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.