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What difference does a female premier make?

The Ottawa Citizen by Nancy Peckford and Raylene Lang-Dion 25 July 2013

Once upon a time, all a woman had to do to stand out in the crowd of Canadian premiers was to sport a red jacket or a skirt. Now that female leaders constitute half of the exclusive club membership, the salient question has become not what is she wearing, but what difference will all that female energy make?

Notably, the six women present at this year’s annual premiers’ gathering represent very different political parties, have remarkably diverse life experiences and are at different ages and stages of their lives.

Four of them have won solid mandates in general elections.

Two of the six premiers, Pauline Marois and Christy Clark, made history early in their careers by giving birth while holding public office. Pauline Marois was seven months pregnant in 1981 when she decided to contest — and win — the nomination in her riding and the general election just weeks later. Alison Redford travelled the world as a technical adviser on constitutional and legal reform issues in Africa and eastern Europe before returning to Alberta.

Perhaps then it is not surprising to learn that as minister, Premier Marois introduced Canada’s only universal daycare program for families in Quebec. Or that Alison Redford, recognizing the role of non-governmental groups in strengthening democracies, committed to establishing a ministry that would specifically respond to the needs of not-for-profit groups in her province.

And that Clark, who got an early start in student politics, ran on a families-first agenda in her bid for leader.

At the same time, women are not uniform in their approach to policy. Premier Kathy Dunderdale of Newfoundland and Labrador, who was integral to her husband’s business before entering politics, was recognized by the Fraser Institute in December 2012 as the best fiscal performer among Canada’s premiers. Due to declining oil revenues, she has implemented a series of fiscal restraints in the province after years of growth.

Premier Eva Aariak of Nunavut, who served as the territory’s first language commissioner and made history by ensuring that Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun would become primary languages of the territorial government, has governed with an extremely steady hand since 2008.

Chosen by her peers in the legislature, she is one of only three women, and has spearheaded a major poverty reduction initiative in addition to reshaping her government to be more responsive and attuned to the needs of the citizens of this nascent territory.

Premier Kathleen Wynne has been heavily influenced by her own experience as a community activist and school board trustee. While minister of education, she oversaw the conception and implementation of Ontario’s innovative, not to mention ambitious, full-day kindergarten program.

However, it is Marois, the oldest and most seasoned among them, who is truly an impressive force. Before becoming leader of the Parti Québécois, she had served as minister in 15 portfolios, the only politician to ever do so. She is the only Quebec minister to have ever held the three pillars of government: finance, education and health. Despite her extremely impressive tenure with successive PQ governments, in 2005 she lost her bid for leader of the party to a much less seasoned contender, André Boisclair. Two years later, Boisclair resigned and she was acclaimed in the PQ’s leadership race.

Notably, Redford and Clark also ran leadership campaigns from behind — and only won their titles on the third ballots. When Aariak was elected in 2008, she was the only woman among her 17 peers.

And perhaps that is the biggest difference. None of these women take their political achievements for granted. They have had to work very hard, sometimes unfairly so, to win the respect of their colleagues and their electorates. Each of them is acutely aware that they are making history in politics and that their success has not come easily. They know only too well that the citizens of this country are counting on them to govern well and govern wisely.

Equal Voice is optimistic that their tenure will underscore that there is no going back. That women, among other under-represented groups, need to be well represented at every decision-making table. It should also reinforce the notion that if you are a woman but don’t wish to be the candidate, as a Canadian, woman or man, you can certainly support and celebrate women who are seeking and serving in elected office.

These changes can only serve to enrich the conversation and our democratic institutions themselves.

For a nation that is increasingly disconnected from politics, this would be a very good thing.

Equal Voice is a national, multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women. Nancy Peckford, Executive Director and Raylene Lang-Dion, EV’s National Chair, both happen to hail from Newfoundland and Labrador where politics runs in the blood.