Getting to know the premier

Kathy Dunderdale talks about her life and answers 20 Questions

Steve Bartlett
Published on December 24, 2010
Premier Kathy Dunderdale initially said she would not seek the leadership of the PC Party. After pressure from supporters, she says she'll reconsider over Christmas.
Steve Bartlett/The Telegram

Being premier was never a goal of Kathy Dunderdale’s. “I couldn’t have imagined it,” she admits.

But whether or not it was ever her dream, Dunderdale has taken over the most significant office at Confederation Building — and the province.

She’s held it officially since Dec. 3, a little more than a week after her extremely popular predecessor, Danny Williams, resigned and handed her the reins until a leadership convention is held next spring.

That’s impressive, considering that 10 years ago Dunderdale had “pretty much closed the door” on politics.

“I was fine with that,” she says.

But then, in 2000 or 2001, Williams asked her to get involved in his leadership bid.

That evolved into a role with his election readiness team. Williams then encouraged her to run in Virginia Waters in the 2003 provincial election.

Dunderdale did, and defeated high-profile Liberal Walter Noel.

It was the opposite outcome of her only other shot at provincial politics. In 1993, she lost her bid for a Burin Peninsula seat in the legislature — a loss she was expecting.

Dunderdale said she only ran to send a message to Clyde Wells’ Liberal government that there were issues with the way it was treating municipalities — mainly amalgamation — and how funding was awarded.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and thought I might do it again, though (I was) not driven to do it,” she says.

To those unfamiliar with her past, Dunderdale’s drive has provided her with experience in a variety of areas.

She was born and raised in Burin, where she lived until 15 years ago.

She raised her son and daughter there, and was a stay-at-home mom during their formative years.

Dunderdale’s husband, Capt. Peter Dunderdale, was a master mariner who sailed the world, and they thought it was important for them to have a full-time parent.

“My first and most important job was in the raising of our two children,” she says.

In the early ’80s, Dunderdale was on an action committee that successfully lobbied Fishery Products International to reverse a decision to shutter its Burin plant.

It was a year-and-a-half of intense work that taught her about the social and economic implications of the fishery.

“The plant didn’t close, and it’s still operational,” she says proudly.

When the kids got older, Dunderdale made a point of getting more involved outside the home. That’s when she started in a variety of paid and unpaid roles.

She worked as a social worker with the Department of Social Services, and when the fishery collapsed, accepted an offer to be part an appeals board for inshore fishers.

She was elected to council in her hometown and served as deputy mayor. That got her involved in the provincial Federation of Municipalities — she did a stint as president — as well as the national municipalities organization.

Dunderdale also worked with an array of organizations, including the local school board and the Status of Women.

When her husband retired from the sea and her kids moved away for university, Dunderdale became heavily involved in the consulting company her spouse had started.

The work included advising the Marine Institute and Canadian Coast Guard, and writing a book on navigating ice-covered waters.

“He was an expert in his field and it was great to have him around fulltime, and it was the first time in our relationship of 30 years that had ever happened,” she said of her husband, who died in 2006 at the age of 56.

The Dunderdales eventually relocated to St. John’s and Williams recruited Dunderdale, who’s a former president of the Progressive Conservative party.

Since 2003, she’s been a fixture in the Tory caucus and cabinet. She was serving as minister of Natural Resources and as deputy premier before Williams bid adieu.

Dunderdale says Williams’ departure was a shock. She wondered how the party would fare and then realized a lot of people across the province were feeling the same way.

To allay public fears, Dunderdale says she decided to focus on the premier’s job and nothing else, not even the party’s spring leadership race.

She originally said her name wouldn’t be among the contenders, but as The Telegram reported Dec. 18, she’s reconsidering over Christmas as a result of pressure from supporters to do so.

Still, Dunderdale maintains being premier was never on her radar.

She says she’s not the kind of person who envisions things 10 years down the road, but prefers to live in the now.

“If you live your life more in the moment, the rest of it will work its way out,” she said.

The day The Telegram spoke to Dunderdale, she was living her life in the boardroom, doing year-end interviews with the media.

She answered 20 questions for The People’s Paper, and offered insight into a woman who considers her new job an honour and a privilege.

Twitter: bartlett_steve

See 20 Questions, page 2

20 Questions

What is your full name?

Kathleen Mary Margaret Warren Dunderdale.

Where and when were you born?

I was born in Burin Cottage Hospital in Burin in February 1952 in the midst of a great snowstorm.

What act of rebellion did you commit as a kid?

I broke curfew. We had a very disciplined household … my mother was very strict. That was a real bold act, which had consequences: grounding, and the telling off, which was excruciating.

Where is home today?

Home is in the middle of the beautiful district of Virginia Waters, in the heart of the city of St. John’s.

What are five songs in your iPod?

George Strait’s “Living For The Night.” Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.” George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Faith Hill and Tim McGrath. I hated country growing up, but love it now. I’m pretty eclectic in my tastes. I love music, I just love it. So at Christmas, one of my favourites is Mary J. Blige and Andrea Bocelli, “What Child Is This.” Oh, just gorgeous.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished two books. I just finished Linden MacIntyre’s “The Bishop’s Man.” and I think the other one is called “By the Rivers of Brooklyn” by Trudy Morgan-Cole. It’s based in Newfoundland and New York, about families that moved out of here when the fishery failed and settled in New York. It’s a wonderful book. It’s that whole piece between leaving here and moving to a new country and place, from the village of St. John’s to the city of New York, and the threads that break and the threads that bind. It’s really a good read.

What do you like to cook?

