February 8, 2013

Women rule across Canada

Peter Black, Canadian Dispatch

---- — Last week, the woman who could quite reasonably be described as the most powerful on the planet (and your former senator) took her leave from government — for now.

Across the great lake that the state of New York and province of Ontario share, a woman in a comparable position in the Canadian scheme of things was taking center stage.

Kathleen Wynne would probably never put herself in the same league as Hillary Clinton in terms of political or life experience. Yet when she is sworn in Monday as premier of Canada’s most populous and prosperous province, Wynne will be making what some might call a Clintonesque statement for women in Canada.

Wynne, who turns 60 in May, will not only be the first female premier of Ontario’s 13 million souls, she will be the first one who is openly gay. She won the race to replace premier Dalton McGuinty as leader of the Ontario Liberal party by a comfortable margin, beating another super-achiever woman.

Pundits say Wynne will probably face a general election in the spring. As she said in her victory speech, winning the leadership was “the easy part.”

The Liberals have been in power for nine years and won a minority government in the fall of 2011. In that vote, the Liberals lost ground in some of their traditional, non-urban territory. Whether Wynne, an unabashed Torontonian — the big city that the rest of the province allegedly loathes — can regain that turf may well be the key to the next vote, not her gender or sexual preference.

So it may be the T-word not the L-word that is Wynne’s biggest challenge.

Wynne, who came out when she was 37, dumping her husband with whom she had three children, is legally remarried with Jane Rounthwaite, a consultant for not-for-profit organizations. Her elected career started with the Toronto School Board, then Wynne became involved in the municipal scene. She first ran for the Ontario legislature in 2003, defeating a popular cabinet minister on the Liberals rise to power.

McGuinty was reportedly impressed with Wynne’s competence and enthusiasm and gave her a series of important portfolios, from education to transportation to municipal affairs. When the time came to replace the premier, Wynne had solid support from the Liberal caucus and the party grassroots.

When she takes office next week, Wynne joins four other woman premiers who rule a combined 29 million of Canada’s 33 million total population. (By my count, there are woman governors in five U.S. states, the most populous being Arizona.)

Quebec’s Pauline Marois won a minority government in September for her separatist Parti Quebecois; Alison Redford, a conservative, won a majority in Alberta about a year ago, beating another woman; Conservative Kathy Dunderdale won a majority in Newfoundland and Labrador in October, 2011; and in the Inuit territory of Nunavik, Eva Aariak has been premier since 2008.

Meanwhile, in British Columbia, Canada’s third most populous province, Liberal Premier Christy Clark is thought to be in a hard fight to win her first elected mandate after securing the party leadership two years ago. With an election slated for May, polls show her trailing the leftist New Democratic Party.

As is the case for the United States, Canada is yet to elect a woman to the top political job. Twenty years ago, Kim Campbell succeeded Brian Mulroney as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and prime minister. But the government she headed was doomed in the polls, and she led the party to an historic defeat. Her term as prime minister was all of four months.

With none of the major federal parties having a woman leader on the horizon — although four long-shots are running for the Liberal leadership — it may be quite some time before Canada joins Germany, Denmark, Australia, Argentina, Liberia, Brazil, Thailand and a host of other countries in electing its first female chief executive.

Indeed, it is not unthinkable that a certain former New York senator, secretary of state and first lady beats Canada to the female punch.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at