Ontario Liberal party leadership candidates Sandra Pupatello (left) and Kathleen Wynne. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)By Peter Mansbridge and Mark Bulgutch
This weekend the Ontario Liberal party is choosing a new leader. And because the party happens to be in power, the new leader will become Premier. The two front-runners are Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne. If one of them does win, Canadian politics will have reached a remarkable milestone. For the first time, half the Premiers will be women. And they'll be running five provinces with 87 per cent of Canada's population.
Maybe we've moved past the point where we should be making a big deal about this, or noting it at all. But a little more than two years ago, exactly 0 provinces with 0 per cent of the population had a woman as Premier. That's making up ground in a hurry. (Eva Aariak has run Nunavut for more than four years, but Nunavut is not a province.)
There are more women than men enrolled at Canadian universities, more women than men in our medical schools, dental schools, and in our law schools. And it's been that way for a while. But electoral politics has been a particularly harsh environment for women. A woman winning a political race is still the exception to the rule. But I remember a time when it seemed close to impossible. For that reason, a few women from the past stand out in my mind.
Ellen Fairclough was the first woman ever to sit in a federal cabinet. John Diefenbaker appointed her in 1957. I wasn't following politics just yet, but she became part of my life in 1959 when I became a Canadian. Fairclough was the minister of citizenship and immigration, and there's her signature on my certificate of Canadian citizenship. I still look at it from time to time.
The second woman in cabinet was Judy LaMarsh. She was Canada's minister of health from 1963 to 1965, which gave her a major role in developing the Canada Pension Plan and Medicare. My father was a senior public servant in those days and I remember several supper table stories about how tough she was; as competitive and combative as any male politician.
The whole country got a glimpse of what she was made of at the Liberal leadership convention in 1968. Pierre Trudeau had many Canadian women swooning at the time, but Judy LaMarsh was not among them. She supported Paul Hellyer at the convention. Hellyer was in third place after the second ballot, and LaMarsh could see that if Hellyer didn't drop out then and there to support Robert Winters who was in second place, Trudeau's victory was inevitable. LaMarsh took Hellyer aside and didn't sugar-coat her message, or her feelings about Trudeau. "You've got to go to Winters," she said. "Don't let that bastard win it, Paul--he isn't even a Liberal."
Alas, that remark was picked up by a CBC microphone, and when Trudeau won the leadership, LaMarsh's political career was over. "The Fearsome Foursome Honour Agnes" L.toR. Margaret Aiken, M.P.; Charlotte Whitton, Mayor of Wttawa; Hon. Cairine Wilson, Senator; Hon. Ellen Fairclough, Secretary of State in 1955. (Duncan Cameron/Canadian Press/National Archives of Canada)
I remember Charlotte Whitton very well. She was the first woman ever to serve as mayor of a major Canadian city - Ottawa. That was in 1951, before I lived there. But she was mayor as late as 1964. There aren't many Canadians living outside Ottawa today who could name the city's mayor. But Whitton was known from coast to coast to coast. She was a real firebrand. And she came up with what is still the best analysis of the burden a woman often carried as she moved into what was then considered a non-traditional field of work. "Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good." Then she added the zinger. "Luckily, this is not difficult."
I never met Whitton, but when I came back to Ottawa in 1976 as a CBC parliamentary reporter, I almost bought her old house.
In my first years covering Parliament Hill, one of the people to watch was Flora MacDonald. She was Canada's first female foreign minister (called the minister of state for external affairs back then). I was at the United Nations when she made her first speech there, expressing a theme close to her heart - the importance of protecting human rights.
Unfortunately MacDonald is also remembered as someone who was stabbed in the back when she ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives in 1976. She was the first serious female candidate for the leadership of one of the major parties. Though she had about 300 pledged delegates going in, only about 200 voted for her on the first ballot. That vanishing support became known as "Flora syndrome".
Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne are presumably inoculated against that syndrome, and one of them is likely to emerge from their convention as the premier of our biggest province. If you base it on statistics alone, half the provinces with women premiers is about right. But men never stopped when they had their "fair" share of things. And no reasonable person would want women to stop now. There's been a welcome change in our political culture from the days when 51% of the population had almost no chance to be elected to anything.