OTTAWA—Most everyone knows who their premier is, but it wasn’t until this week, when they were all lined up together at the Council of the Federation in Saskatoon, that it really sunk in.
They’re all men.
You may have seen the photographs that put this in stark relief: the lot of them, an exclusive boys club for the first time since 2008, smiling like the alumni of a hockey team that no one cares to remember.
As many have pointed out, the vision of this band of men represents a very different class of premiers from just a few years ago. Here is the story of that change — you might say regression — told in a series of all-premiers’ photographs.
If the number of women at the first ministers’ table is a sign of approaching gender equality, then 2013 was a high water mark. Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne became the sixth female premier in the federation, after clinching the Liberal leadership and first minister’s chair after Dalton McGuinty resigned amidst a series of controversies. Capturing the flavour of the time, Wynne’s chief rival for the job, Sandra Pupatello, quipped about the contest: “We had the guys on the run.”
Remarking on the historic female presence at the head of governments across the country, the Star’s editorial board wrote that “it’s a remarkable and long overdue makeover in national politics.”
It wouldn’t last. By April of 2014, Alberta’s Alison Redford and Newfoundland’s Kathy Dunderdale had resigned, and Quebec’s separatist Parti Québécois premier Pauline Marois had fallen in an election. That left Wynne and B.C. premier Christy Clark as the lone women at the first ministers’ table.
“I worry it’s going to fuel the perception that women can’t hack it,” Janet Ecker, a cabinet minister in premier Mike Harris’s Ontario government, told the Star’s Linda Diebel at the time. “There’s no question we need more women in politics.”
The next two years saw the Liberal victory at the federal level, with the arrival of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “because it’s 2015” cabinet that, for the first time ever, included the same number of men and women in key government portfolios. It also saw the NDP’s Rachel Notley win power in Alberta. But the same period say Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency despite multiple accusations of sexual assault and audio of him bragging about groping women.
So while there were now three women in the premiers’ club — Notley, Wynne and Clark — the Star’s editorial board argued the prospects of gender equality seemed hampered by a slew of vitriol and outright harassment and threats thrown at female politicians on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
“Instead of women making gains in politics, it turned out to be a year of setbacks in which sexism and misogyny ruled in new and brutal ways,” the Star wrote in a year-end editorial. “Sadly, heartbreakingly, plus ça change.”
Some noted a trend. Female premiers were assuming leadership at the tail end of government dynasties, and facing headwinds that seemed to hurt their popularity more than that of their male counterparts. B.C.’s Clark lost her second election as Liberal leader to the NDP’s John Horgan, ending her party’s hold on provincial power that it had maintained since 2001.
Writing in the Star that July, political scientist Sylvia Bashevkin pointed out that “an array of women have come forward to lead under imperilled circumstances,” dating back to the first female premier in Canadian history, Rita Johnston, who assumed power in 1991 in the dying days of B.C.’s Social Credit government. This means that, not only do women win power less frequently than men in this country, they have also held it for shorter periods of time.
“They also have to deal with impatience in the governing party, among media commentators, and in the general public that in some cases pushes them quickly and unceremoniously off the public stage,” she wrote.
By 2018, the Star’s Bob Hepburn was asking: “Is there a misogyny issue in our politics?” Presaging Wynne’s defeat in June of that year, Hepburn noted that the Ontario leader’s already-low popularity was even lower among men, and that no female premier had ever led her party to power in subsequent elections.
His conclusion: “Women political leaders are held to a higher standard than their male counterparts, and … they pay a higher price for making mistakes.”
Notley was the lone female leader at the Council of the Federation that year.
Notley fell in April to her United Conservative challenger, Jason Kenney, and the sight of an all-male premiers’ cohort — an all-too familiar configuration that has existed for the overwhelming majority of Canadian history — had returned.
Writing in the Star, Tiffany Gooch, a Liberal strategist based in Toronto, sought lessons for the future.
“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,” she wrote.
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga