Yes, Ms. Minister

The Halifax International Security Forum took place in Halifax this past weekend and raised a few eyebrows when it became public that an all-male panel would be holding forth on women’s contribution to that industry. Is it possible that those responsible for choosing participants for that particular panel decided that recognition of those efforts would mean more were it delivered by an all-male panel? Or, more likely, did the notion of having women participate in the panel not even occur to those charged with naming the various members?

Good for designated moderator Steve Clements, editor-at-large of the U.S. political publication The Hill, who told organizers that he wouldn’t be participating unless a woman was “added to the mix.” He went even further, indicating that “women should be on all panels.” In the end, Janice Stein, founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, was called on to moderate the panel and Canada’s Deputy Defense Minister Jody Thomas was invited as a participant.


As has been the case forever, women who rise to power in most situations do so only with the support of men who, very possibly as a result of female influences in their own lives – including mothers, teachers and others – are quick to recognize strong, capable and intelligent women, not as rivals, but as excellent potential leaders in any and all sectors of life.

Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell. Photo by Simon Fraser University Communications.  CC BY 2.0

The recent appointment of Chrystia Freeland as deputy prime minister is a case in point, although the job does not mean that she comes anywhere near taking over from the prime minister in any given circumstance. (That job goes to the Clerk of the Privy Council.) Nevertheless, the position, having been instituted by the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1977 to underline the late Senator Allan J. MacEachen’s years of political service, is probably still considered an honor. It’s one that, by the way, has only been accorded two other Canadian women: Sheila Copps, who held the job from 1993 through 1996 and again from June 1996 through June 1997, and Anne MacLellan, deputy PM from 2003 to 2006.

But in considering the place of women in Canadian politics, I think one has to check out the only woman who has ever held the role of prime minister: Avril Phaedra Douglas (Kim) Campbell, whose short term (25 June 1993 – 4 November 1993) as the 19th PM of Canada certainly doesn’t reflect any lack of credentials. I admit to not having had any keen interest in her rise to power at the time, but taking a look back at her long career as a public figure makes me believe she might have fulfilled the job effectively had it not been a time fraught with problems impossible to overcome. It’s interesting to listen to interviews Campbell’s done since leaving politics (and worth noting that she seems to be deemed a good interview by a press that she often blames for being part of her political demise.)


Born 10 March 1947 in Port Alberni, BC, Campbell credits her mother for raising both her and her sister, Alix as feminists, although never actually labeling them as such. Campbell says her mother instilled in them the idea that they could accomplish anything their male counterparts could. She likes to quote Charlotte Whitten, (first woman mayor of Ottawa, who served two terms in the ’50s and ’60s) who said, “Women have to be twice as good as men to be thought half as good and that’s easy to accomplish.”

Campbell’s track record tends to emphasize the validity of Whitten’s remarks:  she holds a BA in political science from the University of British Columbia, did three years of doctoral work at the London School of Economics in Soviet Studies, and earned a law degree from UBC. She worked in the office of BC Premier Bill Bennett, before running for and winning a provincial seat for the Social Credit Party. She then moved to federal politics, winning a Vancouver riding for the Conservatives in the 1988 election and heading to Ottawa.

Prime Minister Kim Campbell in the House of Commons shortly after winning the leadership campaign. Photo courtesy of the Canadian National Archives

Kim Campbell, Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister designate is given a standing ovation in the House of Commons by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and other members of the government on June 16, 1993. (Tom Hanson/CP)

Brian Mulroney appointed Campbell as the first female Canadian justice minister in 1990 and then as the first female defense minister in 1993. When he resigned as the most unpopular prime minister in the history of Canada, Campbell ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party and succeeded Mulroney as prime minister. She had the most support of candidates in the race, but as underlined in an interview with the CBC’s “Out in the Open”  she was criticized as “too smart,” “too confident,” “too eager for power” and “not grateful enough,” as well as for not having kids and being “crushingly ambitious.”

Campbell was a declared supporter of gay rights, was pro-choice and had introduced legislation as justice minister on gun control, as well as changing the sexual assault laws. It was all for naught when it came to being elected at a time when Lucien Bouchard had left the Tories to found the Bloc Quebecois and the rise of the western Reform Party precluded the Tories winning seats in the west. In the 1993 federal election, the Conservatives were reduced to 2 seats from 157 and Campbell’s was not one of them.


Campbell revealed in a 2 July 2013 CPAC interview with Catherine Clark (daughter of another former prime minister, Joe Clark) that she had no delusions about ever again running for political office, after, she said with a laugh, she’d “had political retirement thrust upon her by the electorate.” Campbell said she still loves politics and had always hoped to be in a position to change how the political system worked, especially when it came to the treatment of women. But, as she puts it, “women didn’t get second chances.” She was grateful to Jean Chretien, who succeeded her as prime minister, when he offered her an office on the hill along with two office staff so that she could wind up various matters that had been part of her time as PM. When Clark asked how she survived the fiasco, Campbell declared (not, she admitted, in her own words) that “if you’ve never had any hardships or difficulties, you don’t know how strong you are.”

New Justice Minister Kim Campbell as part of Brian Mulroney’s cabinet in 1990.Photo courtesy of the Canadian National Archives

Campbell was very strong, make no doubt about it. She told the CBC she realized early on that in the game of politics, “people, including the Ottawa Press Gallery, have deep ideas of how the world works and react with visceral discomfort to anyone who is different.” One reporter warned her that he had covered a multitude of prime ministers and she was not like any of them. Of course, she wasn’t, she was a woman.

Following her political defeat, Campbell had time to read scholarly reviews of how the press, in particular, had covered her campaign. She told CPAC she found that such reviews agreed they had treated her very differently from the manner in which they covered male candidates, to the point of unfairness. She later wrote a paper discussing these findings and uses it as as part of a training program for young women considering a political career. Campbell also praised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for appointing so many women to his cabinet. To really change perceptions of women in politics, she states, “women have to be there.”


When Catherine Clark asked Campbell if she felt she had been a sort of sacrificial lamb to the political process, Campbell argued that many, many women had helped to lay the groundwork before she made her run at the prize. Both the timing and the political situation in 1993, as mentioned above, proved detrimental to her chances of keeping her job as PM.

As a lawyer, for instance, she argued that before her generation women had to dress more mannishly and resented the fact that they couldn’t openly support other women lawyers for fear of losing their jobs. There was also resentment of the up-and-coming generation, which happened to be Campbell’s, and which enjoyed a new freedom in the workplace. Campbell figured their male counterparts realized these women were good lawyers “and might still make the coffee.”

Campbell is quick to acknowledge how much of what she learned in her political career has assisted her in working to promote democracy in countries around the world, where political and cultural shifts are taking place. She is vocal here at home, too: she has never embraced the Conservative Party and chastised Andrew Scheer for his lack of a stand on climate change, including his promise to do away with the carbon tax: “I have no time for climate change deniers.” She feels she is armed with a knowledge and understanding of how government works that are key in her efforts.

Kim Campbell hopes she survives to see the second female Prime Minister of Canada.  I’m sure she has quite a bit of inside info to pass along.

Featured image: Kim Campbell on the cover of Chatelaine Magazine.


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.