Back in 1989, Edmonton elected its first female mayor, Jan Reimer. While Reimer was running for the post, she says the media and society’s idea of a woman was someone who belonged at home and women in politics received greater attention from the media just for being a woman.
“I think there was a different approach in terms of how you were received. If you changed your hairstyle, there was much greater attention to that,” she says.
Reimer ran for mayor with a plan she was fully committed to.
“I guess, just that desire to make a difference. I had already served on the city council for three terms and that’s a lot of time. It was either a ride for me or not. I just thought, why not try?” Reimer says.
Reimer served as mayor until 1995. She hopes her time in office will inspire other women.
“I want to set a role model for young women growing up to see what they could be. Imagine the generations of men that would grow up, never seen a male mayor and that’s what has been happening for women. But sadly, we still have yet to have another female,” she says.
A history of female leadership
There’s a long, diverse history of Canadian women who came before Reimer who were key to the advancement of women leadership in politics.
In 1917, Louise McKinney, paved the way for all women in the province when she became the first woman sworn into the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, and the first elected to a legislature in the British Empire.
McKinney was not the only trailblazer of female leadership in Canada. Another key figure was Violet King, who, in 1954, became the first Black person to obtain a law degree in Alberta. She relocated to New York City and worked as an executive with the national YMCA organization.
In the 1960s Myrtle Sayers Leadlay created leisure opportunities for disabled people in Edmonton. Due to her work and discipline, Leadlay became the first ever municipal director for what was then called “handicapped recreational services,” not only in the province, but in the entire country.
Bertha Clark-Jones is a veteran of the Second World War who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Aboriginal Veteran Society in 1940. Jones was the co-founder and first president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. She fought for equal rights in Alberta for Indigenous ex-service people due to the discrimination she encountered when she returned home.
Another Indigenous woman to remember and recognize is Thelma Chalifoux. In 1997, Chalifoux was the first Métis woman appointed to the Senate of Canada. Chalifoux was an advocate for women and Ingenious rights, and was known for her work in protecting Métis culture. She served in Alberta’s Métis Senate and founded the Michif Cultural Connections.
Leaders of local politics
City councils in Calgary and Edmonton also have their share of great women leaders throughout history.
Izena Ross was the first female city councillor in Edmonton, and is recognized for her political career that began in 1921 and lasted only one year. Her story and career were the subject of a podcast last year by the YWCA Edmonton called Searching for Izena.
In 1974, Virnetta Anderson was the first Black woman to be elected into Calgary’s city council. When she enlisted her name on the civic ballots, she faced backlash and was referred to as a “housewife” by the media. Despite this discrimination, Anderson proved what she was capable of and went on to having an essential role in the development of Calgary’s C-Train and the Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts.
Women leaders today
Calgary’s Mayor Jyoti Gondek is the latest breakthrough in a long line of political women. However, female politicians say there’s always room for better and more diverse representation in Alberta’s politics.
Ward 3 Coun. Jasmine Mian became the youngest woman ever elected to Calgary city council when she was voted-in last fall at age 31. She says a diverse council is a more effective one.
“I think what’s important is that we are making our world a more inclusive place and recognizing the strengths of all people, whether that’s by gender or by race and knowing that when we have that diversity, it often just leads to better outcomes and better systems,” Mian says.
Reimer, who now is the executive director for the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelter, says Gondek’s election gave her hope. She believes Gondek being in office makes a difference in the way society thinks and understands politics.
“Having that visibility for women being able to see that women can move from non-traditional roles, make hard decisions, influence public life and have an impact, I think it’s a really important thing for women and girls to see,” she says.
Reimer offers this advice to Gondek:
“Be yourself, stay true to your values. There’s enormous pressure on female politicians to be something else. Be true to yourself, be true to your values. I know it sounds easy to say, sometimes it’s not so easy to do, because that’s the pressure that is on you in terms of decisions.”
Mian agrees regarding the duty of women to instill change. She says those in government must speak up and act in getting more women involved in politics, governments and any role available.
“We have to change systems in order to make them more inclusive,” Mian says. “And I don’t think that we’re going to get more diversity and more women in leadership if the system that we have is not designed to welcome them.”