Politics

The only female premier left in office is N.W.T.'s Caroline Cochrane

Only a few short years ago almost half of Canada’s provinces and territories had a female premier, today that is down to just one; the Northwest Territories’ Caroline Cochrane. It is a state of affairs that former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne told CBC she views as a disappointment.

'I think that it's very problematic and I hope that it's not the case for long,' says Kathleen Wynne

Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane says she's focused on forming strong working relationships with other premiers. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Only a few short years ago, almost half of Canada's provincial and territorial governments were led by women. Today, there's only one: Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane.

It's a state of affairs that former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne calls disappointing — because it means Canada's first ministers collectively don't reflect the Canadian electorate.

"I think it can't be balanced when there's one woman and 12 men," she said. "I think that the issues that are discussed ... at a decision making table are different when there is a critical mass of women. And so, I think there will be gaps.

"I think that it's very problematic and I hope that it's not the case for long."

Cochrane became premier of the Northwest Territories in October. Being Métis and a twenty-year veteran of social work taught her how to deal with being in the minority, she said.

"I didn't feel any difference actually walking [into the premier's meeting] as the only female," she said. "I think the better question would be to ask the men how it felt to have the only woman walk into the room."

Cochrane said that she found the other premiers "very respectful" and "very alert" to what she was saying at the recent premiers meeting in Toronto.

"I came to the table looking at not only what we could do for the North but also what the North can do for the rest of Canada," she said.

Changing times

Back in 2013, Canada had six female premiers: Kathy Dunderdale in Newfoundland and Labrador; Christy Clark in B.C.; Eva Aariak in Nunavut; Pauline Marois in Quebec; Alison Redford in Alberta and Wynne in Ontario. 

Wynne told CBC News that it might be too much to expect Cochrane to fulfil the dual roles of representing her constituents and being the voice for women at the premiers' table.

"I think Caroline Cochrane will have a very hard role to play as the new premier of the Northwest Territories," she said. "Because she will be carrying the load of representing her own constituency and the North, but she will also be turned to, I'm sure on occasion, to speak for all women. And she can't do that. None of us can."

Cochrane said she wants to get things done by building strong relationships with Canada's premiers. 

A blip or a trend

As an example, she cited her support for a request by Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador for an update to the fiscal stabilization program, which provides financial assistance to provinces during economic downturns — even though the Northwest Territories is funded through a different model.

The federal program provides financial assistance to provinces facing a year-over-year decline in non-resource revenues greater than five per cent. The maximum a province can receive under the program is $60 per person.

Cochrane said that she used to be a "burn-the-bra, hold a picket sign" advocate for the political issues that matter most to her, but she's changed her approach.

"I learned very quickly that all that did was build up walls. So now that I'm getting older … I've learned that, that is the last recourse that I should be using," Cochrane said.

Ann Decter of the Canadian Women's Foundation told CBC that the reduction in the number of female premiers in recent provincial elections is probably more of a blip than a trend.

"I really think it came out of a shift in politics at the provincial level in contradiction to a progressive federal government," she said. "But ... history doesn't evolve in a straightforward way. You go a little forward, then you go a little bit back."

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