No easy road for females in politics, says Michelle Cleary-Haire

Michelle Cleary-Haire
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“She’s gone by’s she’s gone.”

Michelle Cleary-Haire

This is a Facebook status I read last week posted by a friend recently elected to municipal politics. I knew immediately what she was referring to: the resignation of premier Kathy Dunderdale, the province’s first female premier.

I watched television as the premier made her announcement. She spoke eloquently and honestly about her time in office and of her passion for the province, its people and her time as premier.

I first met Kathy Dunderdale when I worked for a provincial organization and she was a member of the board of directors. At one point the two of us were interviewed for the same job as executive director of the organization (neither of us was the successful candidate). I remember that day well as we spoke for almost an hour in the parking lot about the job interview and politics. She had started campaigning in her district for an election that was almost a year away, so I knew she was determined to become the MHA for her district.

Cold shoulder

The second time I saw her — she was premier by this time — was at Winners in St. John’s. My daughters and I were in the shoe section when she came towards us. I introduced myself, stating, "I used to work with you and I am happy to see how far you’ve come.”

“Yes,” she said, "I know who you are.”

She appeared irritated or just plain not interested. I turned and left.

My daughters looked at me with big eyes and asked, “Who is that?”

I told them it was the premier, and they wondered why she looked so serious. Then they giggled that she was shopping for shoes, just like them.

Needles to say I was not impressed. She had dedicated a good part of her volunteer and working life to encouraging and mentoring females, yet she turned a cold shoulder to us.


The last time I saw her was at a meeting to open the campaign office for Jack Harrington in Carbonear. She spoke with passion and clarity and positivity, I left that meeting wishing the Kathy I heard that night was the Kathy I heard when she was interviewed in the media.

To me it seemed like she was sometimes verbally attacking the journalists. It was like she forgot other people were watching and listening and she was just dealing with the one person in front of her. I feel like she was not open to hearing the opinions of others.

I wish she had better people advising her because the night she said “this is not a crisis” in referring to the power backout, when thousands of people were without heat and light, was the night I knew she was finished. Her approval of Bill 29, the way she handled Muskrat Falls, and the provincial layoffs all impacted people’s perception of her, whether they were the right decisions or not.

Instead of the people of the province seeing her down at one of the warming centres cooking up a feed of hot soup, she stood in the front of the camera and told us, “we are not in crisis." As compassionate a person as I believe she is, it did not matter; the damage was done. As my mother used to say, “It is not the situation, but how you react to it that matters.”

A few tears

Despite this, I was sad the day she resigned. I wish she could have fulfilled her mandate. I wanted her to go out on her terms because the females in this province need that. They need to see that women in politics can make mistakes but they won’t necessarily be crucified for them.

She was criticized about her weight, her physical attributes and how she dressed and more; more than any man in provincial politics. Yet, she walked with her head held high. It's a testament to her strength of character and self-esteem. 

Sadly, I think women who offer themselves up for public office will oftentimes face more criticism from women than men.

A role model

Kathy Dunderdale entered provincial politics in 2003 and became leader of the conservative party when Danny Williams retired in 2010. In October 2011 she was the first female elected to the position of premier in the province’s history, and the sixth woman to serve as a premier in the history of Canada.

That's no small feat.

Recently I listened as David Cochrane of CBC News listed some of the possible contenders for leadership of the provincial Conservative. Guess what? The 10 listed were male.

Having been involved in municipal politics and always an armchair politician, I was not surprised, just disappointed.

In 2001, I organized a group of women and we formed a committee called WIN — Women Interested in Networking — as a way to encourage and motivate women all across the province to consider running for politics. The provincial government became involved financially and we were able to hold meetings in Harbour Grace and a few other large centres in the province.

These meetings were well advertised as the media too got involved. I remember the government minister at the time telling us that the government would make sure that this kind of networking would continue through the coming years in some form as to continue to encourage, inspire and motivate more women to enter politics.

Obviously, that did not happen. I don't think much has changed since 2001, and the recent municipal election in St. John's is a reflection of this, with no females winning a council seat.

Female perspective

Whenever I write on this subject, I always get those few men and women who rib me about being a “women’s libber” and “men basher.”

However, the truth is I speak my mind when I feel there is an injustice. Fact is, around the tables around where decisions are made, female voices must be present because when all perspectives are included, the final decision will be the best one.

But before we can vote for women, we need them to offer their time and talent to municipal, provincial and federal politics. The reasons more women are not running may be valid but we must all encourage our daughters and sisters and aunts and mothers and friends to use their leadership skills in guiding and leading us in a healthier and stronger direction for future generations.

According to Statistics Canada, females represent 50.4 per cent of the total population. If we organize our female voices we would be a powerhouse of political strength. Evidently, we have a lot to do based on the current number of women in leadership.

That said, regardless of our political stripe, the former premier deserves our gratitude for giving of her time and talent.

— Michelle Bernadette Cleary-Haire resides in Harbour Grace, and is a former municipal leader. She is married, is the mother of three daughters, and is a teacher employed with the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District.

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Recent comments

  • sharon braithwaite5364
    February 07, 2014 - 02:08

    Hr.Grace is lucky to have someone like Michelle Cleary-Haire, who takes such an interest in her town and community,perhaps if more women in Hr. Grace took the time to become involved ,you never know where that would take you. good job Michelle.

  • sharon shugarue braithwaite
    February 07, 2014 - 01:45

    Hr.Grace is lucky to have someone like Michelle Cleary-Haire, who takes such an interest in her town and community,perhaps if more women in Hr. Grace took the time to become involved ,you never know where that would take you. good job Michelle.

  • Betty Carew
    February 06, 2014 - 15:56

    I truly enjoyed reading your article. As for myself I felt pride when Kathy Dunderdale was elected. I felt shame as she lost touch with her people, especially during the power outage and I felt sad when she resigned. She not only hurt her own image but I think it was detrimental to any female that runs for the position of Premier. People don't forget mistakes easily. I hope I'm proven wrong.

  • Jamie O'Flaherty
    Jamie O'Flaherty
    February 03, 2014 - 10:05

    As time goes on, there's more and more talk about needing more females in politics, at all 3 levels. However, in order for that to happen, more need to run. Sheilagh O'Leary recently commented on the radio about the lack of women getting elected in municipal and provincial politics. What she neglected to say, was how few there were who were interested enough to run. Is this quote from your article the reason why? Because, unfortunately, I believe it to be true: "She was criticized about her weight, her physical attributes and how she dressed and more; more than any man in provincial politics."

  • gord
    February 01, 2014 - 22:21

    Many critics of K Dunderdale's performance appear to get personal on some points and this erodes reader confidence as I think happens here. Reading this gave me the impression of putting someone down to build yourself up!

  • dougie
    February 01, 2014 - 12:13

    The premier 's resignation has nothing to do with gender, it has to do with poor performance.

  • Lloyd Mushrow
    January 31, 2014 - 12:24

    Unfortunately when striving for equality one must remember that any movement must carefully be analized to make sure it is equal and ballanced, otherwise it would defeat the purpose.