Guest Commentary

Rita Johnston

Premier Mom

(Editor’s note:  in 1991, former British Columbia Highways Minister Rita Johnston became the first female premier in Canadian history, succeeding Social Credit leader Bill Vander Zalm. Johnston held office for seven months until her party’s defeat in a general election.

Married at 16, Johnston built a successful small business with her husband George prior to entering politics. Unaffected and plain-spoken, Premier Johnson was once asked by a neighbour whether she’d continue to shop at her local Safeway store after attaining high office. “Well, we still need groceries,” Johnston replied.

On June 23, 2011 Johnston spoke with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan. Following is a transcription of the interview)

I just consider myself a woman. I don’t really understand the label ‘feminist’. I have down to earth values, bread-and-butter concerns. I think the majority of people understand plain, simple language and concerns expressed by ordinary working people. That’s basically what I tried to get across.

Oh, I look back. It was fun. It was interesting. I met a lot of really great people. It seems like a long time ago now. I once wrote the Prime Minister and criticized him for not recognizing, in my mind, sufficient numbers of female cabinet ministers. They just were not putting enough of them in cabinet.

When Bill Vander Zalm ran into difficulties and felt it was necessary for him to resign, our caucus was left with the job of selecting a replacement leader. They chose me. I wasn’t running for anything at the time.

Some of them felt I was one of the least likely to become premier. It didn’t work out that way! I hadn’t stepped on anybody’s toes, and we all got along pretty well. I think probably I was a comfortable choice for a lot of people in caucus.

I talked to my husband George about it. We decided there was nothing to lose. The learning curve turned out to be like a pressure cooker. They were the most demanding, challenging months of my life, I’m sure. It is not something many people have a chance to experience, and I’m very pleased and proud I was able – even for a short period of time – to occupy that office.

Reporters called me “Premier Mom”. I preferred Madam Premier. It wasn’t something I lost any sleep over.

When I left office, the letters I got were just so heartwarming. The people were so warm and friendly and supportive that you couldn’t help but feel good, even if you lost the election. Losing anything is sad. For me and my family, and all the people who worked really hard to get me elected, that was the tough part.

Today I look back and it seems like it never happened. Occasionally somebody comes up to me and says, “Weren’t you in Victoria?” It’s funny. That seems like a hundred years ago.

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