TORONTO - With two female candidates leading the race to replace Premier Dalton McGuinty, Ontario appears set to become Canada's sixth province to be governed by a woman.
Political experts, however, warn that even if Sandra Pupatello or Kathleen Wynne win the Ontario Liberal leadership vote this weekend — which was prompted by McGuinty's surprise resignation in October — the victory may be short-lived.
"Symbolically it's important for a time — what could be a very short time — that we have gender parity among the premiers," said Jane Arscott, co-author of the upcoming book, "Stalled: The Representation of Women in Canadian Governments."
"It would be more significant if the position could be consolidated with an electoral win."
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Eva Aariak — Nunavut
Aariak, 58, worked as a journalist, operated a retail store and also served as the first languages commissioner of Nunavut before deciding to seek election in 2008. Aariak said she was "floored" and "disappointed" about being the only woman elected that year, and suggested the territory revisit a proposal for gender parity in the 19-member legislature. Aariak was chosen premier under the territory's consensus style government, and was sworn in as Nunavut's second premier and first female leader in Nov. 2008. She has four children and three grandchildren. <em>— The Canadian Press</em>
Kathy Dunderdale — Newfoundland and Labrador (Progressive Conservative)
The 60-year-old was a town councillor and deputy mayor of Burin before being elected to the legislature in 2003. She served as minister of innovation, trade, rural development, natural resources and as deputy premier. She was sworn in as the province's first female premier in Dec. 2010 after her highly-popular predecessor resigned. Dunderdale became Newfoundland and Labrador's first elected woman premier less than a year later, leading the Conservatives to a third consecutive majority government in Oct. 2011. She is widowed with two children.
Alison Redford — Alberta (Progressive Conservative)
The 47-year-old lawyer was first elected in 2008, after working for former prime ministers Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. She also travelled the globe instituting democratic reforms in places like Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa. Redford served as justice minister before winning the party leadership and being sworn in as premier in Oct. 2011. She led the Progressive Conservatives to another majority victory in a provincial election in 2012, an upset after a slew of polls had suggested the Wildrose party was en route to ending the PC dynasty. Redford is married and has one daughter, Sarah.
Christy Clark — British Columbia (Liberal)
Clark became the second woman to serve as B.C. premier when she took office in March 2011, 20 years after Rita Johnston — the first female premier in Canada. The Sorbonne-educated politician was first elected to the legislature in 1996 and was appointed deputy premier and minister of education in 2001. The 47-year-old took a break for five years in 2005, working as a columnist and radio show host, but returned to politics in 2010 in a successful bid for the leadership of the Liberal party.
Pauline Marois — Quebec (Parti Quebecois)
Marois was a social services administrator, political attache and university professor before entering politics. She was first elected to the legislature in 1981 and held various cabinet portfolios in PQ governments, including finance, health, and education, as well as deputy premier for two years. She twice lost the leadership — in 1985 and 2005 — but was acclaimed as PQ leader in 2007. She lost the 2008 election, but led her party to a minority victory in Sept. 2012. Marois, 63, is married with four children.
Women are still under-represented in the country's legislatures, ranging from 10.5 per cent in the Northwest Territories to 30 per cent in Ontario — with Quebec having the highest representation at nearly 33 per cent.
The wave of female premiers is "marvellous," but Canada saw this trend in the early 1990s before it dropped off, said Arscott.
One example is Lyn McLeod, who was selected as leader of the Ontario Liberal party in 1992 but failed to win an election three years later.
In recent years, Ontario's Liberal government has been plagued with scandals, including the costly cancellation of two gas plants, a police probe at its air ambulance service and a nasty fight with public school teachers.
There has been a habit among Canadian political parties to turn to a woman as their leader when they're in trouble or "long in the tooth," said Cristine de Clercy, a political science professor at Ontario's Western University.
"Occasionally some members of parties want to repackage and re-present the party to the electorate, and so they try to do something new," she said.
"That doesn't mean all female premiers ever have been chosen just to repackage and rebrand a party. But certainly that's an element in some of the new selections of new leaders and premiers."
The Social Credit Party and the Liberals in British Columbia could be seen as examples, De Clercy said.
Rita Johnston became the first woman premier in Canada in 1991 when she took over British Columbia's troubled Social Credit Party from Bill Vander Zalm, but lost an election just six months later.
The embattled federal Progressive Conservatives chose Kim Campbell as prime minister, but she didn't survive the 1993 election that marked the worst defeat in the party's history.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford, Quebec's Pauline Marois and Newfoundland and Labrador's Kathy Dunderdale have all cemented their positions in a general election. Members of the Nunavut legislature chose Eva Aariak as premier in 2008, currently one of three women in the 19-member house.
Christy Clark, who became B.C. premier in 2011, hasn't yet faced a general election. Ontario's new premier — to be chosen on Jan. 26 — will have to undergo the same test.
Regardless of the outcome, women activists say the surge of female premiers in recent years is an "extremely auspicious moment" — the result of decades of work by other trailblazers.
"That doesn't mean it's the end of the story — absolutely not," said Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, an organization promoting the election of more women.
"There's so much more to do and so many women who want to make a contribution."
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says having women occupy positions of power shows other women what they can achieve.
"One of the best things about having women premiers elected around the country is that it shows, not only other women but other people in Canada, that women are as capable and are as able and are as willing to take up the mantle when it comes to political office," she said.
"I'm pleased by that. I think it's a positive step and I'm glad I've played a small role in that myself."