This week, Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose announced her departure from federal politics. She is only the third women to lead the Official Opposition in Canada’s Parliament, all of whom have done so on an “interim basis”.
Few people realize that Reform MP Deborah Grey was the first woman to occupy that position, after Preston Manning stepped down as leader of the party in 2000. NDP MP Nycole Turmel was the next woman to step into this role, after Jack Layton’s tragic and untimely death.
In many respects, Ambrose was the most qualified of Official Opposition female leaders, having served in Cabinet in multiple portfolios. She was clear from the start that she only wanted the position in the short term. She held true to her word, despite the fact that more than a few Conservatives thought she should throw her hat into the leadership ring.
In the House of Commons this week, after listening to many accolades from MPs across the aisle, she joked that if MPs wanted to hear such kind words from their opponents in the House, the key was not to work harder or stay longer, but just announce your departure. It was a poignant example of Ambrose’s wit and humility, both of which were defining characteristics of her tenure in the federal political arena.
Canadians were first acquainted with her as environment minister under the newly elected Harper minority government in 2006. During a turbulent first year, she would come face to face with sexism when her hair was used to deride her credibility — and that of her government — vis a vis their controversial position on the Kyoto protocol, a major global climate change action plan.
Ambrose weathered the storm, at least in the short term, challenging some of her own senior officials and prominent environmental groups about the need to commit to Kyoto benchmarks. It was a tough portfolio, and a divisive one given the widely varying opinions Canadians and industry had on the need for more concerted action to reduce greenhouse gases.
Though she did not last as environment minister, she had shown her chops and was appointed minister of inter-governmental affairs, labour and minister of public works in subsequent Harper governments. She also served as minister responsible for the status of women for some of that time. There is no doubt that she had the respect of the prime minister.
Whether she held the respect of all women is another question. But does any politician?
Ambrose was the first status of women minister to question when life begins, and voted in 2012 in favour of a motion to examine that very fact. For abortion advocates, it was seen as an abrogation of her responsibility as minister of status of women. For anti-choice advocates, it was a huge win. In the end, the motion was quashed but Ambrose’s support of it remained a sore point.
Yet, for Equal Voice, Rona Ambrose demonstrated why the work we do is so important. For aspiring young women, she has been strong example of a younger woman, elected at 35, who was tasked with some of the most complex roles in government. And while the road was often bumpy, she rose to the challenge more than once, surviving in a hyper partisan environment where parties do not hesitate to eat their own.
Ambrose also encouraged other women to run, and was active in securing and supporting female candidates for her party. This was important given that less than 20 per cent of her own caucus were women.
But perhaps her legacy is best characterized by her enthusiasm to establish the International Day of the Girl Child. As status of women minister, she sponsored the resolution and on Dec, 19, 2011, the United Nations General Assembly passed it by a majority vote.
The resolution was inspired by the need to not just invest in girls via health, education and leadership opportunities, but to also insist that they can do anything they set their minds to.
And there is no doubt that Ambrose has done that in spades. Not surprisingly, more than a few young women aspire to follow in her footsteps.
— Nancy Peckford is the national spokeswoman for Equal Voice, an organization dedicated to electing more women in Canada.