Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Canada’s first elected female premier ‘never set out to be a trailblazer’ Add to ...

If Prime Minister Stephen Harper ever holds a premiers' meeting, the family photo will look a lot different than it did in Catherine Callbeck's time.

In 1993, Prince Edward Island's Ms. Callbeck made history as the first woman ever elected premier in a general election.

It wasn't until 2000 that another woman won the popular vote.

Over a decade later, the third is expected this Tuesday when PC Leader Kathy Dunderdale takes her party to victory in Newfoundland and Labrador.

But also this year, ruling parties in B.C. and Alberta chose female leaders and in Nunavut, a female premier was selected by the legislative assembly.

Having four women in top jobs in the country is remarkable, said Ms. Callbeck, now a Liberal senator.

“It's taken a long while to get to this point,” she said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

In 1978, the Yukon’s Hilda Watson led her party to victory, but never held the post of premier because she lost her own seat. The first female premier in Canada was B.C.’s Rita Johnston, who vaulted into the top job after winning the leadership of the province's Social Credit Party in 1991. But the party went down in blistering defeat in the subsequent campaign.

That same year, Nellie Cournoyea became premier in the Northwest Territories after she was selected by consensus by members of the legislature.

So when Ms. Callbeck won the leadership of the PEI Liberals in 1993 and then held onto their majority in an election, it was a milestone moment.

Not that she'd set out to make it one.

“I never set out to be a trailblazer for women in politics,” Ms. Callbeck, 72, said. “It just sort of happened.”

Ms. Callbeck was used to being among the few women in any group. She was the only female student in commerce classes in university and often the only female furniture-buyer when she worked for her family business.

When she decided to run for office in 1974, she was ready for the common refrain of the time.

“I remember people saying to me, ‘Look, politics is no place for a woman,“’ she said.

She was only the second woman ever elected to the House of Commons from the Island.

But by the time she became premier, the gender landscape had changed. The Speaker, deputy speaker, Opposition leader and lieutenant-governor were all women during that period.

That may have been a bit of an anomaly then, but what's happening now could be different, she said.

“I don't know if it's a new normal, that's something that we'll have to wait and see. But I am optimistic. I tend to think it is.”

Ms. Callbeck said the Canadian public has become used to the idea of women in leadership positions now, not something that was apparent even a decade ago.

In 2000, when the Yukon's Pat Duncan became Canada's second elected female premier, the Globe and Mail referred to her as “Mr. Duncan,” according to a report at the time by the CBC.

There are now more female candidates at the provincial and federal levels than there were four years ago, albeit only incrementally.

But Sylvia Bashevkin, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said that despite the number at the top of the political pecking order, women still aren't getting involved as much at lower levels.

Ms. Bashevkin first noted a pattern in women's political participation referred to as “the higher, the fewer” in 1993 and she said it still holds true.

“The pattern of the higher, the fewer still applies in that proportions of women in politics drop as one moves upward from females as a percentage of party members, constituency association executive members and convention delegates, toward parliamentarians, cabinet ministers, party leaders and heads of government,” she said in an e-mail.

“While numbers of women may be higher than in the recent past in some areas, such as provincial and territorial leadership, the disparity between women's numerical representation in the general population versus senior political office remains clear.”

Ms. Callbeck said parties are more open to women today than they were in her years of elected office but, more importantly, so are political dollars.

“One of the barriers getting into politics has been financial and now women are developing better networks,” she said.

Meanwhile, advocacy groups like Equal Voice sprung up to run campaigns devoted to electing women and pressing leaders to set targets for female candidates.

Another barrier that remains, Callbeck acknowledges, is one that wasn't as much of an issue in her time — the mass media.

From 24-hour television networks to Twitter, political image is more important now than it was then, she said.

Just last week, the B.C. premier's choice of a blouse that showed her cleavage sparked a political furor in her home province after an opposition politician discussed it on social media.

“Anybody that's in politics today has to realize it's a very high-profile position and you're under a microscope, whether it's from your clothing to the way you wear your hair to the way you talk. Everything is there,” Ms. Callbeck said.

“It's fair to say women have to think about that more than men.”

But when Ms. Callbeck was in elected office, her image as a woman wasn't on her radar.

Most women in political positions today aren't as preoccupied with their gender as those who are around them, you've got too much on the go, she said.

“I just was brought up if there was a job there, that you were interested in and you wanted to do, you grabbed a hold of it and did it,” she said.

And she enjoyed every minute of it.

“Certainly, my life was busy and it was challenging. I can honestly say it's one of the most satisfying and fulfilling things that I have ever done.”

 

Topics:

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories