In celebrating Persons Day every year, Canada salutes five tenacious women from Alberta, the “Famous Five,” who 90 years ago insisted that women be regarded as persons. In 1927, after hitting a roadblock with Canada’s own justice system, they appealed to the highest court of the land, which at the time was the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain. The Privy Council, unexpectedly, ruled in favour of the women.
Not everyone fully appreciates Alberta’s impressive legacy when it comes to groundbreaking female leaders. The list of firsts is ample. The Famous Five were just the beginning.
Among them, of course, was Louise McKinney, who in 1917 became the first woman elected to a legislature in the British Empire. In the same year, Hannah “Annie” Gale was elected to Calgary City Council, the first woman elected to any municipal office in Canada. Decades later, Deb Grey became the first female leader of the federal official opposition in Canadian history; then came the Anne McLellan, the first female public safety and emergency preparedness minister.
Alberta-born Beverley McLachlin has the distinction of being the first female chief justice of Canada. Thelma Chalifoux, a high-profile member of the Métis and Indigenous community in Alberta, was the first Indigenous woman to be appointed to the Senate.
And on it goes.
So, when Justin Trudeau, the newly minted prime minister, answered “Because it’s 2015” in response to having appointed Canada’s first-ever gender-balanced federal cabinet, the remark ricocheted around the globe. And what was missed in most commentary that followed was that Alberta, once again, had led the way when Premier Rachel Notley had successfully begun the trend six months prior.
In fact, Notley’s bold moves in the spring of 2015 to secure a gender-balanced slate of candidates, oversee the election of a gender-balanced caucus, and then appoint a gender-parity cabinet, helped to create the conditions for Trudeau’s actions. Albertans, having surprised the country by electing a different governing party for the first time in more than four decades, had embraced what few premiers anywhere in Canada had attempted before: radically distinguish yourself from the old guard by leveraging some of your most talented, albeit new, female MLAs.
Only Quebec’s Premier Jean Charest, a decade earlier, had appointed a gender-parity cabinet up to then. After being reduced to a minority government, Charest knew he had to tap some female heavyweights to restore the confidence of Quebecers.
Following Notley’s actions in 2015, there’s no doubt that the federal Liberals, thirsty to catapult back into government, were motivated by not only Premier Notley’s victory, but her investment in fresh faces and voices, particularly women. It was not surprising, then, that just weeks later, Justin Trudeau committed to a gender-equal cabinet in his platform in the lead-up to the federal election.
At the time, it was one of a myriad of interesting promises, but it stood out. And it stuck. In November 2015, Trudeau made international headlines for undertaking what Premier Notley had already done in one of Canada’s most powerful provinces.
However, without Notley’s leadership, this turn of events was unlikely to have happened. The premier had inspired what academics call the “contagion effect” in which successful political acts are mirrored and absorbed by other parties. Sometimes for better, or worse, or both. Amid the intense cynicism many Canadians feel about politics, this singular act by Premier Notley has changed the game.
Today, provincial and territorial cabinets in Canada have never looked more different. Three jurisdictions now have 40 per cent women in cabinet—Quebec, Ontario, and the Yukon—and two have gender balance: Alberta and British Columbia. In a remarkable twist, the question most premiers now have to confront if they haven’t appointed at least a third women, is why not? It’s a question worth asking.
Given the significance of Persons Day for Alberta and the country, Equal Voice took the opportunity in Calgary today to give Premier Rachel Notley its prestigious EVE Award for her commitment to advancing women in the public sphere. It’s an honour that has been bestowed on just 13 women since Equal Voice’s inception, and it’s meant to recognize trailblazers who are forging a new path for Canadians.
EV seeks out impactful female leaders who are innovative, strategic, and who want to expand the political table. Former prime minister Kim Campbell, former federal ministers Flora MacDonald, Anne McLellan, Leona Aglukkaq, as well as Ontario Premier Kathleeen Wynne and Nunavut former premier Eva Aariak are among the recipients.
To celebrate Premier Notley with Equal Voice’s national award is to not just to recognize her, but also the rich history of fierce Alberta women who, across decades and party lines, did not shirk from carving out new opportunities for women everywhere.
In this way, Premier Notley is not an outlier in Alberta for her commitment to elevating women, but a wonderful embodiment of an enviable Alberta tradition of dynamic leaders who have dared to challenge the status quo, and prevailed.
Nancy Peckford is the executive director for Equal Voice.
The Hill Times
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