fbpx Skip to content

A Conversation with Canada’s first female Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Kim Campbell

A WOMAN OF GROUNDBREAKING FIRSTS: Canada’s first female Prime Minister looks back on her storied career.

After breaking barriers in her rise to become Canada’s first female Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Kim Campbell remains a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.

She began bursting through glass ceilings at the young age of 16, when she became the first female student body president of her high school in Vancouver. Before rising to prominence as Canada’s first female PM in 1993, Campbell had already blazed a new trail for women in politics as the first woman in Canada to hold the portfolios of Minister of Justice, Attorney General and Minister of Defence, and the first woman to be a defence minister of a NATO country.

“Politics was a wonderful way for me to fulfill many of my goals,” Campbell says of her historic career. “It was an extraordinary education and enabled me to do a lot of very important things. Having been PM allows me to open doors for people and has been very helpful in my work advancing democracy in countries around the world.”

Her accomplishments are all the more impressive given that politics wasn’t a career she actively sought out. “I didn’t grow up in a particularly political family,” she recalls, noting the idea of entering politics came to her while lecturing in political science at both the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Community College.

Involved in academics, Campbell went on to be the trustee for the Vancouver School Board and served as chair in 1983 and vice-chair in 1984. She entered provincial politics a few years later, running unsuccessfully for the BC Social Credit Party. In October 1986, she was elected to the British Columbia Legislative Assembly. “It sort of unfolded naturally from my other experiences,” she says of her political path. “I had the chance to run for school board and found I had the proper temperament for politics. But being Prime Minister was something I never imagined, it wasn’t in my plan.”

Those plans changed dramatically after then-PM Brian Mulroney resigned in February 1993 in the hopes of bolstering his party’s chances in the upcoming general election.

“Mulroney really waited until the last minute and none of us knew whether he was going to step down or not,” Campbell says. “It all happened very fast. I announced my candidacy in March and then the leadership convention was in June. So there was very little time to do much before we had to call an election.”

Despite the rocky road that led to her term as PM, Campbell says she relished the experience.

“It was wonderful,” she says of her term. “Although it was shorter than I would have liked, I’m quite comfortable with what I accomplished. For me the challenge was not having enough time to change the face of the government and convince Canadians to give the party a second chance.”
During her short term in office, Campbell focused on overhauling and streamlining government operations. This included cutting the cabinet from 35 to 23 ministers and consolidating ministries by creating three new entities: the Ministries of Health, Canadian Heritage and Public Safety.

“I want to encourage Canada to become more engaged internationally. I think we have an obligation to engage with international issues and be a player as much as we can, while also preserving what is good in the country. There are continuing challenges for Canada, but you never really solve all challenges. Each generation will always have a new challenge to face.”

“One thing I focused on was the process of doing politics,” she explains. “People don’t seem to think that’s important, but it’s very important in terms of making decisions. I was thinking of how to strengthen things that Canadians felt were fundamental to their social contract, while at the same time dealing with a very difficult deficit situation.”

Despite her growing popularity, including a 51 per cent approval rating that ranked her as the most popular PM in 30 years, Campbell and the Progressive Conservatives were defeated by Jean Chretien’s Liberals in the 1993 election.

Since then, she has made a name for herself internationally as secretary general of the Club of Madrid, an organization of former heads of government and state who work to promote democratization, Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders and president of the International Women’s Forum, among other things.

Her success defied the expectations of many who expected her to fall apart after her defeat. “I was very disappointed, I’m a human being, but if one door closes I find one more will open,” she says of the loss. “My perspective is I tend not to think in terms of failures, I think all the things you face tend to show how strong you are. I feel fortunate to have a life where I’ve had to deal with crises.”

Much of Campbell’s work in the years following her defeat has revolved around democracy and the status of women. Many would argue she is especially qualified to deal with the latter after her lengthy experience in the male-dominated political arena.

“For many people it was very exciting to have a woman as PM, but it was also a challenge in many ways,” she explains. “It’s always a challenge to break through when you’re part of a non-traditional group. When people think you don’t belong, they never give you the benefit of the doubt. When Chretien made errors or gaffes people said ‘oh, that’s just him,’ because people thought he belonged there. Whereas with me, it justified the belief that I didn’t belong there.”

Although there have been improvements, Campbell believes there is still much to be done when it comes to equality, noting that many may not even recognize their prejudice.

“It’s not that people are consciously trying to be unfair, it’s just that we all have these unconscious biases,” she says. “Organizations now are much more explicit in the need to create equality for women. History has shown that when you don’t involve women, peace processes break down. So there are a lot of things that are now accepted as conventional wisdom. Implementing them may be a different story, but we’re not fighting against that fundamental philosophical idea of women as lesser anymore.”

When it comes to equality within government, however, many countries are lagging. Canada is currently ranked 40th on the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s List of Women in National Politics.

One advancement Campbell would like to see at home is the implementation of proportional representation. “The first past the post system is tough for equality,” she explains, suggesting a two-member constituency where each electoral district would vote for one man and one woman. “That way you would not lose that grassroots movement of nominating candidates, but it would do away with competition between male and female and create co-operation instead of competition.”

Currently in San Diego with husband Hershey Felder, an actor, playwright and composer, Campbell generally splits her time between the U.S. and France — when she’s not travelling, of course. Despite the constant globetrotting, her homeland is never far from her mind.
“When I’m working in these centres trying to build democracy, what I learned as a leader in Canada is very valuable,” she says. “I try to have a sense of responsibility from having had the great honour to serve as PM. I consider myself in many ways an ambassador of Canada.”

Campbell praises Canada for its position as a global leader, calling it a “remarkable country,” but says she would like to see more leadership on global issues, such as climate change.

“I want to encourage Canada to become more engaged internationally,” she says. “I think we have an obligation to engage with international issues and be a player as much as we can while also preserving what is good in the country. There are continuing challenges for Canada, but you never really solve all challenges. Each generation will always have a new challenge to face.”

Campbell says she’s currently trying to “simplify” her life in order to focus on plans for a book. And although she may be slowly retreating from public life, one thing is clear, Campbell still has much to contribute to global dialogue.