I got a very short, provocative email the other day from a former Ontario finance minister, whose privacy I will protect here, since it was a personal note that he sent. He was responding to a piece I’d just written about what it’ll take to get more women into politics. His note simply said: “Why?”
I inferred from this that he wanted to know why we needed more women in politics. What possible difference could it make? Isn’t it more important to have the “best people” in public life, regardless of gender?
All great questions. Fortunately (and coincidentally), I had just watched a Zoom conversation, organized by Ryerson University’s Democracy Forum, featuring two of the most trailblazing women ever to serve in politics in Canada. So, to that former finance minister who emailed me, here comes your answer.
Kathleen Wynne and Rachel Notley both made history in their respective provinces during the past decade. Wynne became Ontario’s first female premier in 2013 and won a majority government in 2014. She was also the province’s first openly gay premier. In 2015, Notley became the first New Democrat to inhabit the premier’s office in Alberta. She learned her politics from her late father Grant, Alberta’s NDP leader from 1968 to 1984. Notley did her first campaigning as a child of three and a half and has a picture of herself on Tommy Douglas’s knee. (As a young girl, she famously once told federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent, “You have that same fake politician smile as my father.”)
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It seems both women inherited their partisan stripes from their parents’ generation. Wynne came from a Liberal family, and even in Grade 8 at McConaghy Public School in Richmond Hill, her colours were on display. At mock Parliament, there were 30 Conservatives, four Liberals, and one New Democrat. Wynne was one of the Liberals. Even then.
Five years ago, Wynne and Notley were two of six female premiers in Canada. That’s right: for the first time ever, the majority of the country’s premiers were female. They also represented the vast majority of Canada’s population, as they were serving in the biggest provinces (Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta).
And then the wheel turned. Within a few years, there’d be none. Today, there’s one (Caroline Cochrane in the Northwest Territories).
Did having more women in the premier’s offices of the country make a difference?
“It certainly did change the tone,” said Notley. “There’s a different tone when men replace women, especially if they don’t see elevating women as an important part of their approach.”
Notley added that women leaders are more willing to listen to contrary views — for example, around the cabinet table. “They don’t walk in with a pre-set view that they need to defend,” she said.
For her part, Wynne pointed to a Council of the Federation meeting (essentially, all the premiers) in 2013 at Niagara-on-the-Lake as all the proof you need that women in politics do things differently and achieve different outcomes. The issue of the Conservative federal government’s unwillingness to call a public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women had come up for discussion.
“I can tell you categorically, it was the women at the table who structured the discussion so the men had to agree to support it,” Wynne said. “There was some shifting in their chairs, but they had to go along.”
She added: “It’s just very clear that, when there’s a critical mass of women at the table, it means different issues get discussed, and there’s a different commitment to substance.”
Wynne is adamant that most women get into politics to advance a cause, whereas men look to wield authority or exercise power. Her first foray into politics was half a century ago, when she tried to convince her high school in Richmond Hill to repeal a ban on girls wearing pants. Later, after having kids of her own, she became an educational activist, which led her to run for school-board trustee and eventually Queen’s Park. She’s still the MPP for Don Valley West, although she’s announced she will serve out this term, and that’ll be it.
“When you have 50 per cent women at the cabinet table or in caucus, you talk about different issues and solve them in a different way,” Wynne insisted.
“It also sends an important signal,” added Notley. “It says we’re going to make sure that women, who are half the population, are also half the decision makers.”
Both women have also bemoaned the fact that, for much of the public, political leadership still has to look big and strong. Wynne has mentioned in the past how hard it was to project a presence of strong leadership when she campaigned in the 2018 election against Doug Ford, who physically is just much bigger than she is.
“We’ve got to change the criteria of what a good leader looks like,” Notley said. “And, left to their own devices, all political parties will leave women behind. Even my party operates in a very combative, partisan field. It makes it harder for women to participate fully.”
Wynne even fessed up to the fact that, when she was premier, she’d drop a curse word “strategically” every now and then to project a more traditional sense of strength.
“I may not be one of the boys, but I know how to hold my own,” she joked.
“I swear excessively,” added Notley, to bigger laughs.
Notley, meanwhile, is still leader of the opposition in Alberta and hopes to get back into the premier’s office. She still has a chance to break one of the worst curses in Canadian political history: no female first minister has ever been re-elected. Notley’s NDP is currently seven points up on the governing United Conservative Party. “I’d like to break that pattern,” she said.
There’s been considerable debate as to why, so far, no women leaders have been able to do it. Some say the barriers to winning and getting re-elected are bigger for women. Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn, who moderated the session, suggested that “women only get a chance to be leader at the end of a dynasty. As men run for cover, women step up. They’re braver. They get an opportunity to become leader because often the best men won’t run.”
“That’s why the odds are stacked against us,” added Wynne. “So, Rachel, no pressure, but it’s all on you.”
So, to the former Ontario finance minister who wrote me the shortest email I’ve ever received, I hope this answers your question.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated which school former premier Kathleen Wynne attended for Grade 8. TVO.org regrets the error.