Editorial

Manitoba Progressive Conservatives may have felt they were making a bold move on Saturday when they chose Heather Stefanson to be their leader and Manitoba’s first female premier. Their party has not had a female leader since the year 2000, when Bonnie Mitchelson filled in after Gary Filmon quit, until Stuart Murray took over.

Manitoba Progressive Conservatives may have felt they were making a bold move on Saturday when they chose Heather Stefanson to be their leader and Manitoba’s first female premier. Their party has not had a female leader since the year 2000, when Bonnie Mitchelson filled in after Gary Filmon quit, until Stuart Murray took over.

Female heads of government are, however, no longer unusual in Canada. Manitoba is if anything a latecomer to the era of women holding the top political jobs.

Heather Stefanson at her victory party on Saturday. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Heather Stefanson at her victory party on Saturday. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

British Columbia, after all, has already had two female premiers—Rita Johnston and Christy Clark. Alison Redford and Rachel Notley both took turns governing Alberta. Kathleen Wynne ruled Ontario, Pauline Marois ruled Quebec, Catherine Callbeck ruled Prince Edward Island and Kathy Dunderdale ruled Newfoundland and Labrador. Manitoba remained until now as part of the dwindling band of Canadian provinces that never had a female premier. Little remained of the glass ceiling which once blocked women from rising to political leadership in Canada.

Once the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives excluded the male contenders from their party’s leadership race, leaving just Ms. Stefanson and challenger Shelly Glover, it was certain the next party leader and Manitoba premier would be a woman. If there still was a glass ceiling to shatter, it was shattered at that point.

When a party with rising political fortunes chooses a woman as its leader, feminists of all genders can rejoice that she has a chance to ride the wave and provide a role model for women who are wondering if they should think of a career in politics. Sharon Carstairs, for example, had the good fortune to lead the Manitoba Liberal party at a moment when the New Democrats had fallen into disfavour but the Progressive Conservatives had not yet won public support. She led her party from the wilderness to Official Opposition.

There are, however, other circumstances that are less helpful to the cause of women’s equality. The federal Progressive Conservatives, for example, chose Kim Campbell as their leader when Brian Mulroney retired in disgrace. She became prime minister in June 1993, called an election and saw her party reduced to two seats in the House of Commons. It seemed at the time as though the party had put her in charge of a sinking ship.

Heather Stefanson (right) beat Shelly Glover in a close race. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

CP

Heather Stefanson (right) beat Shelly Glover in a close race. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

Events will show whether Ms. Stefanson is living through a Ms. Carstairs moment or a Ms. Campbell moment. She has been given the task of making Manitobans forget Brian Pallister. She has to persuade the public that she never agreed with the policies she supported through two terms of office in Mr. Pallister’s government.

Brian Mulroney waited so long to resign that he left Ms. Campbell just five months to erase his memory. Ms. Stefanson, by contrast, may be able to govern until the summer of 2023 before facing the voters, allowing her ample time to establish a new style and a new policy.

It will be hard, however, to differentiate herself from Mr. Pallister without reminding voters of what they disliked about his government and her role in it. Every time she talks about her wish to consult stakeholders and listen to ordinary Manitobans, she will remind teachers, health-care workers and other large segments of the population how irritated they were in the Pallister years. In these circumstances, a year and a half may not be time enough to bury the party’s past.