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Rise of women in Canadian politics is unmistakable and unstoppable

When Pauline Marois is sworn in as premier of Quebec next week, 49 per cent of Canada's population will be served by women premiers. How cool is that?

Ms. Marois will join Christy Clark of British Columbia, Alison Redford of Alberta, Kathy Dunderdale of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Eva Aariak of Nunavut.

The rise of women in Canadian politics is unmistakable and unstoppable. In Alberta, Ms. Redford fended off another woman, Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Party, to win the provincial election earlier this year. In the July contest for National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, half the candidates were women and a woman, Pamela Palmater, came in second to the heavily-favoured incumbent, Shawn Atleo.

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When premiers tussled over a national energy strategy at the Council of the Federation, Ms. Redford confronted Ms. Clark, with Ms. Dunderdale trying to calm the waters. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, whose province also has oil, was the token male in the debate.

Quebec, Manitoba, British Columbia and Yukon have all broached the 30-per-cent mark for female representation in their current legislatures. (Yukon leads with 37 per cent.)

At the federal level, the last election brought female representation in Parliament up to 25 per cent for the first time, thanks in part to the large number of NDP women candidates who won in Quebec, many to their own surprise. Thirty-nine per cent of the NDP caucus are women; 100 per cent of the Green caucus is, in the form of Leader Elizabeth May.

Twenty-five-per-cent representation by women in the House is still well below that of many other developed nations. But it does raise an interesting question: Since Canadian parliaments are still dominated so heavily by men, with a relatively small pool of women, why are there so many women premiers?

If there is a social scientist who has come up with a researched theory, this writer has yet to hear of it. But Nancy Peckford has a pretty good off-the-cuff explanation.

It still isn't easy being a woman politician, observes the executive director of Equal Voice, which advocates for more women in politics. Many must juggle family demands that men aren't expected to meet; they are likely to have lower incomes than men and thus fewer resources; there probably are still some voters who are disinclined to put a woman in charge.

"The challenges to becoming a candidate and succeeding on the ground are huge," Ms. Peckford said in an interview. "But the ones who make it into that pool are incredibly strong and very adept and quite committed to succeeding," making them more likely than some of their male counterparts to strive for the leadership itself.

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It's an intriguing notion. Who knows if it's true? To any graduate student who's still casting around for a thesis topic – there you go.

Whatever the reason for how they got there, for the next few months, at least, about half of us will have a woman for a provincial first minister. The situation is likely to end when British Columbia goes to the polls in the spring. The odds of Ms. Clark prevailing against NDP Leader Adrian Dix are long.

But then Dalton McGuinty's minority government in Ontario is living on borrowed time. And the NDP, led by Andrea Horwath, won a by-election last week in what had been a safe Tory seat.

Lose B.C. and gain Ontario, and the percentage of Canadians served by women premiers climbs to 75 per cent.

The march continues.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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