Pushing Against the Glass Ceiling

Returning to the book chapter about Canadian political narratives, I realized that I hadn’t paid sufficient attention to National Film Board of Canada documentaries. A look through the online catalogue revealed over 100 documentaries in English that deal with politics or politicians. Breaking them down thematically, one group that stood out is women in politics. I will mention four, all available on the NFB website and all worth watching.

Two of the four were made in the late Seventies and two at the end of the century. They all present the struggle of women to be taken seriously as politicians, to be judged by the same standard as their male colleagues, and ultimately to win leadership positions.

In three of the four documentaries, the creators had privileged access to female politicians’ campaigns, and in all of them the politicians and their advisers gave frank and in-depth interviews afterwards. Collectively, they provide a dynamic, behind-the-scenes, in-the-moment look at women in Canadian politics attempting to break the glass ceiling.

Flora, Anne, Mary, Alexa, and Kim

Peter Raymont’s Flora: Scenes from a Leadership Convention (1977) examines the 1976 federal Conservative’s leadership convention, focusing on the candidacy of Kingston MP and longtime party stalwart Flora MacDonald. MacDonald and her campaign team, especially campaign chair and fundraiser Eddie Goodman, believe that they have run an innovative and enthusiastic campaign, but have been betrayed. In Goodman’s words, “[the delegates] walking into the booth with our buttons and voted for somebody else.” That somebody else was most often Joe Clark, whose policy positions were similar to Flora’s, but who had cleverly positioned himself as everyone’s second choice.

Bonnie Sherr Klein’s The Right Candidate for Rosedale (1979) discusses the hotly-contested Liberal nomination for the 1978 by-election in the downtown Toronto riding of Rosedale. The two candidates are John Evans, former President of the University of Toronto, the choice of the party establishment, and challenger Anne Cools, a Black woman who is the director of a women’s shelter. Liberals in the well-off Rosedale neighborhood suggest that Evans is the right candidate – someone like them – while Cools – someone very unlike them – isn’t. Cools reaches out to low-income residents in the rest of the riding, mobilizing a neglected and excluded community. Ultimately Evans wins the nomination but loses the by-election.

(The film ends in 1978. Evans never ran for office again. Anne Cools won the Liberal for Rosedale in 1979 and 1980 but wasn’t elected. Pierre Trudeau appointed her Canada’s first Black senator in 1984 and she served until mandatory retirement in 2018.)

Meredith Ralston’s Why Women Run (1999) looks at an unusual race involving two high-profile female candidates in the constituency of Halifax in the 1997 federal election. Mary Clancy, the Liberal incumbent first elected in 1988 is challenged by NDP leader Alexa McDonough. The Chretien Government’s 1994-95 Program Review was successful at eliminating the federal deficit, but it incensed voters in Atlantic Canada, a region that suffered severe cuts; the Liberals lost every seat in Nova Scotia. The documentary recounts how the media focus on both female candidates’ appearance. Mary Clancy is fat-shamed, particularly by cartoonists: after her defeat, Prime Minister Chretien appoints her Consul-General in Boston and a cartoonist dubs her “Mary, Queen of Pork.” The successful NDP candidate in the neighbouring riding of Dartmouth, playwright Wendy Lill, admits that her official photograph attempts to make her look as young as possible and her children as old as possible, and that she tries to straighten her curly hair.

Michel Jones’s Kim Campbell Through the Looking Glass (2000) is a biopic about Canada’s nineteenth prime minister, who served for only four months in 1993. It shows how Campbell receives the poisoned chalice of Brian Mulroney’s political legacy and why she and the Conservatives suffer an epic electoral defeat. Everything goes wrong, as was wryly admitted by their campaign manager, John Tory. (Tory illustrates the Peter Principle in reverse, failing in federal politics and then Ontario politics, but now an effective and popular Mayor of Toronto.) The documentary does not minimize Campbell’s responsibility, but it does suggest she is being judged by a different standard than males, with much more attention paid to her appearance and personal story.

How Much Progress?

Looking at these four films, some common threads become apparent.

First, women were being judged on criteria men were not, including their physical appearance, clothing, and even jewellery as well as whether they appeared to be pursuing a political career to the detriment of their children. But those without children were often seen as too ambitious or insufficiently nurturing.

Second, some political jobs at that time were considered inappropriate for women, such as defence minister (minister of death and destruction), finance minister (minister of money), and of course prime minister.

Third, the films can readily be analyzed in terms of my public sector fables. Flora MacDonald, Anne Cools, and Mary Clancy all instantiate the sacrificial fable. They give their all for the party but still end up losing. Anne Cools benefits the Liberal Party by mobilizing a bloc of long-ignored voters. Alexa McDonough instantiates the heroic fable, as she wins the Halifax seat and the NDP does well, regaining official party status.

The Kim Campbell biopic notes that Brian Mulroney left politics with an 18 percent approval rating, that Campbell’s initial approval rating was much higher, but that after the failures of the campaign, the Conservatives won only 18 percent of the vote (and two seats). Campbell’s trajectory leaves room for several interpretations. It could be seen as instantiating the tragic fable in which she and the Conservatives crash and burn. The film also shows us that, after her defeat, Prime Minister Chretien appoints her Consul-General in Los Angeles, hardly a hardship post. The film’s creators often chose Gilbert and Sullivan songs as musical accompaniment (like “Now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee” when she becomes Defence Minister). The message might be that the Conservative Party isn’t Canada and that Campbell’s rise, fall, and partial redemption carry satirical elements.

All four films illustrate the struggles of female politicians in Canada in the last two decades of the previous century. As a male, I would cautiously say that things have improved considerably. The sexism inherent in an inordinate focus on appearance seems to have abated. Now, women form a higher percentage of MPs, the federal cabinet displays gender balance, Chrystia Freeland is Canada’s first female finance minister, and there have been a considerable number of female premiers (though none at the moment). That said, no female politician in Canada has had a career that rivals Margaret Thatcher’s or Angela Merkel’s. Perhaps Chrystia Freeland’s will.

I invite readers, especially female readers, to watch some of these fascinating films and judge for themselves whether they depict milestones along the road to gender equality or ongoing inequity for Canada’s female politicians.

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