Canadian women have been premiers in four provinces and all three territories, and four of them are currently in office. One might think this is a reason to rejoice. It sounds good, but is it?
Catherine Callbeck, from Prince Edward Island, was the first woman elected by the general population as premier and governed from 1993 to 1996. Originally elected in the '70s, she had served both at the federal and provincial levels. Her Liberal government introduced a significant number of unpopular changes. Recognizing her impending rout, Callbeck resigned just before the election was called in 1996 and her party was massively defeated. Callbeck left electoral politics but within a year, she was appointed a senator.
Pat Duncan, in the Yukon, was the second woman elected as premier, in 2000. Duncan, a Liberal, became very unpopular with her own caucus as a result of her authoritarian style and she suffered enough defections that her government slipped to minority status. In a bid to gain a majority back, she called an election after only two years in office, much to the anger of electors who reduced her party to one seat, her own. Liberals were furious and called a leadership convention and she was defeated. She did not run in the next election.
Kathy Dunderdale was elected in 2011 as the Conservative premier in Newfoundland. It was an interesting election campaign, since for the first time in Canadian history, the leaders of all three major parties were women. Dunderdale may make history again by being the first woman re-elected as premier by the general population. She followed a popular premier but has a much more conciliatory leadership style than Danny Williams. Newfoundland, however, has a history of replacing its premiers with rapidity, having had seven different premiers since 1989.
Alison Redford was elected as the Progressive Conservative premier of Alberta in 2012. Articulate and relatively young, Redford has an excellent chance of re-election, since the Tories have held power there for more than 40 years. With almost no caucus support in her leadership run, however, Redford is going to keep an eye on disgruntled caucus members. Maintaining her position will be helped by her main contender for premier, Danielle Smith of the Wildrose party. With a load of rednecks and party members who do not believe in party discipline, Smith will likely have a turbulent few years as leader of the opposition and her party may implode.
The remaining four female premiers were not elected by the voters. Two women were chosen as premiers in consensus governments, a form of government many people think is more suited to women's style of governing than the heavily partisan governments seen today in much of Canada.
Nellie Cournoyer was selected by her colleagues in the Northwest Territories in 1992 to be their premier. Cournoyer resigned in 1995 after serving only one term and took over as head of the Inuvialuit Regional Corp., which oversees land and financial compensation from a land-claim settlement reached in 1984. She remains in this position today.
Eva Aariak was also chosen premier in a nonpartisan government in 2008 in her first year as an elected MLA. She won that position in a contest against Paul Okalik, the well-known two-term premier of Nunavut who had run into trouble in his second term of office. Aariak was the sole woman elected in the 2008 election and her lamentation about the lack of female representation was believed to have affected the two subsequent byelection wins by women. If Aariak decides to continue in politics, it is likely she will continue as premier.
In 1991, Rita Johnston of British Columbia became Canada's first female premier. Bill Vander Zalm was forced to resign in disgrace as head of the Social Credit party. The race in the party for leader was bitterly fought. When elected leader, she had an unhappy party and carried the baggage of Vander Zalm's support and tutelage. She called an election less than one year after taking over and was roundly defeated, losing half of the Social Credit popular support and her own seat.
Christy Clark, the current B.C. Liberal premier, also follows a very unpopular leader and she is fighting an uphill battle. In fact, if recent polls hold up, the NDP will win a significant majority in the election in the spring of 2013. A lot of things can happen in a year but currently the NDP, according to an Angus Reid poll, has more than double the popularity of the Liberals in B.C.
Canada's most significant leadership loss for women was a setup from the beginning. Brian Mulroney may have been the least popular prime minister in the last century. He was not only distrusted, he was hated by a significant number of Canadians. With very little time remaining until the Tory term in office would expire, Kim Campbell won the PC leadership over John Charest in 1993.
She ran a gaff-filled election campaign, starting out with strong public support despite the Mulroney legacy. The nail in the coffin was the attack ads against Chrétien, one of which made fun of his speaking style and his Bell's palsy. Her loss in that election was so significant, reducing the Conservatives to two seats, that many wondered if they could ever again come to power. That loss was instrumental in the amalgamation of the Progressive Conservatives with the Reform/Alliance party.
So we are left with a less than positive and memorable history of women in political leadership. Women have been premiers in four provinces and all three territories, yet not one woman has been re-elected premier.
Women have too often followed discredited male premiers and few were surprised at Campbell's and Johnston's losses, nor will they be if Christy Clark loses. Thinking you can turn around the fortunes of a party after a leader's disgrace is probably less a sign of political astuteness than of arrogance or naiveté.
When women first became active in electoral politics, they often ran in unwinnable ridings, thinking their party loyalty would pay off. It rarely does. We are likely now in another period of change. Although it is too early to predict, both Dunderdale and Redford are leaders of parties with strong support in their provinces. If they and Aariak are returned as premiers, women will have finally begun to find their rightful place in the political leadership of the nation.
Linda Taylor is a Winnipeg writer.