Hold on… Is it true that Canada had a woman serve as the prime minister?
Among all the portraits of past prime ministers displayed in the House of Commons, there seems to be a common denominator – men. Ever since Canada became a self-governing country in 1867, the elected prime ministers have consistently been white men. Regardless of the party they represent, there is a clearly established pattern of having men stand as the head of government in Canada. But what if I told you that among the portraits displayed in the House of Commons, you’ll find one of a woman? Among all the past prime ministers, you’ll find the portrait of a woman named Kim Campbell.
While some people may be very familiar with Prime Minister Campbell, others may have never heard of her before. In my case, I was never taught about her nor was I informed that she was the first woman to serve as a Canadian prime minister. That being said, I believe it is important to present the story of who this icon is.
Ms. Campbell was born in 1947 in Port Alberni, British Columbia. She graduated the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1969 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. She later pursued a law degree at UBC and graduated in 1983. While she did practice law for a few years upon graduating, she soon decided to devote herself to a full-time career in politics. Interestingly, Ms. Campbell served on all three levels of government, starting at the municipal level, followed by the provincial level in 1986 and eventually at the federal level in 1988. It was during the 1988 federal election that she won a seat in Parliament as a Progressive Conservative (PC). Her tenure involved several legislative achievements, including strengthening Canada’s gun control laws and introducing firm sexual assault laws. In 1993, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announced his retirement, thereby requiring a replacement. Effective June 1993, Ms. Campbell was selected to replace him and serve as Canada’s first female prime minister. It is worth nothing though that her tenure only lasted four and half months given that the PC party’s term in office ended in November of that same year. By the time the election came around, unfortunately the PC party suffered a tough loss, pushing Prime Minister Campbell out of office. Nonetheless, she knew that the odds of winning the 1993 election were slim to none given the population’s disappointment at the time with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s administration.
Despite this electoral loss, Ms. Campbell’s momentum for initiative and change through politics did not end there. In fact, she continued to flourish within both public and private sectors by addressing issues related to international politics, leadership, democracy, and gender. For instance, between 1999-2003, Ms. Campbell served as the Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders in which she sought to promote good governance and democracy globally by increasing the number women as world leaders. Between 2003-2006, she served as President of the International Women’s Forum in which she sought to connect the world’s most notable women leaders with diverse careers and cultures in order to advance the presence female leadership. Finally, it is also worth mentioning that between 2004-2006, she served as secretary-general for the Club of Madrid. Ms. Campbell was one of the founders of the group which sought to enhance democracy throughout the world. She remains an active member of this group today. While there are many other notable accomplishments that characterize Ms. Campbell, I find that those three international leadership roles really pinpoint her drive and passion for promoting democratic transition and addressing gender imbalances.
As I mentioned earlier, I was personally never taught about Ms. Campbell nor was I informed that she was the first woman to serve as a Canadian prime minister. This is extremely hard to believe given all the political science courses I have taken throughout my university education. Nevertheless, I have been extensively taught about Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, Prime Minister Robert Borden and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to name a few. I even remember learning about Prime Minister Charles Tupper, whose term was even shorter than Prime Minister Campbell’s, lasting only just over two months. The question remains: why have I not learned about Prime Minister Kim Campbell? Why does it seem like her tenure as prime minister is swept under the rug?
While there is no true answer to that question, I do have a few theories. On the whole though, I believe that there is systemic gender bias with regards to the concept of power in Canadian politics. In other words, I believe that our society carries implicit attitudes about who should serve as head of government. Given the fact that there is a clearly established pattern of men as prime minister, I find that there is an ongoing bias that suggests only men should fulfill powerful leadership roles in Canada. However, I do believe that this bias was not necessarily directly adopted by the Canadian population, it is simply what we are used to. We have grown up in a society that associates men as the head of government, it is the only image we have ever known. We are used to politicians being men, who dress, look and sound a certain way. That being said, as soon as Prime Minister Campbell retained office, I believe there was a sense of discomfort within society. As a woman, she doesn’t dress, look or sound like the prime ministers of the past. There has never been a woman as a prime minister, so inherently, society questions if she is capable or fitting for the job. As a result of this underlying sense of discomfort, the gender bias is amplified, causing society to become disinterested and uninformed about her role. This gender bias works to perpetually create a lack of education around Prime Minister Campbell. As a type of outlier among the prime minister pattern, her life story and career is forgotten and seen as insignificant.
Nonetheless, I am a firm believer that Ms. Campbell’s accomplishments are ones that should be shared, promoted and celebrated. She set the stone for female representation as head of government. She broke one of the toughest barriers for Canadian women and showed us what it is like to grow and prosper in a male-dominated political society. While this blog post is a relative summary on Ms. Campbell’s career, I encourage all readers interested to acquire her autobiography entitled Time and Chance. The fourth and latest edition was published in 2017. The book is a political memoir through Ms. Campbell’s eyes. I know I will definitely be asking my family for a copy for Christmas this year! While she may be the first woman to hold office as prime minister, I am very optimistic that she will not be last. Ms. Campbell paved the way for female representation as prime minister and I look forward to the day when I see another woman take on the head of government, this time elected for a full term.