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Opinion Why has Canada had so few female first ministers?

Out of office: Rachel Notley.

The Globe and Mail, source image: The Canadian Press

Elizabeth Renzetti is a Globe and Mail columnist. Her latest book is Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls.

Recently, Kate Graham was in the midst of a video shoot with a group of little girls. Dr. Graham is a political scientist at Western University, former candidate for the Ontario provincial Liberals, and creator of a project called No Second Chances, which looks at the lack of women at the top of Canadian politics. The little girls were shown a group picture of Canada’s premiers, and asked if they noticed anything.

They all did. “There’s only one girl.”

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At least there was one girl at that point – Alberta’s NDP premier, Rachel Notley. If they were asked the same question today, there would be none, since Ms. Notley’s government was defeated by Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party last week. For a brief period in early 2014, about 88 per cent of Canadians, some 31 million people, lived in a jurisdiction with a female premier – Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta and Newfoundland. Now zero people do. It is an omission so glaring that even five-year-olds can tell something’s wrong.

At a first ministers meeting in Montreal last December, Rachel Notley of Alberta was the only woman out of all the leaders on hand. "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu," former prime minister Kim Campbell says.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

The kids immediately knew what the problem was with the picture, Dr. Graham said. “They have an intuitive sense of fairness, if you tell them there are 10 people on the team, then ask how many should be boys and how many should be girls. It’s heartbreaking to watch a five-year-old girl see the people who are in charge of Canada, our provinces and territories.” The message was clear.

It was one that Rachel Notley echoed when she gave her concession speech: “To every girl and every young woman watching tonight, I believe in you and never stop believing in yourself. I hope we have shown you that in your life anything is possible. Sometimes it can feel like you take two steps forward and then one step back, but may you never, ever stop taking those steps forward.”

It’s understandable that girls might feel discouraged at this particular point. Shouldn’t adults exhibit at least a fraction of the concern of five-year-olds? Does it matter that this country has only had 12 female first ministers in its history (that’s premiers and prime ministers), about 4 per cent of the total? Shouldn’t it be concerning that none of those first ministers – not one – has led her party to a successful re-election? (Although B.C.'s Christy Clark did win her subsequent 2017 election, her minority Liberal government fell in just 52 days after losing a confidence vote.) That we have never elected a female prime minister? That Elizabeth May of the Green Party is the only federal party leader who’s a woman?

The short answer is yes, and the reasons are long. For one thing, diversity – in gender, race, socioeconomic background and age – provides better decision-making, a crucial matter when developing public policy. For another, young women who want to go into political life need to see themselves represented there, to understand that the premier’s office is open to them. And, finally, women’s participation in political leadership roles means that they bring their particular knowledge and lived insight to policy that affects half the population – and benefits everyone.

Wait, there’s a pithier way to express that: “There’s a reason why women’s political power is so important. You have to be at the table making decisions, because otherwise you’re screwed. If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” So said Kim Campbell, Canada’s first – and to date only – female prime minister, over the phone from her home in Vancouver this week. Ms. Campbell took the reins of the Progressive Conservative party from Brian Mulroney, whose approval ratings hovered in the low teens. She governed for 132 days, and when the smoke cleared after the election of Oct. 25, 1993, only two Conservative MPs were left standing – or sitting, really, since they were the only ones to hold onto their seats.

“Realistically it was not a winnable election,” said Ms. Campbell, who lost her seat. “I worried that it might create a problem for women in the future.”

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In the intervening 26-year, female-prime-minister drought, Ms. Campbell has studied the challenges of female political leadership. Seeking and keeping power as a woman “is a two-edged sword,” she said. “If you’re too strong, you run afoul of people’s vision of what a woman should be. And yet, if you’re not tough enough people think you’re not up the task of leading.”

