Skip to main content

Note to readers: The story has been updated and corrected. An earlier version stated that Alberta Premier Alison Redford is a single parent. In fact, she is married.

Alison Redford had an opportunity to be a shining role model as a female politician – and she blew it.

This week, the Alberta premier, who is the married mother of a 12-year-old daughter, played the mommy card during a heated debate about her travel expenditures. It had begun with questions about her $45,000 trip to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's funeral, and in the way that political discussions move and change as quickly as a bad winter storm, the issue then turned to revelations that she had flown her daughter, Sarah, and some of Sarah's friends on a government aircraft four times in the last year. The friends' inclusion on the government jet is clearly wrong – which she has since acknowledged, agreeing to pay back $3,100 for their equivalent airfare. But a dependent child?

"One of the things that people often do when they introduce me is they introduce me as Alberta's first woman premier. And I'm also the first premier who's a mom," Ms. Redford told the legislature.

I don't know about you, but I cringed when she said that. That's no way to advance the cause. She brought an important issue to the foreground, but she missed the mark on communication. She should have played the parent card, not the mommy card. And as a leader, she should have done it at the start of her term, instead of when she was on the defensive.

As it was, the timing of the invocation of her motherhood invited criticism that she was using it to deflect attention away from her use of taxpayers' money. So is she just a shrewd, manipulative politician? Or was she trying to address – perhaps with the wrong language and at the wrong time – an issue that is unfair to parents, especially single parents, and which further impedes more women from entering politics?

Almost a decade ago, the Auditor General of Alberta ruled that spouses can fly on government planes for government-related business but other family members cannot. It's an archaic restriction, given that the federal government changed its rules to allow family members 30 years ago, after Pat Carney, then a newly-elected MP from Vancouver, championed the cause. A single mother, Ms. Carney boycotted Parliament in protest – a move that grabbed headlines since, at the same time, prime minister Pierre Trudeau, then a single father of three young boys, was jetting them off to foreign countries to introduce them to dignitaries.

Double standards still exist. Fathers with children in tow are admired whereas working mothers who include their children in their work are considered unorganized or conflicted about their responsibilities. "There are those that think I should be 'just be a mom' and there are others that think I am a superwoman," Lisa Raitt, the federal Minister of Transport, who is the single mother of two boys, said in an e-mail.

Inconsistencies in travel rules and procedure in different levels of governments across the country are part of the "growing pains that show we have yet to arrive at a place of great parity in our political institutions," says Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, a "multi-partisan" organization dedicated to electing more women to all levels of political office in Canada. "Change is very sporadic."

But if Ms. Redford, who was unavailable for comment, deserves praise for pointing to these inconsistencies, she has disappointed some female politicians who look for leadership on the issue.

"She knew she wasn't allowed to bring her daughter. It's a hard decision to make. But she broke the rules. Maybe she should have done more consulting, trying to get this changed, before she just went ahead and did it," says Ruth Ellen Brosseau, a 29-year-old single mom of a teen boy who was elected MP for the NDP in 2011.

"There could have been more leadership, coming from a premier," she says.

Over the past 25 years, the percentage of single-parent families in Canada increased steadily to 25.8, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada. Had Ms. Redford called for changes to the travel rules as soon as she took office, she could have advanced the cause for parents everywhere. When Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod was elected in 2006, the married mother of a young daughter immediately set about changing the sitting hours in the provincial legislature. Ms. Redford missed the opportunity to be a socially-progressive conservative – a headline-making story in itself. But the reason she didn't could be another hurdle women in politics need to overcome.

"We hear from a lot of elected women that they don't want to play the I-am-a-woman card," says Ms. Peckford, who speaks to female politicians across the country about needed changes. "They want to do their jobs."

That's understandable, but Ms. Redford has now played the mommy card, perhaps under duress, and in a way that damages her, inviting the uncharitable discussion about political moms that she was likely trying to avoid. "It's very easy to say, 'Why didn't they say this at this point?' The challenge is these things unfold at real time," says Scott Reid, principal of Feschuk Reid, a speech-writing firm in Ottawa, and former chief of staff and communications adviser for prime minister Paul Martin.

Okay. But the Premier now has the opportunity to set an example by explaining that to do the job, however important, every single or married parent benefits from being able to incorporate his or her child into a demanding work schedule. A happy parent makes for a good leader.

Sarah Hampson is a feature writer and columnist with the Globe.

Follow her on Twitter @hampsonwrites