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Ontario may get first woman premier; experts warn victory may be short-lived

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TORONTO - With two female candidates leading the race to replace Premier Dalton McGuinty, Ontario appears set to become Canada's sixth province to be governed by a woman.

Political experts, however, warn that even if Sandra Pupatello or Kathleen Wynne win the Ontario Liberal leadership vote this weekend — which was prompted by McGuinty's surprise resignation in October — the victory may be short-lived.

"Symbolically it's important for a time — what could be a very short time — that we have gender parity among the premiers," said Jane Arscott, co-author of the upcoming book, "Stalled: The Representation of Women in Canadian Governments."

"It would be more significant if the position could be consolidated with an electoral win."

Women are still under-represented in the country's legislatures, ranging from 10.5 per cent in the Northwest Territories to 30 per cent in Ontario — with Quebec having the highest representation at nearly 33 per cent.

The wave of female premiers is "marvellous," but Canada saw this trend in the early 1990s before it dropped off, said Arscott.

One example is Lyn McLeod, who was selected as leader of the Ontario Liberal party in 1992 but failed to win an election three years later.

In recent years, Ontario's Liberal government has been plagued with scandals, including the costly cancellation of two gas plants, a police probe at its air ambulance service and a nasty fight with public school teachers.

There has been a habit among Canadian political parties to turn to a woman as their leader when they're in trouble or "long in the tooth," said Cristine de Clercy, a political science professor at Ontario's Western University.

"Occasionally some members of parties want to repackage and re-present the party to the electorate, and so they try to do something new," she said.

"That doesn't mean all female premiers ever have been chosen just to repackage and rebrand a party. But certainly that's an element in some of the new selections of new leaders and premiers."

The Social Credit Party and the Liberals in British Columbia could be seen as examples, De Clercy said.

Rita Johnston became the first woman premier in Canada in 1991 when she took over British Columbia's troubled Social Credit Party from Bill Vander Zalm, but lost an election just six months later.

The embattled federal Progressive Conservatives chose Kim Campbell as prime minister, but she didn't survive the 1993 election that marked the worst defeat in the party's history.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford, Quebec's Pauline Marois and Newfoundland and Labrador's Kathy Dunderdale have all cemented their positions in a general election. Members of the Nunavut legislature chose Eva Aariak as premier in 2008, currently one of three women in the 19-member house.

Christy Clark, who became B.C. premier in 2011, hasn't yet faced a general election. Ontario's new premier — to be chosen on Jan. 26 — will have to undergo the same test.

Regardless of the outcome, women activists say the surge of female premiers in recent years is an "extremely auspicious moment" — the result of decades of work by other trailblazers.

"That doesn't mean it's the end of the story — absolutely not," said Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, an organization promoting the election of more women.

"There's so much more to do and so many women who want to make a contribution."

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says having women occupy positions of power shows other women what they can achieve.

"One of the best things about having women premiers elected around the country is that it shows, not only other women but other people in Canada, that women are as capable and are as able and are as willing to take up the mantle when it comes to political office," she said.

"I'm pleased by that. I think it's a positive step and I'm glad I've played a small role in that myself."

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