By: Luke Montalbano
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we must reflect back on the first and only female PM of Canada to commemorate and address her effects on the politics of the country.
Photo Credit: Our Commons - Artist: David Goatley
Canada, throughout its 154 years of existence, has had 23 Prime Ministers - only one of which has been a woman. Her name is Kim Campbell and reigned for a brief tenure, over the months of June to November, during 1993. Despite seeing high amounts of popularity upon her appointment, she soon suffered a massive defeat in the federal election of 1993, winning only 2 seats out of 295 in the House of Commons.
Preceding her term as PM, she was one of the most powerful people in the Mulroney Government, achieving the role of Attorney General and Minister of Justice in 1990. She quickly became one of the most popular Members of Parliament, in an unpopular administration, and was looked upon as the most likely person to lead the Progressive Conservative Party after the departure Brian Mulroney and clinch a victory in the upcoming 1993 election.
The Road to Prime Minister
In February of 1993, Brian Mulroney announced his resignation as Prime Minister, facing almost sure defeat against the Liberal Party of Canada, triggering a leadership election for the Progressive Conservative Party. Kim Campbell almost immediately threw her hat into the race along, with multiple others, none more important and threatening to her chances, than the young and charismatic MP from Sherbrooke, Quebec, Jean Charest.
Charest’s popularity in Quebec, and the east of Canada, boosted him in front of every other candidate excluding Kim Campbell thereby preventing Kim Campbell from receiving a “coronation” for party leadership. Charest’s team was surrounded by seasoned campaign managers from the 1984 and 1988 Mulroney campaigns - both of which were large victories.
The leadership race was close, with Kim Campbell narrowly beating out Jean Charest (52.7% of delegates to 47.3% of delegates). With this victory, she had now been given what she had fought so hard to achieve: a clear mandate within her own party and therefore internal solidarity to fight fully powered for the leadership of Canada’s parliament.
Campbell’s election as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party was historic - she became the first, and only, female Prime Minister of Canada, setting in motion a massive, non-partisan movement for women to partake in Canadian politics - a profession that had often been dominated by men since the foundation of Canada.
Tenure as PM
As PM, Campbell immediately moved to streamline the cabinet, reducing its size from 35 Ministers to 23, by merging ministries and portfolios. She also established three other departments during the merger: Health, Public Security, and Canadian Heritage - all of which exist in some form today.
PM Campbell became the most popular Prime Minister in nearly 30 years. During her stops across the country, she campaigned on women empowerment and voiced her support for women in politics. Kim Campbell was seemingly defying the odds.
Although the government of Brian Mulroney (1984-1993) strove to enhance equality in cabinet and out of it (via the implementation of policies to enforce equal pay in corporations, and pro-choice policies among others), very few Members of Parliament were women, and despite a growing proportion of women to men in the Canadian population, the parliament had been very consistently male dominated since Confederation. Until the Campbell leadership era, there had been no improvement in women participation in politics, but that changed when Kim Campbell became prime minister. From 1993 onwards, despite an unprecedented, resounding electoral defeat, she inspired thousands, of women to strive and advocate for equality, also leading to thousands more to seek public office. Since 1993, the percentage of women in parliament has been slowly increasing, now standing at 98 female MPs out of 338 (28.9% of MPs) - a record amount.
Final Weeks and Election Aftermath
Sadly, things did not go well for Canada’s first female Prime Minister in her bid to become the first elected female Prime Minister of Canada. During the final weeks of her campaign for re-election, her positive appeal was negatively spiraling out of control, being scandal and gaffe ridden and incurring heavy loss of Western Canadian popular support to the Western populist party, Reform.
All signs pointed to a Progressive Conservative defeat and polls were proven to be disastrously correct. Kim Campbell was knocked out from government with all but 2 Progressive Conservative Members of Parliament losing their seats, from her original caucus of 154 - ironically, one who held on to his seat was none other than Jean Charest. Devastatingly, Kim Campbell lost her seat in Vancouver Centre by 6% of the Popular Vote.
After losing her seat, Kim Campbell retired from both federal and provincial politics, becoming a vocal advocate for women’s rights and constantly speaking about her tenure as Prime Minister. From 1999 to 2003, she served as the Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders - an organization composed of women world leaders that strives to increase political awareness and participation by women.
Her influence on female empowerment has stretched past her term, firmly cemented itself into the mindset of all Canadians. From her progressive policies as Attorney General to her vocal advocacy for equal rights, both during her term as PM and after, her willingness to break barriers and defy what most thought to be impossible has undoubtedly inspired millions of Canadians to follow in her footsteps.
Today, many women have led political parties in Canada after Kim Campbell’s tenure -although still limited in number. The federal NDP, Green and Conservative parties have since had female leaders but ironically, the Liberal Party of Canada, a party that claims it stands for women more than any other party in Canada is the only notable exception: they have never had a female leader of their party.
I believe the time for a female Prime Minister is long overdue. For all its claims of being a progressive society, North America (including Canada) has been eclipsed by Europe and Asia where female leadership is now the norm. Prime Minister Kim Campbell has inspired generations of women in leadership and politics and we should soon demand that her legacy be realized through the election of a female Prime Minister - one who was, no doubt, inspired by her courage and success.
Written by writer Luke Montalblano