Premier Kathy Dunderdale beamed, looking out over a cavernous room packed with women at the Delta Hotel in St. John’s Thursday afternoon.
“Welcome sisters,” Dunderdale shouted. “The only experience that I can relate this day to is the day that I got married. I’ve been that excited all week.”
Ovations, held Thursday in
St. John’s ,was a conference and a celebration for women of Newfoundland and Labrador, billed as “applauding accomplishments of women in our communities.”
In the afternoon, women listened to a panel discussion and a keynote speech by Iron Ore Co. (IOC) CEO Zoë Yujnovich.
As the first female premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Dunderdale said she does feel like somebody who managed to shatter a glass ceiling, but at the same time, she said women can’t stop fighting.
“I was also the first woman president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Municipalities,” she said. “That’s 20-something years ago now, and there hasn’t been a woman since.”
Dunderdale pointed out that in her own role as a politician, the structures are primarily geared towards men. She pointed to one of her lieutenants in cabinet, Charlene Johnson, who is the minister responsible for the status of women.
“Minister Johnson is the first woman to give birth while sitting as an MHA. Now, what do we do about things like maternity leave, and how do you manage your family?” she said. “The House of Assembly, that whole system we have, was constructed by men, for men, so how do we deal with this?”
In her keynote speech, Yujnovich talked about the need to not take anything for granted, and the need to be willing to take on new challenges.
IOC was the first corporate partner to come on board and contribute money to making Ovations happen; Yujnovich said that an event bringing hundreds of women together is valuable because it allows them to remember that there are other successful women out there.
“Largely, I think it’s about really having the opportunity to gather together and realize that there is so much that women are currently doing,” she said.
“Sometimes it’s not until we gather together that we realize how much is already happening.”
In her speech Thursday evening, Dunderdale spoke about the struggle of women in the early days in this province.
Her speech was a march through the province’s history and through the geography of what can be an unforgiving place and certainly must have been for the early settlers.
She painted a picture of a place that has shaped strong women and of strong women who have shaped this place.
As part of the celebration, there was an Ovations Award handed out to Hilda Whelan for demonstrating extraordinary leadership, fortitude and conviction in a fight that led to 58 women gaining access to the pension benefits of their deceased husbands.
The efforts of Whelan over 15 years, her persistence and her refusal to give up ended in 2006 with the provincial government announcing compensation of more than $3 million for these women, who had previously been denied their deceased husbands’ pensions.
They had been refused benefits for no other reason than their marital status and that their husbands had died before the 1985 equality of rights provisions had been enacted under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Whelan was obviously touched and surprised by the award and was thoughtful when asked what it meant to her.
“It means that I’m recognized for having done this. It means thank you. It also means ... I would like to say somehow to the women who were in my position, and there are still women out there who are in poverty and struggling to look up, there is a better day.”
New Democrat Leader Lorraine Michael said she’s happy to see a celebration of women in the province, but at the same time, she said women can’t stop fighting.
“It’s good to celebrate the accomplishments, but we have to acknowledge how slow the process is,” she said. “We have a long ways to go.”
Dunderdale said she won’t be satisfied until women hold at least half of leadership positions. She said she’s constantly aware of trying to push for equality in the people in government around her.
“Men have lots of networks, and they’ve had them for a very long time, and we encourage them to keep doing those kinds of things,” she said.
“But women need to develop networks as well, and we need to talk about our own experiences. We need to talk about where our common ground is, and we need to set goals about where we need to go next, and that’s what Ovations is all about.”