The world of Canadian agriculture made a couple of big strides in the field of gender parity this week.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture elected its first female president, Mary Robinson.
While the name might be new to western Canadian members she’s well known in Atlantic Canada agriculture.
She’s managing partner of a sixth-generation family farm company on Prince Edward Island, and came up through the ranks of farm organizations. She is past president of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture.
While she’s the first woman to take on this particular high-profile leadership role, there have been plenty of earlier precedents in the sector.
Leaders like JoAnn Buth who headed the Canola Council of Canada, was appointed to the Senate of Canada and now heads up Cigi. Or Patti Miller, chief commissioner of the Canadian Grain Commission.
Other names that spring to mind include the University of Manitoba’s Karin Wittenberg, former provincial agriculture minister Rosann Wowchuk, and the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association’s Pam de Rocquigny, just to name a few.
While there may be some work remaining to achieve full equality, the train has clearly left the station and women appear to be accepted in leadership roles in agriculture, and that acceptance grows every day.
In fact, when Robinson’s hometown newspaper the Truro News covered her appointment it led with the critically important fact that “For the first time in the 84-year history of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, an Islander has been elected president,” and only later mentioned she also happened to be the first woman in the role.
It was in Ottawa, however, where the glass ceiling has lingered longer and the real strides were made.
Swept up in the post-SNC-Lavalin cabinet shuffle intended to paper over the dramatic departure of former minister of justice and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould from cabinet, Lawrence MacAuley moved to Veterans Affairs.
In his stead was appointed the first woman to hold the agriculture portfolio in Canada’s 151-year history, Marie-Claude Bibeau.
The Quebec MP is an unknown quantity not only in Western Canada, but the entire Canadian agriculture sector.
She hails from Sherbrook, Quebec, represents the riding of Compton-Stanstead since the 2015 election that swept the federal Liberals to power, and has been minister of international development.
Prior to politics she worked for the Canadian International Development Agency, before returning to Canada and going into business.
Her thin agriculture credentials have led to some speculation she may be nothing more than a placeholder minister until after the next election, slated for later this year.
If that is the case, it does the portfolio, Bibeau herself and the political aspirations of rural Canadian women a profound disservice. Too often women in Canada have found themselves in positions of leadership only to find they’re piloting a doomed ship.
Perhaps the most glaring example of that is the story of the 19th Canadian prime minister, Kim Campbell.
During her time in politics she was minister of justice and attorney general, and held the Veterans Affairs and Defence portfolio and earned a reputation as able and hard working.
But it was only when the federal Progressive Conservatives of the time were facing almost certain electoral defeat that she was handed the reins of power, and served only four months. The subsequent election saw the government reduced to an ignominious rump party, represented by only herself and Jean Charest.
Judging from the reaction I’ve seen, people are willing to give Bibeau a chance. A longtime reader gave me a ring after news of the appointment broke. He’d been down at the local coffee shop and they’d been talking it over.
He called not to decry the appointment of an outsider, or wonder if a woman would be up to the job in a sector that’s still largely perceived as male dominated. Instead, he was wondering how you might get in touch with someone like the minister of agriculture and invite her out to rural Manitoba.
“We realized we haven’t seen any agriculture ministers out here in quite a while, at least not outside the cities,” he explained. “I think she’s probably got a lot of learning to do, and maybe coming out here would be a good start.”
Coming from rural Quebec, he reasoned, she probably knew a fair bit about supply management, but little about grain or beef production.
Nobody, including Marie-Claude Bibeau, knows how long or successful her tenure will be. But one thing is certain.
If she finds herself in Manitoba and wants to learn a bit about the business, she’ll likely find no shortage of farmers willing to fill her in.