Ms. Campbell is a classic example of what is known as the “glass cliff” theory of leadership, or, as University of Toronto political scientist Sylvia Bashevkin calls it, “imperiled leadership.” That is, a party is more likely to choose a woman to be its leader when it’s in decline or crisis. In a new book she’s edited, Doing Politics Differently? Women Premiers in Canada’s Provinces and Territories, Dr. Bashevkin identifies five premiers as imperiled: Rita Johnston, who became Canada’s first female premier when she took over Bill Vander Zalm’s scandal-plagued Social Credit government in British Columbia in 1991; the governments of Liberal Dalton McGuinty in Ontario and Conservative Ed Stelmach in Alberta were controversial and losing popularity, too, before Kathleen Wynne and Alison Redford took over those posts. Ms. Clark faced a similar situation in British Columbia, winning leadership of the provincial Liberals after Gordon Campbell resigned in 2011. In 2007, Pauline Marois won an uncontested race for the leadership of the Parti Québécois (her third bid) after the party finished third in Quebec’s election.

Political parties that feel like they have lost any chance of winning an election may take a longshot bet on a woman leader, hoping that dramatic change will help their fortunes. Conversely, a party that thinks it has a chance at electoral victory is much less likely to choose a woman as its leader.

Ms. Notley qualifies as a “pioneering” leader, according to Dr. Bashevkin, because she led an insurgent party out of the political wilderness in exceptional circumstances: When her NDP government won a majority in 2015, the conservative opposition was divided and the oil-patch economy in a rut. While Ms. Notley maintained high personal popularity, and pushed through a progressive social agenda while also fighting for pipelines, it still wasn’t enough: Like the other premiers before her, she fell at re-election.

Perhaps, as many commentators have insisted, it was all about Alberta’s gloomy economy. But for Dr. Bashevkin, there is a more complex and gendered dynamic at work. “A lot of people are drawn to the comfort of the past,” she said. “Once you have a woman leader of a progressive party in a place like Alberta, where the push is for a nostalgia, she represents something new and maybe unsettling. And the man, the white guy leading the party of the right, is very much the representative of nostalgia, much like Trump in the U.S. or other right-wing leaders who are trying to go back to some great, often imagined past.”

Dr. Bashevkin points to the research of fellow political scientist Melanee Thomas at the University of Calgary that suggests as many as 20 per cent of Canadians just aren’t comfortable with women as political leaders. This is the dichotomy: People will tell pollsters that they’re fine with women in leadership roles. And when votes are tallied, male and female candidates come out about equally. So people are generally happy voting for women candidates, when they can find them. But as leaders? Not so much.

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The subject of that research, Dr. Thomas said when I called her in Calgary, was to get at that tricky question: “How many people were lying to us?” How many people held views that were hostile to the very idea of female political leadership? In the United States, the research showed, it was about 10 per cent; in Canada, it was 20 per cent. Interestingly, there was no ideological component to the belief; people on the left were as likely to hold this view as people on the right. (Men, perhaps not surprisingly, were more likely to be in the no-ladies camp.)

“To be a bit salty about it,” Dr. Thomas said, “this is like the bro-cialist we all know who claims to be a good feminist, but when it all comes down to it he really thinks that men are naturally better leaders than women.’’

The subject of women’s political leadership in this country is like an intricate carpet in which patterns can be discerned if you step way back. It’s just that we are not very good at recognizing either the pattern, or our part in weaving it. This is what Dr. Graham found, both as a political scientist and as a candidate in last year’s Ontario election. She was running for the Liberals in the riding of London North Centre, in the province’s southwest, and she noticed an odd thing as she knocked on doors. People said cruel things about then-premier Kathleen Wynne, sometimes in a gendered or homophobic way. But when Dr. Graham asked them to explain their displeasure, they couldn’t articulate it.

Out of office: Kathleen Wynne.

