The selection this weekend of either Sandra Pupatello or Kathleen Wynne to lead Ontario would put women in charge of provincial governments overseeing about 90 percent of Canada’s economy and population.
Pupatello and Wynne are front-runners in the race to replace Dalton McGuinty as head of the Liberal Party and premier of Canada’s most-populous province. A victory for either at the convention in Toronto tomorrow would mean that women would lead half of Canada’s 10 provincial governments, including the four biggest.
The ascent of women to power in Canada’s provinces has been sudden in a country that still lags others in female representation at the national level. About one-quarter of Canada’s federal parliamentarians are women, ranking it 47th globally, according to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
“Canada has traditionally been way behind all sorts of other countries in terms of the percentage, the number of women in politics, and it’s been hard to explain,” said Martha Hall Findlay, a former member of the national legislature who is seeking the leadership of the federal Liberal Party. “Clearly, recently, we’ve made huge strides at the provincial level.”
With the addition of Ontario, about 88 percent of Canadians would be living in provinces run by women. In Quebec, the French-speaking region with about 24 percent of the population, Pauline Marois, 63, of the Parti Quebecois party took power in the Sept. 4 election. In Alberta, the Western province that’s home to the country’s booming oil industry, Conservative Alison Redford, 47, became leader in October, 2011 and won an election six months later. And in British Columbia, Liberal Christy Clark, 47, took over from Gordon Campbell as premier in 2011.
In the U.S., about 18 percent of Congress is female, including 20 senators. That puts the U.S. tied for 82nd on the Inter-Parliamentary Union list, along with Morocco and Venezuela. Five of the 50 U.S. states have female governors -- four Republicans and one Democrat. Only 35 women in American history have run states.
Of the delegates that were elected earlier this month to vote at the Liberal convention, 27 percent have committed to Pupatello, a former Ontario legislator from Windsor. Wynne, a lawmaker from Toronto who held four cabinet positions under McGuinty, was second with 25 percent of delegates committed to her campaign. Voting will start tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. Toronto time. If no candidate gets majority support, balloting will continue with the least-popular candidates dropping off subsequent rounds until one has more than 50 percent of the votes. There are six people in the race.
“I’m sure we’re going to have a woman premier here,” said Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto associate professor of political science, adding he thinks Pupatello will win. “The advance has been remarkably quick” for women in provincial politics, he said.
Canada’s first female premier took power in 1991, when Rita Johnston won the leadership of the governing Social Credit Party in British Columbia only to be defeated in an election five months later.
Catharine Callbeck became the first woman to be elected premier in 1993 when her Liberals won power in Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province.
The next woman to be elected provincial premier was Conservative Kathy Dunderdale of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2010. Since then, Clark, Redford and Marois have joined her in the group of female leaders, along with Eva Aariak, who heads the non-partisan government of Nunavut, one of three territories in Canada’s north.
“I do still find it a little bit of an anomaly that in Canada I’m considered to be an anomaly,” said Redford, Conservative premier of oil-rich Alberta, in a Nov. 19 speech in Ottawa. “Women do truly bring unique perspectives.”
If the Ontario Liberals choose Pupatello or Wynne, women will be in charge of governments overseeing economies that produced C$1.35 trillion ($1.35 trillion) in output last year, more than 90 percent of the country’s total, according to Statistics Canada data.
Still, some of Canada’s female premiers have a tenuous hold on power. The next Liberal leader in Ontario will take over a government with a minority of seats in the legislature, and will need opposition support to pass laws. Marois of the separatist Parti Quebecois also leads a minority government. British Columbia is scheduled to have elections in May and public opinion polls suggest Clark’s Liberals are trailing.
Hall Findlay, who is campaigning for the federal Liberal leadership for a second time after a failed bid in 2006, said she’s not concerned.
“We have every right to celebrate all the progress we make whenever we make it, partly because the more progress is made, the more it builds on itself,” she said. “In 2006, I had some sitting members of parliament actually say to me, ‘We think you’re terrific but we just don’t think Canada is ready for a woman prime minister.’”
“There is no way in hell any of those would say that now,” she said.
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