A chat with BC’s 35th Premier about Women in Politics
Her press secretary, Sam, refers to his boss as “The Premier.” It’s all very formal, as one might expect when addressing the most powerful woman in the province, but from the minute I secure an interview with the Honourable Christy Clark, I want to call her by her first name.
My intuition proves correct: she’s smart, sophisticated, smoothly articulate (I love her voice) and warmly welcoming.
Wearing a signature suit and her infectious smile, as I hand her a coffee—Starbucks; medium, double-shot latte, refreshingly full fat—she breathes a big sigh.
“Thank-you!” she says toasting her cup in gratitude. “This is the best thing that’s happened to me all day.”
A hundred years since we got the vote
This year—2016—marks the centennial of women’s right to vote in Canada. Women first marked ballots in Manitoba followed by Saskatchewan and Alberta. British Columbian women were next, in 1917. Quebec, the hold-out province, waited until 1940 to allow women the fundamental right—long after the federal government had extended it in national elections (sadly excluding First Nations and Asian women) in 1921.
We’ve come a long way but according to statistics, we still have a ways to go. Half the world’s population is women, yet only about 20% are represented in politics.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has set a course to change that in Canada, naming women to half his cabinet. A bold move in the name of gender-equality but does this province’s leader share the vision?
One of only three female first ministers currently serving the country (Rachel Notley is the New Democratic Party Premier in Alberta while Kathleen Wynne is the Liberal Premier of Ontario), Christy Clark was sworn in as Premier of BC for a second term on June 10, 2013. A month later she was elected MLA of Westside-Kelowna in a by-election. She’s proud of her accomplishments but quick to point out quotas aren’t the way women earn their place in her politics.
“Every single woman that is in my cabinet is there because she has created her job. Look at Shirley Bond. I would argue she’s one of the best cabinet ministers in the country and not because she’s a woman—well...” Clark thinks about it a moment. “Maybe partly because she’s a woman but she’s not there because she’s a woman; she’s there because she’s great.”
MLA for Prince George-Valemount and Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training and Minister Responsible for Labour, Bond boasts an impressive fourteen years of cabinet experience, including serving as Deputy Premier.
She was Minister of Justice when she became the province’s first female Attorney General, earning accolades as a trailblazer and Clark’s immense respect. “Shirley moved conflict out of the courts into less expensive, less confrontational and time consuming forums—more mediation as an example.”
“I don’t see women and men differently in terms of ability but I do recognize that women bring something different to the table.” Clark scoffs at critics who point to the propensity to appoint women to the so-called “so portfolios.”
“Justice Reform—this is not a soft issue!” she says, incredulously. “The reason our society takes rape so seriously is partly because women fought for that. We don’t even think about that today.”
“Since when did education become a soft issue?” the Premier further queries. “It’s the most important investment a society makes. If we want to be a wealthy society, we need to have the best education system we can. And women tend to be more focused on that than men.”
So why aren’t there more of us in politics?
The Premier acknowledges it’s harder to get women to run for office. If more of us don’t throw our hats in the ring, fewer of us will achieve high profile positions. Statistically men are still promoting men and women are still the primary childcare providers (not to mention caregivers to aging parents). Despite a new era for women, we’re still grappling with the old career versus home conflict.
On top of that—Clark doesn’t pull any punches—it’s nasty out there. “We often face barriers we’re not prepared to confront in politics. It can be really ugly.”
No one likes to be criticized for their work; politicians sign up for regular assault. The scrutiny isn’t limited to policy; it often includes personal jabs aimed at more than performance.
“The opposition always talks about me being a ‘photo op’ Premier because I get my picture taken all the time. I’m smiling too much,” Clark says, shaking her head. “You’d never say that to a man. It’s meant to diminish women...all smiles and no brains.”
Here’s the thing: Christy Clark just happens to be strikingly attractive with a signature smile that lights up her face, making her brilliant blue eyes sparkle. Of course that has nothing to do with her ability to lead the country’s third most populated province but the media perpetuates the standard and like it or not, people take note if she gets a haircut.
Maybe the surest sign the playing eld is leveling is when our Prime Minister garners accolades for being charming and handsome, with fine taste in fashion to boot.
Clark doesn’t allow criticism to derail her ambition and moreover, her sense of self. Virtually every day on the job she’s vulnerable but at the end of the day, she’s the boss.
“Yes, it hurts more but how hard is it?” she asks. “I get to be Premier.” The bigger issue—what Clark sees as problematic for many women, no matter our calling—is making ourselves heard.
