The departure of Alberta’s first female premier this week, in the face of mounting public and party pressure, has reignited a familiar question: Did sexism play a role in her demise?
The Canadian Press contacted more than a dozen past and present politicians across the country for their thoughts. Some didn’t respond and others didn’t want to wade into the debate.
Former Edmonton Liberal MP Anne McLellan said while it’s a complex issue, she’s sure Alison Redford was treated differently because of her sex.
The Progressive Conservative premier made mistakes, McLellan said, but her caucus and voters — both male and female — had unfair expectations of her as a female leader.
“There seems to be some standard that somehow it’s OK for men in public life to act a certain way. But if women do that, that makes them not nice ladies,” she said.
“Both men and women have to understand how significant a barrier that can be for participation of women in politics.”
McLellan pointed to Calgary legislature member Len Webber, the first of two caucus members to leave the party in the days leading up to Redford’s resignation. Webber told reporters he could no longer work under Redford because she was a bully and “not a nice lady.”
McLellan, who served as Prime Minister Paul Martin’s deputy, said during her time in Ottawa she wasn’t always a nice lady, either.
“If people are suggesting that in my over 12 years in public life as a minister in the federal government that I never swore, that I never slammed a door, that I never spoke sternly to a staff member, that’s crazy. You’re in a very stressful, high-profile situation and then you respond to that stress and I think that’s normal.”
Martha Hall Findlay, a former Liberal MP who ran unsuccessfully for leadership of the party in 2006 and 2013, described Redford as a “ground-breaker.”
She said Redford has helped confirm that women can and should be premier.
“I’m sorry that it didn’t work out better,” Hall Findlay wrote in an email. “The political challenges she has faced have nothing to do with gender, but are part of the overall challenges of politics.”
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne refused to speculate on whether there was an element of sexism in Redford’s departure.
“I hope that it’s not the case,” she told reporters on Saturday at a meeting of her governing Liberals in Toronto.
“Would it be a shock to me if there were some part of the decision that had to do with her being a woman? You know it wouldn’t be a shock to me.”
Former Saskatchewan NDP premier Lorne Calvert said it may be telling that Redford isn’t the only female premier to leave office recently.
Kathy Dunderdale, the Tory premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, resigned in January amid questions about her leadership and sliding approval ratings.
Nunavut’s Eva Aariak also lost her seat late last year after saying she wouldn’t seek another term as premier.
Before those departures, Canada made history by having six female provincial and territorial leaders. Three remain: Christy Clark in British Columbia, Kathleen Wynne in Ontario and Pauline Marois in Quebec.
Calvert would like to see more women in politics, but concedes they face more challenges on the job.
“I don’t want to be sexist here, but in some ways the very nature of our legislative process — combative — has not been traditionally a role some women are comfortable in. And yet good governance will tell you that that’s not all that effective anymore.”
Alberta Liberal House Leader Laurie Blakeman agrees that female leaders are at a disadvantage, but says there is more behind Redford’s resignation.
“Of course there’s a gender issue,” said Blakeman.
“Is that the only reason that things went off the rails here? No.”
The Alberta Tories have forced out their last four leaders. Before Redford, they turfed Ed Stelmach and Ralph Klein.
“Gender is part of it,” said Blakeman. “But so is character and management choices and political ideology and a really, really, really old party that’s been here a long, long time.”