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June 24, 2019

Leading the Leaders

Kim Campbell briefly held the country’s top office as prime minister – now she’s a founding member of the U of A’s forthcoming college for decision-makers.

Photography Curtis Trent

The 19th prime minister of Canada emerged from around a corner at the University of Alberta and shook my hand. “Hi,” she said, “Kim Campbell.”

 It’s hard to imagine another former state leader introducing herself by name, but Campbell’s time in 24 Sussex was brief, if not blurry. She had been ministers of State for Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Justice, National Defence and Veteran Affairs. But her four months as prime minister were succinct compared to her contemporaries’ tenures. So her face – the shoulder-length blonde hair, the prominent nose – were never as indelible on the Canadian psyche as her name. The name, though, grips you as firmly as her handshake and reminds you of a national landmark, when Canada was one of the earliest democracies with a female head of state, even if the history-maker’s face is hard to place.

It also reminds you of the historic demise of the Canada’s founding party, the Progressive Conservatives, reduced from a majority government to two seats – neither her own Vancouver Centre riding – under her brief leadership.

So it might seem ironic that Campbell, whose 1993 political campaign Saturday Night magazine called the worst in Canadian history, is a founding principal of the Peter Lougheed Leadership Institute (PLLI), the U of A’s forthcoming college for tomorrow’s political, nongovernmental and corporate decision-makers. But such a judgement would dismiss her last chapter:Teaching at Harvard’s Centre for Public Leadership, the PLLI’s inspiration; founding the Club of Madrid for former heads of state and government; and persistently promoting the advancement of women through any means, including the Council of Women World Leaders, where she was chair emerita.

Campbell led me to her office on the second floor of the U of A’s President’s Building and sat behind an L-shaped desk in her office. “When people asked why do you want to be here,” she explained, “it’s because I like to build things. It’s an opportunity for me to bring together different things from my last 20 years and tie them up in a little bow.”

Her stylishness – gold-buttoned down black jacket, drooping pearl earrings and light floral scarf – highly contrasted the humble office with a sinkage window high up on a bare beige wall. She had just settled into the job two weeks before. By fall 2016, however, Campbell will have the most important room in the new college, currently being built on a southern campus lot, where she’ll direct an interdisciplinary program nudging 250 undergrads – with the goal to reach many more – towards future leadership positions. Though her academic and political background suggests a fated journey to the PLLI’s principal position, it was only after speaking at a fundraiser for the nascent college in 2013 that it clicked together for both Campbell and the university.

“It’s not like the university did not produce leaders until we came along,” she said. “Yes, universities are producing leaders, but it’s becoming a more complex challenge. The days when someone said, ‘I’m going to be a bank president or a university president, or a CEO or prime minister, and I’m only going to deal with people who look like me’ are gone. We’re a more inclusive society.”

Whether the same can be said about politics is debatable, at least in terms of gender equality.

In 2004, Campbell’s painted portrait was unveiled on the wall of the prime ministers’ gallery. “I really look forward to the day when there are many other female faces,” she said then. Today Canada is no closer than it was when she left politics in 1993.

Why has the advancement of women been so slow? “It’s complicated,” said Campbell. We need more “pipelines” that promote gender parity but, she added, the adversarial nature of politics is still unappealing to many women. “When you’re in politics, you struggle for power and people want it, and they’re prepared to do and say anything for it, and they’re prepared to go after women in a different way than they go after men.”

It was a fitting statement on that late April afternoon. The cover of the folded newspaper on Campbell’s desk told yet another scandal in the Alison Redford opera, even though the former premier resigned a month before. The role of sexism in Redford’s ousting was well reported, but remains arguable. However, the relentlessness media coverage, the leper-like treatment from her own PC party, the Carmen Sandiego-like game of guessing her whereabouts after resigning – all of it felt familiar.

Some have blamed the sudden and relentless turn on Campbell during the 1993 election on sexism. Others, on a mediocre campaign where gaffes tumbled into each other like dominoes. Neither would be wrong. But one can’t dismiss the feminized insults, including “social climber” and “Mulroney in a skirt.” She felt she was treated more as a novelty and personality than an accomplished member of parliament. “I think that, as a woman, I never got the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “There were a lot of dynamics that I couldn’t understand till later.”

The return to academia (she taught at Vancouver post-secondaries before she became a school trustee in 1983 and thus entered politics) allowed Campbell to reexamine her whirlwind political career. As a fellow at the Institute of Politics and the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Study of Press and Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in the mid-1990s, Campbell immersed herself in gender and race-related social sciences. Much of it became part of her courses.

“I hope that material will be taught [at the PLLI] and offered in some way,” she said. “Not just because of its relevance to gender, but to so many different characteristics we have, which can get in the way of people allowing us to be who we are and all we can do.” Self-awareness is a tool, she explained, to enable students to become better leaders, whether in the private or public sector.

Campbell acknowledged that the opportunities to teach, to lead again, have come from that blip in Canadian history when she headed the nation. “I did not want to make a career out of being prime minister,” she said, “[but] it was a piece of political capital that I could use to open doors.” Doors she hopes Canada’s next female prime minister will walk through.

“One of the reasons I won’t just go away – read books and follow my husband [producer, actor, pianist and playwright Hershey Felder] around and watch him play – is because we still have work to do. If I disappear, that’s a loss, because people need to know that once in this peaceful kingdom, for a brief period of time, a woman was the prime minister of Canada and hopefully someday there will be another one.”

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