12/21/2011 04:05 EST | Updated 02/19/2012 05:12 EST

Women Premiers From B.C. To N.L. To Nunavut And Alberta Shift Political Dynamic

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak looks forward to a shift in dynamics when provincial and territorial leaders gather next month in Victoria.

For the first time ever, three other women will join her at the male-dominated meeting: Kathy Dunderdale of Newfoundland and Labrador, Alison Redford of Alberta and Christy Clark of British Columbia.

"The three seas are guarded by women," Aariak said with a laugh.

But she is serious about how feminine perspectives on looming issues such as federal funding for health care and social programs will enhance those talks.

"I think it will be very exciting to come together as a group with more women at the table," she said in an interview. "And I think they will contribute valuable information."

Dunderdale agreed.

"I know it's going to be different because women do approach it differently," she said in an interview.

Women simply don't experience life the same way as men, Dunderdale said.

"So that gives you a certain insight, a certain perspective.

"And certain issues that are extremely important to you."

Dunderdale cited one of her own causes: the need to revamp an employment insurance system that bars or shortchanges scores of workers, many of them women with part-time or entrepreneurial jobs.

"I know that those issues will be highlighted in a way now that they haven't been before because you have a critical mass of women who are able to talk about things like employment insurance.

"I'm delighted that I'm going to have colleagues who know that (issue) from a very specific perspective, who will be able to inform that debate."

Dunderdale made history on Oct. 11, becoming the first woman elected premier in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Premiers Redford in Alberta and Clark in B.C. serve as Progressive Conservative and Liberal leaders respectively, but have not yet won power in a general election. Redford is expected to face voters sometime this spring, and a fixed-date election is scheduled in B.C. for May 2013.

Other women have broken through glass ceilings before them. Kim Campbell was briefly Tory prime minister before her government was decimated in the 1993 election. That same year, Catherine Callbeck took the Liberal helm in P.E.I. and became the first Canadian woman to win the top job in a provincial election.

It was a relatively short-lived triumph. Callbeck stepped down in October 1996 as her government faced growing unpopularity before it was ultimately turfed from power.

She was later named to the Senate, but her provincial breakthrough didn't exactly open the dam for women in Canadian politics.

To this day, women are under-represented at virtually every level across the country.

In the House of Commons, for example, they hold a historic high of 76 or about one-quarter of 308 federal seats. The number of female candidates rose for last spring's election, but women have a long way to go to reach the 52 per cent share of Commons seats that would most accurately reflect the population.

"It tends to be frustrating for people like me who think it's extremely important that we see these kinds of changes in structure," said Dunderdale.

"Once women begin to think about it and realize how important it is that they become engaged in activities that ultimately have an impact on their lives — that they need to be able to influence that ... only then will things really begin to change at a fundamental level.

"Young girls need to know that this is a possibility for them."

Nancy Peckford of Equal Voice, a not-for-profit group that promotes having more women represent all political parties, said there are various stumbling blocks.

They range from the intense demands of work and family life to reluctance to face media and public scrutiny.

"But we very much caution against perpetuating the notion that women are being held back by their families," Peckford said.

Some women, including Christy Clark, have given birth while in government, she noted.

"The reality is, we don't need all the mothers out there to run for office.

"We just need enough women to run, who have the interest, who are motivated, who have the political experience.

"They exist in Canada," Peckford said. "It's getting those parties to work diligently on this."

Polling data and research show that women vote in larger numbers than men, and that Canadians want more women in politics, she said.

Parties need systemic outreach strategies that seek out and welcome quality female contenders, Peckford said.

"Women don't tend to be highly involved when the nomination process is that tightly contested or locked down."

In Ontario, the Liberal party elected six new members when it won in October, four of them women, said Yasir Naqvi, a member of the provincial legislature for Ottawa Centre and the party's president.

A total of 30 women were elected to the Ontario legislature — 28 per cent of the total, up from about 26 per cent at dissolution.

"You run more women, you elect more women," Naqvi said.

"The commitment has to come from the top. In our case, Premier (Dalton) McGuinty has made a very strong commitment, ensuring that we run good female candidates. And we've been doing that every election."

By Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press

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