I love to cook. I like to do salmon with a curried applesauce. I love to do roast beef, pastas, soups. The older I get, the more I like soups, and interesting soups. But I like to cook and every opportunity I get to do a cooking course with some great chef here in the city, I try to do that.

What do you like to eat?

I used to be a really finicky eater, but now I like a broad range of foods. I love Asian cuisine and have a particular weakness for Indian and Thai.

What was your favourite year?

1972, the year I met my husband. I was home from university for the summer and his ship came into the Marystown drydock. He met friends of mine, who introduced him to me, and the rest is history.

What is your most cherished possession?

My memories. My husband passed away four years ago, and my mother passed away last year and my father died eight years ago, (as have) other members of my families. Especially this time of year, I spend time reflecting on all the wonderful times we had together. Wonderful moments in my life, and how rich and blessed I’ve been in my life, despite the losses. And (the memories) keep you warm. I have wonderful children and grandchildren, and between it all, ups and downs, life has been very good. And my memories ground me, especially as you get older. Sometimes life is bittersweet. You lose family, you lose friends, and so on. It’s important not to get lost in the sadness of all of that. My memories help keep me on the right side of it all.

What’s the best thing about being a politician?

The opportunity to do good.

The worst thing?

Giving up your life.

Who is the one person you’d most like to be stuck in the Confederation Building elevator with?

Patty Pottle. Patty is an Inuit woman, who’s lived a life that is completely foreign to me in many ways. And so to have a better understanding of her cultural experiences as a woman and as part of an Inuit community, yeah, I wouldn’t mind being stuck with Patty for five or six hours to discuss, “What was that all about?” and, “What is that all about?”

Who inspires you?

My mother has always been my greatest inspiration. She was just a marvel. She had 14 pregnancies. Twelve live births. She lost a child. She was part of a great love story with my father, which was very rich for them, but enriched all of our lives as well. A hard worker who really inspired all of us to be the best that we could be, whether times were good or times were bad. Our household was a positive place to grow up. No matter what was going on, she saw the good in us. The mirror she held up was a wonderful one. And I think about how hard she worked and, most of her life, she held a job outside the home or was doing some home business to supplement the family’s income. Just a tremendous woman. Just an awe-inspiring woman.

You’re the first female premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Who would you like to inspire?

I’d like to inspire young women. It is sooo important that they realize that to be a well-rounded healthy society, women need to be involved in all aspects of that, especially in governance. Life impacts differently on women than it does men. When polices and programs are being developed, they are going to affect the lives of women. It’s extremely important that their voices are in that mix, and their experiences be in that mix, so that it has relevance to them. So to be a healthy, integrated community, any kind of government needs to reflect the community it serves. … Young men (enter politics) because they have so many role models and are encouraged to do that, culturally. We need to do the same thing for young women. One of the joys for me the last two weeks (as premier) has been the response I’ve had from young women, and young girls in school, and so on. There’s an excitement about this turn of events that doesn’t have anything to do with me, that just lifts me.

You mentioned you worked with the Status of Women in the ’90s. What does it mean for you to all of sudden have the top political job in the province?

Activists lobby for changes to boards and agencies and commissions, and they write letters when judges are being appointed and they encourage women to become involved in political activity, not just running the campaign, but actually being the candidate. … When a young woman can look at the Supreme Court and see men and women, then it becomes within the realm of possibility for them as they think about their lives and careers, that the opportunity to be there exists for them. So it’s important messaging, and it’s important to tell people that you can do whatever it is you want to do. The truth of it is that for many things, it is very, very difficult, still, for women to achieve things that sometimes come much more easily to men. That is not because anybody set out directly or malevolently to hold women back, but it’s about challenging old ways of thinking and doing things and understanding all of the good reasons why we ought to do it differently and be more inclusive. So, you’re not only talking about women. You’re talking about aboriginal people. You’re talking about people of colour. You’re talking about people with disabilities. Everybody brings something to the table. And for a healthy community, everybody really needs to be engaged.

What’s your best quality?

My sense of humour.

What’s your worst quality?

My sense of humour. I love to laugh and I love people who love to laugh. For me it’s always a redeeming quality in people. But you know that wanting to laugh can sometimes be distracting, and I can go off on a tangent real easily where you find that exchange of wit. Sometimes it interferes in my ability to stay focused, and sometimes it interfers with my ability to stay serious when I really ought to. (If) something is striking me as making me laugh, it is sometimes hard to manage.

What is your ultimate goal in politics, and in life?

I don’t set about my life in that kind of a way. I really don’t. It’s important to me, in terms of whatever I’m doing, to do the best I can. The most important things to me are my children saying she’s a good mother and my grandchildren saying she is a wonderful Mimi. And for the people of the province, when it’s time for me to move on, to say she did good. And it doesn’t get any better than that.

We usually ask people what they would do if they were premier. So now that you are premier, what will you do?

I think I’ve already started doing it. I’m a good listener and a good facilitator. I think I also have a good sense of direction, and for me, decisions should be principle-based. When you come with a certain approach, you’ve got to understand what your underlying principles are. What is it that you’re saying to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador? What am I saying to the people of Virginia Waters when I asked them to give me this job, what principles am I saying (are important)? Because you can’t cover off every job under the sun. And the thing that I say over and over all the time is that they become the touchstones of everything that you do. The last 7 1/2 years have really borne that out for me. Any time I felt we were straying away, getting off course, I would always direct us back to examine those principles. … The principles are extremely important and the best one for me is that I am here to act in the best interest of the people of Virginia Waters, first and foremost, because they are the people who elected me. And through them, (I act) for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. I think if you are in this business, you always have to remember who hired you, and why.

Twitter: bartlett_steve