ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Danny Williams looked on, his jaw muscle sometimes jumping, as the political job he loved but gave up was passed to Newfoundland and Labrador’s first female premier.
Kathy Dunderdale, a 58-year-old grandmother of three, called it a bittersweet day full of regret but also promise. Women in the province have gone from having no vote in 1925 to holding top political office, she said as she was sworn in Friday.
Still, she said it’s wrenching to see Williams leave politics after a raucous seven-year stint as a beloved, elbows-up, caustic but always passionate defender of his people’s interests.
Canada’s most popular premier leaves as his approval rating slips but is still impressively high at 67 per cent, a recent poll suggested.
“One of the greatest challenges is going to be that I’m not Danny Williams,” Dunderdale told reporters with a smile. “However, I’m confident that I’ll make my own mark.”
She’ll have to do it quickly. Dunderdale said she’ll only hold the premier’s job until the Progressive Conservatives choose a new leader, likely this spring. She has opted not to run in order to give full attention to a delicate transition phase, she said.
Williams declined to hold a news conference Friday so as not to steal the spotlight. But he has said he’s ready to go, albeit with a heavy heart.
Dunderdale, a former social worker and communications specialist, has her work cut out for her as she steps into the leadership chasm Williams leaves behind. She must grapple with an ugly contract dispute with doctors in the province, and push forward the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project.
She became the 10th premier of Newfoundland and Labrador just over a week after Williams stunned the province with news that he’s quitting politics to resume his business career.
Dunderdale paid tribute to perhaps his greatest legacy: giving the Rock back its mojo after decades cast as the poor child of Confederation.
“On behalf of our province, I thank Danny Williams from the bottom of my heart for his enormous contribution and his unwavering dedication to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador,” she said. “Our foundation today is rock solid and that foundation is just the beginning.”
Williams fought to protect offshore oil resources from equalization clawbacks, for an equity stake from powerful oil companies, and for a proposed deal to harness Lower Churchill power in Labrador, Dunderdale said.
“I pledge to the people of our great province that we will not lose focus nor will we lose steam.
“We will defy any critics who would deny our children the opportunities that are theirs.”
Lt.-Gov. John Crosbie, in a characteristically irreverent speech that was by turns insightful and hilarious, praised Williams for going out on top — a move he called “genius.”
“I could never have done it if I’d got my hands on the office,” said the former federal and provincial politician who battled the once-formidable Liberal premier Joey Smallwood.
Dunderdale becomes one of just six women ever to lead a province in Canada. The only other female premier in the country is Eva Aariak of Nunavut.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, all three political parties are now led by women.
Dunderdale attended Memorial University of Newfoundland. She cut her political teeth as a town councillor, eventually becoming deputy mayor of Burin, her hometown on the island’s southern shore.
Government house leader Joan Burke said she will miss Williams, but the top job is in good hands with Dunderdale.
“I will be very cognizant of the fact that he’s not there,” she said in an interview. Burke has sat behind or beside Williams for the last seven years in the provincial legislature.
“But in saying that, I have no doubt in the abilities of Kathy Dunderdale and the strength of her leadership to be able to guide us through this whole process and provide very effective leadership.”
Provincial NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said it’s a big day for women in politics.
“We have to recognize that there is a glass ceiling for women in the country on a lot of levels, and it has been there on the political scene as well. So it is significant.
“But it’s up to us to show that having women leaders does mean a difference.”
Michael said she hopes the kind of personal partisan attacks for which Williams was sometimes criticized will end.
Then again, Dunderdale has also revved up the rhetoric for some fiery exchanges in the legislature. She knows “how to throw a barb,” Michael said.
“I don’t think gender will necessarily mean a difference,” when it comes to decorum, she said. “I would like to think it might.”
Dunderdale will preside over the legislature for only a two- or three-week sitting starting Monday before the house of assembly rises again until after March 17. The exact length of the fall session has not been determined.