Kathy Dunderdale: the one to beat

Dunderdale has Danny Williams’s old job. And she’s as feisty as he was.

The one to beat
Photograph by Paul Daly

The magazines in the reception area of the office of the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador are all still addressed to Danny Williams. Inside the wood-panelled, eighth-floor sanctuary, with its commanding view of St. John’s, Signal Hill and the Narrows, not much else has changed either. Kathy Dunderdale—initially named as Williams’s interim replacement, but now committed to seeking the job in next fall’s provincial election—has added a framed photo of her three grandsons, and a large landscape by local artist Gerald Squires. She’s also traded the leather couch for one covered in plush, green fabric. “I didn’t like it,” she explains. “It was too cold.”

Stepping into the shoes of the province’s most popular politician ever—a poll released just after his surprise Nov. 25 resignation gave Williams a 92 per cent approval rating—doesn’t occasion dramatic alterations. Certainly, that seems to be the thinking of the Progressive Conservatives who will forego a leadership contest and hand the crown to Dunderdale, previously the minister of natural resources and Williams’s deputy, later this spring. The new premier, who turns 59 this month, has already made history, becoming the first woman to hold the Rock’s highest office when she was sworn in, in early December. “We’re two different people,” she says, as she sits, legs curled up in an office armchair. “While we’re passionate about the same things, we share the same sets of principles that have driven the agenda these past 7½ years.” The changes, such as they are, will be more style than substance. “I like to create spaces where people can be heard. And I’m patient.”

Danny Williams found political fortune as Confederation’s bad cop—lowering the Maple Leaf during his dispute with Ottawa over offshore oil royalties, tangling with Quebec about Churchill Falls, tearing into Stephen Harper over equalization issues, and launching an ABC (Anyone But Conservatives) campaign during the last federal election. Charged with securing her predecessor’s legacy—a $6.2 billion deal for a hydro mega-project on the Lower Churchill signed the week before he left office—Dunderdale would probably be wiser to play the good one. After all, her province is now seeking federal loan guarantees for its $4-billion share, as well as a $375-million investment for undersea cables to carry the power to Nova Scotia, and ultimately U.S. markets. There are also the ongoing efforts to buy back Ottawa’s 8.5 per cent equity stake in the lucrative Hibernia oil development.

The tone so far, however, is remarkably similar. The first Harper-Dunderdale meeting in Ottawa, on Feb. 2, lasted a brisk 20 minutes. Just enough time for “sizing each other up,” said the premier. And with a possible spring federal election looming, there have been suggestions that provincial Tories might again turn their backs on their federal counterparts. Dunderdale speaks of the need to establish a “two-way” dialogue and a less “paternalistic” relationship. “The legitimate aspirations of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador need to be understood, acknowledged, and respected,” she says as we sit in her office. “Unless you have those fundamental elements in a relationship, there’s going to be rough water. There’s no way to avoid it.” It’s the Chicago—sorry, make that, St. John’s—way.

Politics begin at home. In the case of young Kathy Dunderdale, née Warren, at the dinner table. Not in the conversations, or debates, but in the way the meal itself proceeded. Her father Norman and three brothers took their place while her mother Alice and the eight girls cooked and served. Kathleen Mary Margaret, the middle child, never liked that arrangement, or the fact that her brothers were excused from doing dishes or housework. And she was never afraid to let her feelings be known. “I felt the inherent injustice in it from the very beginning,” she says.

Life in the small town of Burin, a fishing outport on Placentia Bay, provided plenty of grist for a girl inclined to indignation. Organized soccer, her favourite sport, was boys-only. Local livelihoods, based on nature, were capricious at best. “My father was a trawlerman. And in those days you had to manually cast away the nets, which was very, very hard work,” says the premier. Voyages were “co-ventures” with the large fishing companies where the crew only got paid once all the costs were covered. “I remember he was out for 27 days and came back, with nine children still at home, owing Fishery Products $10 for the food he ate on the trip.” Work at the local cod plant was hardly better, long hours on a cold and wet processing line for miserable pay.

Most of her siblings left, scattering to Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia in search of better jobs. Kathy moved to St. John’s to study social work at Memorial University, but never completed her degree. Back home for summer vacation after third year, she met Peter Dunderdale, a British master-mariner, whose ship was in dry dock undergoing repairs. They fell in love and married, and within 18 months, she had two children, Sarah and Tom, and a busy life as a young housewife. As the kids grew older, she dabbled on the local school council, and found employment working with abused women. A career in office was not on the agenda.

The one to beat
Photograph by Paul Daly

But in the mid-1980s, Burin suddenly became a very political place. Struggling under a heavy debt load, Fishery Products announced plans to close the local plant, a long-time money-maker and the town’s major employer for more than four decades. “It was offensive on so many levels,” Dunderdale says, her voice rising at the memory of the quarter-century-old slight. “If there was ever such a thing as sweat equity, we felt we had earned it.” There were demonstrations and angry meetings. And at the height of the dispute, when trucks rolled in to take the machinery away, town workers dug a deep ditch outside the plant’s gates to “fix” a water line, sealing off the site for weeks. Burin’s mayor asked Dunderdale to join an action committee looking for a solution. After close to a year of talks with Ottawa and the province, the plant was reborn as a secondary processing facility. “I learned tremendous lessons all the way through,” she says. “How to interact with people, how to negotiate, how to go back to the touchstones that fire you up.” In 1985, she stood for election as a town councillor and won.

