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Newfoundland Premier Kathy Dunderdale at her office in St. John's. (Greg Locke for The Globe and Mail/Greg Locke for The Globe and Mail)
Newfoundland Premier Kathy Dunderdale at her office in St. John's. (Greg Locke for The Globe and Mail/Greg Locke for The Globe and Mail)

Nfld. has its first female premier - but fight for equality is far from over Add to ...

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale isn’t a public scrapper like her bombastic predecessor, Danny Williams, but she doesn’t shy away from a fight.

The 59-year-old former social worker made history last year by becoming the first female premier of this province, and again last month as only the second woman to be elected in her own right as a provincial premier in Canada.

She’s spent her political career climbing the ladder in a male-dominated political culture in which, she says, women’s progress was not guaranteed but rather the product of hard-fought battles.

With two other female premiers now facing an electoral test, Ms. Dunderdale suggests Canadian democracy is finally maturing – and she contends the change is more than cosmetic. As more women achieve power, they will bring a different point of view to the forefront. Their success will inevitably colour the political debate in Canada, putting a greater emphasis on issues that resonate most with women voters, she says.

“Life impacts differently on women than it does men,” she said. “And you need to understand that experience when you are developing policies and programs that directly impact the lives of men and women.”

It’s been a long struggle – a frustrating wait since Prince Edward Island’s Catherine Callbeck became the first woman elected as provincial premier nearly 20 years ago.

“I thought we shattered the glass ceiling at that point,” Ms. Dunderdale said in an interview in her St. John’s office. “I certainly didn’t dream it would be another 20 years before we’d elect another woman as premier in this country, and I certainly never dreamed it would be me.”

But the fight for equality in politics is a long way from finished. Only four of Ms. Dunderdale’s 16 cabinet ministers are female, and only eight women sit in the 48-seat provincial legislature.

Nationally, just three of 10 provincial premiers are women – and two of those, British Columbia’s Christy Clark and Alberta’s Alison Redford – have yet to face the electorate after taking over from a retired leader. Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak is the sole woman leader in the three territories, though there is a stronger tradition of female leadership in the North.

Ms. Dunderdale said women – and men – cannot take progress for granted.

“These things aren’t a matter of evolution,” she said. “A lot of people think that they are, and yet gains made by women over the years have been hard-fought and won. And that continues.”

Ms. Dunderdale is the daughter of a fisherman from Burin, a small community on the Burin Peninsula on the west coast of Placentia Bay.

She was a community organizer and social worker before entering municipal politics, where she served as councillor and deputy mayor of Burin. She was president of the province’s Federation of Municipalities and of the Progressive Conservative Party of Newfoundland and Labrador, before winning a seat in the legislature in 2003.

Under Mr. Williams, Ms. Dunderdale served first as minister of innovation, trade and rural development, and later as minister for natural resources and deputy premier. As chair of her party’s election readiness committee, she was in charge of recruiting candidates – and saw a fundamental difference in how men and women approach politics.

Men would either agree to run or, after consideration, say they were not ready or willing; women would invariably ask: “Who, me?”

“It is not a natural part of their thinking about options and choices in the same way that it is for men,” she said. Typically, women come to political life with a goal, to address specific issues, while men are more likely to see it as a career.

Ms. Dunderdale refused to bring gender into comparisons of her style versus that of Mr. Williams, and resisted even comparing her approach to that of her combative predecessor.

Mr. Williams famously fought with prime ministers – both Paul Martin and Stephen Harper – with the world’s largest oil company in Exxon Mobil Corp., and with local reporters when he didn’t like their criticism. And he was known as a controlling leader who kept his cabinet – including Ms. Dunderdale – on a short leash.

The current premier – while capable of showing a stubborn, intensely partisan side – emphasizes a more conciliatory approach.

Her relationship with Mr. Harper’s government perhaps best illustrates that more measured approach. She praised her federal counterparts for a groundbreaking agreement with the Innu people and for their promise of a loan guarantee for the Lower Churchill power project.

But she has fought long and hard against the closing of a marine rescue communication centre in her province, saying virtually every Newfoundlander has been touched by losses at sea.

“This is a serious disagreement between us,” she said in a measured tone, more explanatory than emotional. “It causes a great deal of concern and we continue to press at every opportunity. But there are some areas where you have alignment and agreement. And there are areas where you seriously disagree and you have to try to find a way to work your way through them.”

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