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Boys’ club: Where did the women premiers go?

If you saw photos from the premiers’ meeting held in Saskatoon last week, there was something that might have stuck out to you right away — all 13 of Canada’s premiers, at the moment, are men.
Former Yukon Premier Pat Duncan and the territory’s newest senator says that diverse governments are important in order to properly represent their people. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)

If you saw photos from the premiers’ meeting held in Saskatoon last week, there was something that might have stuck out to you right away — all 13 of Canada’s premiers, at the moment, are men.

It’s no secret that premiers’ offices in Canada have been dominated by men. There have only been 12 women premiers in Canada’s history.

However, a few years ago it looked like the table was diversifying. From 2002 to 2008 there were no women as premiers, but by 2013 that number had jumped up to six.

Fast-forward to today and once again there are no women as premiers.

Of the 12 women premiers, Pat Duncan was the first to enter office through defeating a sitting premier in an election. The issue of representation in politics is important to the former Yukon premier (and current senator), who led the Yukon Liberal Party to victory in 2000 but saw it lose power in another election two years later.

On the last day of the premiers’ meeting, she has a political cartoon by the Toronto Star’s Michael de Adder in mind, which shows the current male premiers in line for the men’s bathroom while the women’s room remains empty.

“It gave me pause,” she said. “It really did, because it’s important to the discussion on issues of importance to Canadians that there be a diverse group of people at the table.”

She explained that there are all sorts of advantages that come along with having more women in politics. For one, she says, the greater diversity of voices means that issues are brought to the table that might not have been previously discussed. She picked one of her own experiences as premier as an example.

“I can recall at my very first Western Premier’s conference putting the issue of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) on the table,” she said.

“I can remember (former Alberta) premier (Ralph) Klein saying, ‘I appreciate you bringing that and putting that on the agenda,’ because it was a particular interest to him. And his wife had also spoken about the issue, FASD, and how to combat it.”

Duncan now sits on the federal Senate, having been appointed in 2018. Though unelected, its caucus is half-composed of women and people of colour are well represented as well.

“You can truly see the impact having a diverse group of people at the table makes (on) legislation,” she says of her experiences there, noting that the current senate body has amended much more federal legislation — including Bill C-69, which received 188 amendments, over half of which were accepted — than it has in previous years.

Likewise, she finds that discussion in the senate chamber is much more civil than in other governmental bodies. Although she recognizes other reasons for this, such as the high amount of independent senators and the fact that no one in senate runs for re-election, she believes that the diversity of the senate also helps its debates.

“The chamber, as in provincial legislatures, can be a bit confrontational. (There’s) heckling, and so on and so forth. You don’t see as much of that in the Senate chamber. When I first witnessed it, it was like, ‘Okay, yeah, I recall this sense from the Yukon Legislative Assembly,’ but then the women who sat in front of me had never had that experience.”

When asked what the consequences are of having no female first ministers, an answer came to Duncan immediately.

“Young women don’t see themselves in positions like that. And that’s that’s an issue, and it’s so important that our governments reflect who we are as Canadians.”

She said a lack of confidence and recognizing their own abilities as one of the reasons why many women don’t enter politics.

“They don’t always recognize the fact that they’ve volunteered and done the books for organizations and dealt with the human resources of different organizations and negotiated between individuals to reach a compromise and what’s best for their community. They don’t always see that as a skill set.

Duncan also notes that the barriers for women entering politics vary by region — for instance, she says the cost of running a campaign to get a party nomination is higher in bigger cities.

She also finds that the Yukon has been quite accepting of women in politics.

“My experience with my fellow Yukoners has been, ‘can you do the job? Can you do it well?’ Then it really doesn’t matter what your sex is or what your ethnic origin is — it’s ‘can you do the job? And can you get it done?”

It’s a perspective shared by Véronique Herry from Equal Voice Yukon, an organization dedicated to advancing women in Yukon politics.

She noted the successes of previous women in Yukon politics — namely Duncan’s victory in 2000, former Yukon NDP MP Audrey McLaughlin becoming the first female leader of a political party and the territory’s high percentage of women as MLAs.

“Some of our advantages historically in the Yukon have been that, one, it costs less to run a campaign here than it would in a lot of the bigger centres,” she said. “And secondly, it’s a little bit easier to have access to a lot of our political nominees, which means you get to know them a bit better.”

Another reason she mentioned was more family-friendly policies within the territory, including one put forward by Duncan and former Yukon Party MLA Elaine Taylor that ended the legislature at 5:30 p.m. to help MLAs who had children.

Although Herry is disappointed by the lack of female premiers, she’s also encouraged by the record amount of women in legislatures like B.C. and Ontario and Yukon.

Duncan also remains optimistic. Earlier this year, she and 10 other former women premiers attended the No Second Chances conference, where a room full of women of all ages got to ask what needs to change to bring more women into politics.

“It was about giving one another the confidence to believe in themselves,” she said.

“Kathy Dunderdale from Newfoundland said it best: ‘You need to do it.’ To borrow the (Nike) slogan ‘just do it,’ do put your name forward. Consider the talents you have to offer and encourage other women to run. Yes, it’s a tough job, it’s not easy. Nothing worth doing is that easy.”

Contact Joshua Azizi at