinty appointed her Minister of Education (2006-2010), making her Ontario’s first openly lesbian cabinet minister. She served as Minister of Transportation from 2010-2011 and later Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs from October 2011 until she announced her bid for leadership in late 2012.

During her ministerial appointments, Wynne supported causes that marked her as a representative of the Liberal left wing. The introduction of full-day kindergarten, a longstanding progressive promise, during her term as Minister of Education, indicated her commitment to the province’s ‘working’ mothers. In 2003, the alignment of her sympathies and that of the new government was confirmed when Ontario became the first province to legalize same sex marriage (after a Court of Appeal ruling).

Wynne’s politics was rooted in her personal life and experiences. After the end of her ten year marriage to Phil Cowperthwaite, with whom she has three children, she came out as a lesbian in her thirties. She co-parented with her former husband and her second partner and longtime friend Jane Rounthwaite whom she married in 2005. Their relationship exemplified the diversity of Canada’s new family relations (Cochran). Wynne is a member of Canada’s United Church, traditionally among the most inclusive and progressive of the nation’s mainstream religious communities.

When Wynne decided to run for the Liberal leadership, she pointedly asked her party the relevance of her sexual orientation:  “is Ontario ready for a gay premier? …  Let’s say what that actually means: Can a gay woman win?” (Wynne, Convention Speech). She went on to win on the third ballot against frontrunner, former M.P.P. Sandra Pupatello, whose position was weakened by her lack of a seat in the legislature. The nomination and election of Wynne suggest that her party may be positioning itself as left of centre in Ontario’s three-horse electoral race.

Though the future of her minority government was uncertain (such vulnerability is not uncommon when women obtain political positions), Wynne’s election represented an historic moment in Canadian political topography. Since women also headed governments in four other provinces and one territory in early 2013, Canada faced an unprecedented testing of female leadership. This trend can also been seen across the border, exemplified by the successful election of openly gay Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate in 2012. Wynne herself noted that her sexual orientation and gender would have long marked her as unsuitable for public service. Where previously it would have been unthinkable for a woman, never mind an openly gay activist, to claim political office, a diversity of voices are beginning to win a public audience. This promise of more equal democratic representation deserves close attention and assessment from scholars and citizens alike.


Adam, Mohammed “Edges front-runner Pupatello after Kennedy, Sousa make dramatic move.” Ottawa Citizen, January 27, 2013.

Adam, Mohammed “Wynne’s Way: After McGuinty, Ontario’s new premier begins to chart her own course.” Ottawa Citizen, March 24, 2013

“Biography of the Premier.” Accessed April 5, 2013

Cochran, Cate. “Phil Cowperthwaite, Kathleen Wynne.” Reconcilable Differences: Marriages End, Families Don’t. Toronto: Second Story Press, 2008.

Equal Voice, Fast Facts: Women in Provincial Politics. 2013

Wells, Jennifer. “Ontario Liberal Leadership: Behind the Scenes with Kathleen Wynne.The Star, January 25, 2013

Wynne, Kathleen, Convention Speech. January 27, 2013.

Imagine That: Kathy Dunderdale, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador

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.


Antle, Rob. “N.L. Law to Clamp Down on Access to Information.” CBC News Newfoundland and Labrador. CBC. Web. 2012-6-13. Retrieved 2013-3-17.
Bailey, Sue. “Newfoundland and Labrador Budget Cuts Jobs, Costs as Deficit Mounts.” The Globe and Mail. The Canadian Press. Web. 2013-3-26. Retrieved 2013-3-31.
Bartlett, Steve. “Getting to Know the Premier: Kathy Dunderdale Talks about her Life and Answers 20 Questions.” The Weekend Telegram. The Telegram. Web. 2010-12-24. Retrieved 2013-3-17.
“Bodyguards Protecting Dunderdale.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 2011-02-07. CBC News Newfoundland and Labrador. CBC. Web. 2012. 2011-2-7. Retrieved 2013-3-17.
“Dunderdale Becomes 1st Woman to Lead N.L.” CBC News Newfoundland and Labrador. CBC. Web. 2010-12-03. Retrieved 2013-3-17.
“Dunderdale Earns Place in History Books.” CBC News Canada. CBC. Web. 2011-10-11. Retrieved 2013-3-17.
Gatehouse, Jonathon. “Kathy Dunderdale: The One to Beat—Dunderdale has Danny Williams’s old job. And she’s as feisty as he was.” Macleans.ca. Rogers Digital Media. Web. 2011-3-3. Retrieved 2013-3-26.
“Kathy Dunderdale.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 2013-3-17. Retrieved 2013-3-17.
McLeod, James. “What about that fish plant, b’y?” The Weekend Telegram. TC Media. Web. 2011-9-24. Retrieved 2013-3-17.
Palacios, Milagros, Charles Lammam, Amela Karabegovic, and Niels Veldhuis. “Measuring the Fiscal Performance of Canada’s Premiers, 2012.” Fraser Alert. Fraser Institute. 1-12. Web. 2012-12. Retrieved 2013-3-17.

Catherine Callbeck

Born Central Bedeque, Prince Edward Island 1939; educator and businesswoman; first elected to PEI Legislature 1974 as Liberal; first elected to federal House of Commons, 1988; Premier of PEI 1993; appointed to Canadian Senate 1997.

Further reading:

Jack, McAndrew, “The Making of a Dynasty: How Catherine Callbeck Was Crowned Queen of All the Liberals,” IslandSide v. 4, no. 7 (December 1992), pp. 16-22

Sydney Sharpe,  The Gilded Ghetto: Women and Political Power in Canada (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1994)

“Catherine Callbeck,” Celebrating Women’s Achievements. Library and Archives Canada, http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1336-e.html