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Scottish Canadian Politicians

Kim Campbell (1947- ):

Canada's First Female Prime Minister

"In a democracy, government isn't something that a small group of people do to everybody else, it's not even something they do for everybody else, it should be something they do with everybody else."
~ Kim Campbell [25 March 1993]
Kim Campbell
Kim Campbell

Canada's first female Prime Minister was born in Port Aberni, British Columbia, as Avril Phaedra Douglas Campbell. She nicknamed herself "Kim" in Grade 9 after her mother left the family and moved to Europe. "In hindsight," she wrote of the name change in her autobiography, Time and Chance [available from the Windsor Public Library ISBN: 0385255276], "the desire to flee from a name so closely associated with Mum on the one hand, but to reinforce my attachment to her on the other, indicates my natural emotional confusion towards her at that time." 1

Campbell's on-camera career began when CBC producers came to her primary school scouting for talent for their upcoming show, Junior Television Club, which ran for nine weeks in the spring of 1957. The ten-year-old auditioned for the program and was chosen to be its host. Campbell cited this early endeavor, which put her into roles such as interviewer and panel moderator, as a valuable experience for her future career in public service.

The extroverted child never shied away from attention; showing natural talent for music and entertaining (she learned to play the piano and guitar by ear), her extra-curricular pursuits always involved an audience. In high school she joined theatre and music clubs, and also began her foray into politics, becoming the first female Student Council President at Prince of Wales Secondary School.

As a political science undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, Campbell developed into the person she would bring to the national stage. Her conservative, traditionalist views made her an oddity on a campus full of left-wing student movements and anti-Vietnam demonstrations. Fellow student council member Don Munton recalled, "Some people on the executive would get ticked off because she would go her own way; they thought she broke ranks and grandstanded, but I thought she had a natural instinct for politics. She had an extremely good sense of when to take a stand on a popular issue." 2 This natural instinct, Munton seems to have suggested, was opportunistic, and would be the characteristic to precipitate her surge to the top.

Painting of Campbell
Painting of Campbell

After earning a B.A. in Political Science from the University of British Columbia in 1969, Campbell enrolled in the London School of Economics and Political Science on a scholarship to pursue a doctorate in Soviet Government. After completing a three-month study in the Soviet Union in 1972, however, she abandoned her studies and returned to Vancouver, confirmed in the belief that "the rule of law is the foundation of a free and democratic society," and contemptuous for any idea involving collective justice to solve social problems. 3 Upon her return, she married Nathan Divinsky, a UBC mathematics professor twice her age and partner of five years. Divinsky, a renowned chess master, was outspoken about his reactionary, elitist leanings, and validated his young girlfriend's conservative views. "I always knew that I was a Conservative," she said, reflecting on her distinctive politics for -a woman of her society and generation, "in the sense of belonging to a political party. Most of the young people I knew who were movers and shakers on campus were Liberals, because that was the party in government, and it seemed to me that their main interest was in furthering their careers.... It was like belonging to a nice club and that didn't appeal to me at all." 4

Campbell lectured part-time in political science at her alma mater and at Vancouver Community College, but without a Ph.D. could not obtain a permanent position. Faced with a career dead-block, she enrolled in UBC's law program in 1979 to pursue politics. Still in possession of theatrical inclinations, she entertained her peers by writing, producing and performing skits that satirized Liberal leaders. After a year of studies, she decided to put her conservative views into practice by running for - and winning - a seat on Vancouver's public school board.

The sharp-tongued Scotswoman gained swift notoriety and notice for her tough negotiation skills. Her strong personality made it difficult for colleagues to remain neutral about her, and they were quick to make her an ally or an enemy. One such combatant, Phil Rankin, said of the woman who sat on the school board with him, "she's arrogant and absolutely one of the most outrageously rude and self-centred people I've ever met." 5 But the voters liked her style; they returned her to the school board in 1982 with overwhelming support, and she was promoted to Board Chairman.

As Chair of the Board, Campbell presided over its $150 million annual budget and vigorously defended controversial cost-cutting measures. Her commitment to fiscal restraint and a refusal to withdraw in the face of opposition from the teachers' union impressed Bill Bennett, the right-wing Social Credit Premier, who recruited her for the provincial legislature in 1983. Although she was defeated, she sufficiently impressed the Premier - he offered her the position of executive director of his office in 1985 after she finished articling at Ladner Downs.

Full of drive and ambition, Campbell acted against the advice of her colleagues and contested leadership of the provincial Social Credit Party after Bennett resigned the next year. And while winning only fourteen of nearly thirteen hundred votes cast by delegates at the convention could have been humiliating, Campbell's powerful speech impressed primetime television audiences enough that they put her into the provincial Legislative Assembly that October. Two years later she set her sights on national politics, and won the Vancouver Centre riding as a Progressive Conservative.

