With no more women premiers, the landscape of leadership has changed

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, April 21, 2019. 

There were six women sitting at the table as first ministers when Ontario hosted the summer meeting of the Council of the Federation in 2013, steering the way forward on Canada’s biggest immediate and long-term challenges.

Today, there are none.

The council of premiers back then took a collaborative approach to infrastructure investments, trade policy, skills training, strategy surrounding energy, affordable housing, health care and cyber bullying. At the time, between Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Nunavut, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Alberta, women first ministers led 87 per cent of Canadians.

Today, with not one woman at the table, Canadian premiers are working together to combat federal plans to address climate change with legal challenges and questionable, taxpayer funded marketing campaigns. And where infrastructure was once the priority, Ontario is working to slow down much needed community infrastructure projects that are led by the federal government.

The defeat of NDP leader Rachel Notley in the Alberta provincial election this past week — and the losses of her women colleagues who sat around the table in 2013 — represents a stark shift in the landscape of leadership among first minister posts in Canada.

This is exactly what Kate Graham explores in the Canada 2020 podcast No Second Chances. Graham, a senior fellow with Canada 2020 uses her research background in Canadian politics, local government, urban politics and public policy to explore the circumstances surrounding women as they take on first minister leadership posts.

Graham notes, “In 2019, why don’t we see more women in Canada’s most senior political roles? No Second Chances is an important opportunity to dig into this very question — starting with discussions with the few women who have been there. There is much we can learn about Canadian politics, and about us as Canadians, through this project — and it couldn’t come at a more crucial time.”

In total, 12 women from all sides of the political spectrum have served in the position of leader for a governing provincial, territorial, or federal political party in Canada. This list includes Rita Johnston, Nellie Cournoyea, Catherine Callbeck, Pat Duncan, Eva Aariak, Kathy Dunderdale, Christie Clark, Alison Redford, Pauline Marois, Kathleen Wynne, Rachel Notley and Kim Campbell.

The Canada 2020 podcast analyzes their experiences from multiple angles, including the unique challenges they faced in governing as women leaders, why they ran, the support they leaned on in the process, and even the family and community conditions that cultivated leadership skills in them from childhood.

The women will be coming together in person for the first time at an event in Ottawa on June 12.

The No Second Chances project is an important piece to the puzzle in understanding the challenges that have faced women in first minister roles and while seeking re-election, and yet there is still far to go in evaluating and breaking down the additional barriers in place that keep women from more diverse backgrounds from these leadership roles.

We can each take an active role in encouraging and supporting women in political leadership and building up new generations of young women leaders, who hopefully won’t be limited in the same ways.

There is a speech delivered by television writer Shonda Rhimes at the Women in Entertainment breakfast in 2014 that captures what is gained when women blaze leadership trails:

“Think of them. Heads up, eyes on the target. Running. Full speed. Gravity be damned. Towards that thick layer of glass that is the ceiling … How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice? So that when it was my turn to run, it didn’t even look like a ceiling anymore.

“My sisters who went before me had already handled it. No cuts. No bruises. No bleeding. Making it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints.”

Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @goocht