“Every woman has been there, at the corporate table, when you say something and the guy beside you says the exact same thing and the boss looks at the guy and says, ‘That’s a good point, Joe.’ The impacts are real. You don’t get promoted or listened to. You don’t get that raise you want.”
Perhaps her work in radio (in 2005 she stepped off the political stage and into the control room as a columnist and host of the Christy Clark Show on CKNW) honed her velvety voice because people listen to this Okanagan Woman.
And she listens to them. “My favourite part of the day when the legislature is meeting is when I leave question period and stop and talk with visitors. Where are they from? Why are they there? What do they do? Those interactions mean a lot to me. I learn a lot about the province and where we need to go.”
According to Clark, women’s drive to make a difference makes them good politicians.
“Look at Michelle Stillwell,” she says, referring to the MLA for Parksville-Qualicum and Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation. “She’s a mother of a child with autism, she’s a para-olympian with a gazillion—well, a lot of gold medals,” she says, laughing. “Women say they can’t get into politics because they have kids but maybe that’s why they should. Michelle is having a real impact helping to redesign our policy on children with special needs because she knows it.”
Clark herself holds the notable title of second woman in Canadian history to give birth while serving as a cabinet minister (she was Deputy Minister and Minister of Education in 2001). She credits her fourteen-year old son, Hamish, as inspiration.
“It’s challenging for him, though he’s lived with it for all his life. He doesn’t like that it eats up a lot of our time together but—and this could come across as self-justifying—I wanted to put the BC Liberal party in a position to win the election and I felt I could make a real contribution to that. I thought to myself, I have an opportunity to make a difference, if I turn away from it because it’s going to be hard, I’m setting a really bad example for my son.”
Instead Clark hopes her son will learn the way to change the world is to give back to the community around him.
“There is no realm of employment where you can make a bigger difference than politics. I really believe that. I love getting up every morning and thinking, I get to make a difference today.”
That is right after she stumbles for the coffee pot. “Other than my son, it’s the most essential part of my life—my Nespresso machine,” she jokes.
What this Okanagan Woman wants to share with her Sisters
“There were two years everyone said I couldn’t do it—from between when I got elected leader and then the (2013) election. We went in something like 22 points behind in the polls and the day the election got called everybody had written me off as a loser,” she frankly admits.
“I felt like I was the only person who believed I could win...but what I learned was self-reliance and resilience in the face of doubting.” Attributes a politician surely needs but every woman—regardless of work outside or inside the home— would do well to cultivate.
“It’s hard but don’t give up on yourself. We all have a lot in us and we should nd the strength in ourselves. We are who we choose to be. It’s a message we give our kids but we forget ourselves.”
“It’s hard to become Premier out of nowhere,” Clark advises. “Be a mayor or MLA first.” But be something—because we cannot win if we do not enter the race. “We need a bigger pool to choose from,” she encourages. “I hope some of your readers will say, ‘Okay, I want to put myself in that pool.’”
Wise advice from a woman who would know: March 2016 Christina Joan “Christy” Clark surpassed Eva Aariak of Nunavut to become the longest serving female Premier in Canadian history.
What her girlfriends know about Christy Clark
The Office of the Premier will provide information like “three consecutive balanced budgets” and a “$1.6 Billion surplus this year— keeping BC on track to eliminate the operating debt in four years, for the first time since 1975.” MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey (2011-2013), Port Moody-Burnaby Mountain (1996-2001) and Port Moody-Westwood (2001-2005), Clark’s former positions include Deputy Premier, Minister of Education, Minister of Children and Family Development, and vice- chair of Treasury Board. But here’s what the Premier’s girlfriends know about her—and now you do, too.
She had to fight for her supper:
“I was the last of four kids. Parenting was less purposeful then than now. I learned to fend for myself as my siblings tried to eat off my plate.”
She loves to read: “Right now I’m reading David Brook’s The Road to Character. He chooses people who exemplified some aspect of character and how they got there. It’s really about how we spend a lot of time thinking about material things and exterior things; not a lot thinking about interior things that build character and how goodness and kindness is really the product of a lot of purposeful work in yourself.”
Her best Mother’s Day memory:
“...My son had been up since six. By eight o’clock the eggs—which hadn’t been cooked properly in the first place—were really cold and I was wondering if they were safe to eat...those two hours of him making me the world’s worst breakfast was the greatest gift.
She relishes time with her girlfriends: “We used to call it bookclub. Then we changed it to TV night. Now we just call it GF night. There’s about five of us...we share a meal, a couple of glasses of wine, and laugh our heads off.
She’s into mixology: “I like a nice French 57 with some sparkling wine from the Okanagan...that’s my recipe.”