Minister of Justice
Minister of Justice

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was attracted to Campbell's fresh face, her strong personality, and her charismatic attitude, and brought her into his cabinet as Junior Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. In 1990 she made history by becoming Canada's first female Minister of Justice and Attorney General, adding a bit of sex appeal to the office when she posed bare-shouldered behind her justice robes in an official portrait. Her reaction to the promotion was joyous: "I wanted to throw my arms into the air and shout 'Yahoo!'" she wrote unabashedly in her memoir.

As Attorney General, Campbell developed a considerable profile. She championed stricter gun control regulations after the infamous murder of female engineering students in Montreal and adopted legislation establishing more stringent standards for the prosecution of rapists. When critics condemned her support for the criminalization of abortion as hypocritical, her growing number of admirers replied that she was adapting to political realities, learning the flexibility that she had been accused of lacking.

By 1993, Campbell had captured Canada's full attention. Her promotion to Minister of National Defense and Veterans Affairs hoisted her into the Conservative vanguard - and when Mulroney announced his retirement in February 1993, she seemed a likely successor. Full of wit, energy, and "winnability," Campbell defeated Jean Charest at the Progressive Conservative Leadership Convention in June. The Governor General appointed her Prime Minister on 25 June 1993, making her Canada's - and North America's - first female head of government.

Mulroney / Campbell Cartoon
Mulroney / Campbell Cartoon

Campbell spent the remainder of the year in the media spotlight campaigning for the fall election, and by mid-summer had almost caught up to the Liberals in the polls. But the party's high hopes for retaining power began to falter as Campbell's massive popularity declined in a series of public-relations blunders. At the convention, delegates saw her frank honesty as an important asset to contrast against Mulroney's highly-polished oratory. This asset, however, backfired when she admitted to reporters that it was unlikely either the deficit or unemployment would be reduced much before the "end of the century." During her campaign, she further stated that discussing a complete overhaul of Canada's nuanced, complex social policies couldn't be done in a mere forty-seven days - a comment that the media paraphrased into "an election is no time to discuss serious issues," perhaps in attempt to charge her with having a hidden agenda.

Without time to establish a new record for her own government before the election, Campbell was vulnerable to the public's negative perceptions of her party and her predecessor. Canadian humorist Will Ferguson suggested that "taking over the party leadership from Brian [Mulroney] was a lot like taking over the controls of a 747 just before it plunges into the Rockies." 6 Campbell had no room for even the slightest error. Moreover, the stinging barb she had launched about the new Socred Premier, Bill Vander Zalm, at the 1986 BC convention - "Charisma without substance is a dangerous thing" - had returned to haunt her.

Conservative support dropped off as quickly as it had risen. By October, it was clear that the Conservatives would not win a majority, even though Campbell was a more popular personality than Chretien. Seeking drastic measures, the Conservative campaign team ran a series of vicious attack ads against the Liberal leader, one of which appeared to mock the facial paralysis he suffered as a result of Bell's Palsy. Backlash rained down from all sides. Although Campbell maintained that she was not directly responsible for it, she did not apologize, and thus lost the chance to contain its damage. Polls revealed that Conservative support had plummeted into the teens.

"Cream-a-tory Soup"
"Cream-a-tory Soup"

On election night, the Conservatives were swept out of office in the worst defeat in party history, with Campbell herself being unseated in her own Vancouver Centre parliamentary riding. She resigned as party leader and dropped out of federal and provincial politics.

Chatelaine's 1993 "Woman of the Year" spent, and continues to spend, her post-parliamentary career on the international forum. Her first move was to return to teaching, delivering political science lectures at Harvard University before the Liberal government appointed her Consul General to Los Angeles in 1996. When that post expired in 2000, she returned to Harvard for three more years. In the new millennium, Campbell chaired such organizations as the Council of Women World Leaders and the International Women's Forum. She was a founding member of the Club of Madrid, an association for former heads-of-government dedicated to strengthening democracy around the world, and assumed the role of Secretary General in 2004. She also served on the Board of the International Crisis Group and several other international advisory bodies.

Former Prime Ministers
Former Prime Ministers

Campbell chronicled her quick rise to the top and equally fast fall from grace in her best-selling 1996 autobiography, Time and Chance: The Political Memoirs of Canada's First Woman Prime Minister. Despite the disastrous 1993 defeat, Campbell today stands in history as the woman who broke Canada's last glass ceiling.

  1. Campbell, Kim, Time and Chance
  2. Dobbin, Murray, The Politics of Kim Campbell: From School Trustee to Prime Minister, J. Lorimer: Toronto, 1993. 4
  3. Dobbin, 5
  4. Dobbin, 2
  5. The Ottawa Citizen, 27 March 1993
  6. Ferguson, Will, Bastards and Boneheads: Canada's Glorious Leaders Past and Present, Douglas & McIntyre: Vancouver/Toronto, 1999. 284
The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and
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