PHOTO iLLUSTRATION: BRYAN GEE/The Globe and Mail, source image: The Canadian Press

After Dr. Graham lost her race in the larger collapse of Ms. Wynne’s government, she sat down to see if she could figure out the patterns. And there they were: Women political leaders in Canada last, on average, 1,000 days, whereas men average 2,000. There had only been 12 female first ministers in Canada’s history, and 10 of them were white (two premiers were Indigenous women: Nellie Cournoyea of Northwest Territories and Eva Aariak of Nunavut.) And Canada’s three-most populous provinces, Ontario, Quebec and B.C., have each only elected one female premier in their history.

The realization hit Dr. Graham hard. According to the country’s myths of tolerance and inclusion we were in one place, but reality pointed to another. “How can it be, in a place like Canada, that no one except for straight white men appear able to succeed at leadership?”

To understand the challenges that women face as political leaders, the particular pleasures and burdens of being the first and sometimes the only, Dr. Graham went to talk to them. Over several months, she visited all the former first ministers at their homes (with the exception of Ms. Johnston, who has health problems, and Ms. Marois, who has so far declined to be interviewed.)

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The result is No Second Chances, a project of the Canada 2020 think tank. In June, most of the former first ministers will gather in Ottawa – the first time they’ve all been together in one place. In the meantime, Dr. Graham has gathered their stories in a podcast: What were their ambitions as girls? Which voices encouraged them, and which told them to sit down? When she asked them why they entered public life in the first place, they all said the same thing: to make a difference.

Some of the issues they discuss are familiar to any woman who runs for office – the self-doubt, the criticism from outside about family, about clothing and hair and makeup – but some of it is particular to women leaders. Horrible insults and threats of physical violence are something that female leaders have to endure more than men, particularly in the age of social media. Ms. Notley, for example, has been subject to more threats of physical violence than her two male predecessors combined, according to reporting from Postmedia.

As Rona Ambrose, former interim leader of the federal Conservative Party, said in the first episode of the podcast, “Any woman who goes into politics in Canada experiences a huge amount of sexism. I’ve had death threats, I’ve had people say I should be raped. That’s the reality.”

Out of office: Christy Clark.

The Globe and Mail, source image: The Canadian Press

Or, as Ms. Clark, former premier of British Columbia, put it in a later episode: “We are the betrayer, we are the cheater, we are the adulteress, we are the witch. We are, you know, all of those archetypes kind of boiled down to the way people talk about women in politics. And, you know, Kathleen Wynne got it. Alison Redford got it. I got it.”

There is also the double-edged sword, to use Ms. Campbell’s expression, of being the first: The joy of it, but also the crushing realization that defeat means something symbolic to women who are watching you. As Ms. Campbell said in our interview, “I meet a lot of women who say, ‘I was eight when you were prime minister, or I was in university, and it made such a difference to me.’ And I must say that makes me feel good, because I wondered if, having been defeated, that would have disappointed them. But they don’t say that. They say it was it was so exciting to see a woman as prime minister.”

This, of course, is the downside. But these are also fiercely accomplished women, path-breakers and pioneers deserving of celebration. “They were all master strategists,” Dr. Thomas said, to be able to succeed in a system that was not set up in their favour, and which proved obstinately difficult to change once they were in power.

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They also provide a model for the way forward. There are any number of institutional barriers still standing in the way, especially for women from marginalized communities, but there’s also the spirit of risk and reward to light the way. The female ministers who came first learned to campaign and build alliances, bide their time and finally seize the opportunity. As Dr. Thomas said, “If you want to do this, you just do it. Look at it as a structural constraint and organize your way out of it.”

It may be the very absence of women in leadership roles that acts as a spark. As Dr. Bashevkin said, “Sometimes it’s the lack of women on the stage that propels people to action. Think of all the debates around the Meech Lake Accord, where you had 11 white men in a room. That charged up a lot of people.”

There’s a picture of Canada that exists as an ideal, and another that exists as reality. Maybe they’ll match, by the time those little girls are old enough to vote – and run for office.

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