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What Alison Redford's Alberta victory means for women in politics

Newly-elected Alberta PC Leader and premier-designate Alison Redford holds a news conference in Edmonton on Oct. 2, 2011.


So much for the old boy's club.

Alison Redford prevailed this weekend, becoming premier-designate after surprising pundits and her fellow politicians by winning the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party. This after the boys in her caucus threw their support behind her main male competitor, Gary Mar.

With her victory, Ms. Redford becomes the fourth female premier – a first for Canada – and yet another woman leader in a country always dominated by male politicians.

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There's Premier Christy Clark in British Columbia; Kathy Dunderdale in Newfoundland and Labrador, who is facing the electorate on Oct. 11 but is expected to win; and Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak. There's also Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel, who heads the Official Opposition in Parliament, and Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who could be playing the role of kingmaker after Thursday's election in that province.

Equal Voice, the national organization promoting elected women, is celebrating.

"It just can't not change how people relate to politics and that's what significant about this," Equal Voice executive director Nancy Peckford told The Globe, reacting to Ms. Redford's victory.

But what's behind all this? How did Canada suddenly find itself with a critical mass of women leaders?

"My sense is that Redford won on the basis of a smartly run campaign designed to appeal to women and those who care about issues that matter to many," Ms. Peckford said. "I think Redford's personal tenacity in terms of losing her mother the day before the debate and then coming out with a very strong performance is also quite appealing. It exudes such strength and humanity – not unlike [late NDP leader Jack]Layton in certain ways – so not exclusive to women but perhaps more apparent among women)."

Ms. Peckford sees the election of women leaders, in part, as a repudiation of an increasingly aggressive culture of politics. Federally, at least, the last seven years of highly-partisan minority governments have shown the ugly side of politics – and it's mostly been played out by men.

"Certainly women may be growing tired of not only the face of politics but the style of politics that has prevailed," she said. "I think there has been some fatigue, absolutely, and women are regarded in certain ways as bringing a different perspective and embodying a certain dynamism that is really refreshing."

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Ms. Peckford, however, is still cautious about the recent gains women have made in politics. She noted that Ms. Clark, Ms. Redford and Ms. Dunderdale have all been elected by their parties – but have not yet faced the electorate.

Nonetheless "we are on our way," she said, arguing these leadership races "demonstrate an appetite on the part of the Canadian public to very seriously consider women as quite viable contenders."

She said none of her organization's polling data indicates any hostility toward women becoming politicians. The problem was that women needed to gain the confidence – something she sees in Ms. Redford – to campaign as winners.

Federal politics, meanwhile, is a more challenging platform. Ms. Peckford noted that Ms. Turmel is only acting leader and that so far not one woman has stepped forward to run for the NDP leadership.

And what about the front bench of Stephen Harper's Conservative government? There is not one senior female cabinet minister.

Ms. Peckford is optimistic this will change over the next four years. She is encouraged by the fact the Prime Minister has appointed "newer or emerging" women as parliamentary secretaries. In fact, nearly 30 per cent of them are women.

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"We know Harper is cautious. He tends to surround himself with people he trusts," she said. "... But I think you're going to see with time there are some good women in the wings and they haven't quite made it to centre stage."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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