Stella Hollett, who served on council with Dunderdale, says everyone in Burin knew she was slated for bigger things. “She was a very smart girl,” says Hollett. “An avid reader and a very strong-willed person. You couldn’t speak about anything she didn’t know.” From 1989 to 1993, Dunderdale served as deputy mayor, and went on to become president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Municipalities and director of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities.

In was in that period that she also underwent a partisan conversion. A Liberal in her youth—somewhere there’s a photo of a star-struck Kathy meeting with Pierre and Maggie Trudeau during their 1971 honeymoon tour of Atlantic Canada—Dunderdale found an enemy in then-premier Clyde Wells and his government. In the 1993 provincial election, she ran as a Tory in the neighbouring riding of Fortune-Hermitage, as an act of protest against his heavy-handed style. “We did some polling going in and I was at 11 per cent,” she says. “I knew I didn’t have a chance.” And on the hustings, she made a discovery about herself. “I truly loved the campaigning, the door-to-door. I still do. It’s one of my favourite parts of politics.” As it turns out, Newfoundland’s famed hospitality is even extended to hustling candidates. “People are so polite that when they’re supporting the other side, they’re almost apologizing for the sign on their lawn,” says Dunderdale. “It’s a wonderful characteristic of our people.”

Why Danny Williams took his ball and went home still isn’t clear. His heart troubles last year, and the ensuing hue when he sought medical treatment south of the border, may well have played a role. So too, his unconcealed irritation with the scant minority of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who persisted in not loving him. The official reason, given to the press, was that after 10 years in politics, he had accomplished everything he wanted to do, culminating in the Lower Churchill agreement he signed just a week before his resignation. But that’s far from a done deal.

The snap decision to quit took even his cabinet colleagues by surprise. Several cried. Dunderdale, his deputy premier, says she only learned hours before the announcement, and spent the night in shock. She had been part of Danny’s leadership bid from the earliest days. And he was the one who convinced her to run for a St. John’s seat in 2003. As the province’s minister of natural resources, she had worked hand in hand with the premier on important and contentious files like the Hebron oil field agreement, and the 2008 expropriation of forestry giant AbitibiBowater’s Newfoundland assets after the company announced plans to shut down a mill in Grand Falls-Windsor. (An event that resulted in the company filing a $500-million suit under NAFTA rules in February 2010. The federal government, legally responsible for the province’s actions, paid out a $130-million settlement in August.)

A six-week stint as acting premier during Williams’s 2010 health crisis had convinced Dunderdale that she was able to handle the rigours of the job. But replacing a political icon on a more permanent basis was another matter altogether. That’s why she initially resisted throwing her hat into the leadership ring, she says. “If I was so shocked, I wondered how the province would feel. So my first priority was assuring people that they were in good hands, and things were going to be okay.” A “groundswell of support” and the urgings of colleagues and family over the Christmas holidays convinced her to change her mind.

Randy Simms, a political commentator, host of a highly rated radio phone-in show and the mayor of suburban Mt. Pearl, says the Conservatives have rallied around a safe bet. “She’s not a polarizing figure,” he says. Nor is Dunderdale likely to depart from the formula that won Danny all but four of the assembly’s 48 seats in 2007. “The party has decided that status quo is the way to go.” A leadership coronation, featuring an emotional send-off for Williams later this spring, will provide positive momentum for the fall election. At this point, says Simms, it would take an epic political disaster to provide the opposition parties with even a sniff at victory.

The one to beat
Photograph by Paul Daly

The campaign promises to be historic, with all three major parties led by women. (Lorraine Michaels has been NDP leader since 2006. Yvonne Jones, who has led the Liberal party since 2007, is currently on leave recovering from breast cancer surgery, but plans to return to the job next month.) The symbolism is not lost on Dunderdale. At her Dec. 3 swearing-in, with her grandsons, aged six, four, and two, occupying the front row, she contrasted her own life with her grandmother’s. “Until 1925, a woman could not even vote in Newfoundland and Labrador,” she noted. “Few changes of any consequence happen just by accident. They happen when good people resolve to make things better.”

It was a bittersweet moment for the new premier, marked by absences. Her husband, Peter, died in 2006 at age 56; her mother, Alice, just last year. (Norman, her dad, passed eight years ago.) Before Williams’s surprise announcement, she had been contemplating winding down her political career. The brief fill-in stint as premier had already taught her that the job was even more all-consuming than a cabinet post. “My grandson Jack said, ‘Mom and dad say you have to take care of all of Canada now. Will you still have time to take care of us?’ ” She took a hard look at the premier’s schedule to see if she would still be able to fit in family dinners, babysitting and sleepovers. The answer is yes.

There are also less pleasant aspects of being the boss. Dunderdale recently acquired police bodyguards after a couple of worrying incidents. (Her office and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary have both declined to provide details.) “I’ve learned that people own the premier in a different way than their member of the house of assembly,” she says. “People want to approach and talk to you.”

Whether Granny can ever truly replace Danny in the hearts and minds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians remains an open question. Williams has exited the stage, but may never fully relinquish the limelight. His final Christmas card as premier landed in mailboxes across the province the same week Dunderdale assumed the office. The photo showed a grinning Williams standing at a lectern in the lobby of the Confederation Building, part of the Veterans’ Memorial framing his head. Which part? The big gold letters that spell out “Lest We Forget.”