10/03/2011 05:27 EDT | Updated 12/03/2011 05:12 EST

Women In Canadian Politics More Prominent, But Numbers Still Low

BC Liberals

OTTAWA - Could 2011 be the year of the Canadian woman in politics?

The weekend's election of Alison Redford as leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative party is another chip out of the glass ceiling, with Redford joining a list of women who've become provincial premiers by taking over the ruling political party.

Newfoundland and Labrador's Kathy Dunderdale began the trend without even a leadership contest, becoming premier after Danny Williams resigned late last year. She was formally elected to the leadership position in January.

Next came Christy Clark, who became premier of British Columbia in February after winning the Liberal leadership contest.

Meanwhile, there are women in charge of opposition parties in several provinces, including Ontario.

There, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath may emerge as the kingmaker in this week's election as the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives are in a dead heat for victory.

But the ceiling is likely to crack next week. Dunderdale is expected to become only the third woman in Canadian history to be elected premier in a popular vote.

The first was Prince Edward Island's Catherine Callbeck, now a Liberal senator. The second was Yukon's Pat Duncan.

The territories have and have had female premiers, but they are chosen by the legislative assembly.

Dunderdale's expected victory would challenge the claim that a woman's election as head of a political party signals a coming disaster, said Nancy Peckford, the executive director of Equal Voice, an advocacy group promoting the election of women.

Canada's lone female prime minister, Kim Campbell, is one example. She took over the federal Progressive Conservatives from Brian Mulroney in 1993 only to have the Liberals crush the party in the next federal election.

"Increasingly women are creating traction, that's obvious," said Peckford.

"Will it stick? That's another question."

Women make up 50 per cent of Canada's population but far fewer of the names on the ballots this fall.

In Newfoundland and Labrador's election, roughly 22 per cent of the candidates are women, with Dunderdale's Progressive Conservatives fielding the fewest would-be female MLAs, at seven.

In P.E.I., about 30 per cent of the candidates are female, including provincial Opposition Leader Olive Crane.

While the leader of the Ontario NDP is female, the party is running fewer female candidates than the governing Liberals. Overall, only four more female candidates are running in this election than did in 2007, according to Equal Voice.

In Manitoba, there are only two more female candidates hitting the hustings than there were in 2007, according to an analysis by the Winnipeg Free Press.

And in Saskatchewan, where voters go to the polls in November, only 10 of 58 candidates running under Premier Brad Wall's banner are women. A count from the provincial NDP's website suggests they are running only 13 female candidates, despite a 2008 pledge to run at least 50 per cent women.

The number of women candidates will go up in time across the board, suggested former Liberal MP Siohban Coady.

In her home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, women have a long tradition of being involved in politics thanks to an economy fuelled by jobs that take so many men away.

Dunderdale's expected victory reflects a slow rise through the ranks and a rise that's being reflected across the country, Coady suggested.

It's not just about how many candidates run, but how many run in ridings they can win, she said.

"We're making progress, just not fast enough," Coady said.

At least federally, the number of women actually winning seats is going up.

There are 76 women now sitting in the House of Commons, up from 67 before the May vote.

Nycole Turmel, the interim NDP leader, said Redford's victory in Alberta nicely jibes with the occasion of women's history month.

"It's great news. I will congratulate all the women who are in this position and I wish them luck for the future," she said.

"We always said there was not enough representation of women, so we've seen improvements."

So far, none of the contenders for NDP leadership is female.

On the government side, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet has 10 female ministers or junior ministers of state, a number in line with his Liberal predecessors.

Canada is not alone in having political representation that doesn't reflect demographics, noted Michele Bachelet, the former president of Chile who is now the first head of the newly created United Nations women’s agency.

She is in Ottawa this week for a conference on ways to strengthen women’s economic security and rights.

Only 28 countries have reached a benchmark level of 30 per cent representation, and Bachelet said that’s simply not acceptable. Nor is the fact that with the recent election of a female prime minister in Denmark, only 20 of the world’s 194 countries are led by women.

"It means that we're lagging behind in a lot of different issues," said Bachelet, who was one of Chile's most popular politicians when she left office last year after four years as president.

"Women give a lot of importance to social issues. You can see that in parliaments, you can see that in local governments. Women will push very hard on policies linked to how to improve education, how to improve health," she added. "Women have ideas on how to develop the economy."

— with files from Mike Blanchfield