Breaking ground

Breaking ground

Kathy laughs as she describes the fun she sometimes has with people calling the premier’s office.

“Hello, Kathy speaking.”

“Is that really you Kathy?”

“Yes, it’s me—Kathy with a ‘K’, short for Kathleen.”

“What? Really?! I never thought you’d be the one to answer the phone. Listen, while I’ve got you on the line, I’ve got to tell you that I think you’re doing a marvelous job.”

“Thank you very much. But … I’m not the premier.”

This personable and occasionally mischievous Kathy is not the first woman to lead the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. No, this is Kathy the receptionist, literal gatekeeper to the premier’s inner sanctum.

“I don’t think I’ve met you before,” she says, by way of conversation as she waits for someone to escort me inside.

“No, this is my first time interviewing the premier in her office.”

“You’ll love her,” she enthuses, not realizing I’ve met the premier before. “You don’t have anything to worry about. She is such a nice person, so easy to talk to.”

It’s an intriguing comment about someone whose government has been regularly lambasted by various media for its passage of Bill 29 this past June. The controversial amendment to the province’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, passed following a four-day filibuster marathon by the 11 Opposition members, was reportedly intended to strengthen the Act. Like Popeye after a double dose of concentrated greens, the Act is undoubtedly stronger—but not in terms of public access to information. Rather, it has exponentially expanded the provincial government’s ability to deny access to information.

In a June 15, 2012 article on, Fred Vallance-Jones—a journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax and lead of the 2011 Canadian Newspaper Association’s Freedom of Information Audit (ATIPPA)—described it as “the biggest step backward in access in Canada in recent memory.”

In summarizing the impact of Bill 29, the same article noted that “ministerial briefings will be kept secret and requests for information that cabinet ministers deem to be frivolous, systemic or repetitive can be exempted.”

Despite government assertions that ATIPPA strikes a balance between the right of the public to access information and good stewardship on the part of government, a number of information requests which have already been denied under the provisions of Bill 29 show just how vulnerable the new legislation is to arbitrary decision-making.

In the December 1 edition of the Telegram, columnist Pam Frampton shared the head-scratching example of a request for information related to the results of a mining workshop offered to students in Labrador. Frampton reported that the Liberals’ request was granted—albeit with 19 of the report’s 20 pages either partially or totally blacked out.

“What kind of high-ranking, sensitive information is it the government didn’t want the Liberals to see?” queried Frampton. “Well, students’ answers to questions such as ‘What was your favorite part of the workshop?’ ‘What did you learn about rocks and minerals today?’ And ‘Anything else you’d like to tell us?'”

CBC-NL journalist Rob Antle offered an even more disturbing example of the legislation’s impact. His investigative report, released November 20, revealed that perks paid to public sector employees over and above their base salary (such as bonuses, housing, travel and RRSP contributions), along with the justification for those perks, will no longer be disclosed. Only a range of possible bonuses is now revealed.

Keith Hutchings, Minister of the Office of Public Engagement, told Antle that nothing had changed—that pre-Bill 29 information was disclosed voluntarily by the public servant it concerned.

Antle’s research, however, came to a different conclusion. “Those comments … do not stand up to a review of the text in the old law.”

Aside from the fog outside, however, there’s no lack of transparency on this early November day when a scheduled half-hour interview edges past the 70-minute mark. After a reminder about the time from her communications assistant, Dunderdale responds that she wants to keep going. “I’m interested in this.”

Hard to believe I’d deliberately delayed making this appointment for over a year.

Dunderdale, unofficial second in command during the Danny Williams’ regime and interim successor until her election victory in October 2011, is Newfoundland and Labrador’s first woman premier. Despite the historic precedence of the occasion, I didn’t want to jump on the profile bandwagon. Now, with 14 months of bona fide leadership to answer for, seemed like an opportune time.

Given the frequent comparisons to her predecessor—one of, if not the most popular premier in Canadian history— and the innumerable related comments about her having “big shoes to fill,” I couldn’t help but notice the premier’s footwear: stylish black suede ankle boots. They were, or so it seemed to me, an unspoken dare to opponents and potential successors alike: think you’ve got what it takes to walk a mile in these shoes?

Truthfully, it’s been a long trek from the Town of Burin to the premier’s office for Kathy Dunderdale, who turned 60 in February 2012—a journey that she is on the record as having said she never intentionally set out to make in the first place.

Thirty-three credits into her university degree, she dropped out of MUN to get married to Captain Peter Dunderdale in 1972. Though she was a stay-at-home mom during her children’s (Tom and Sarah) formative years, she was also an avid community volunteer.

A former deputy mayor on the Burin town council, Dunderdale’s first attempt to get elected to the House of Assembly was in 1993. She didn’t offer again until 2003 (her husband, diagnosed with prostate cancer, died in the mid-nineties at the age of 56). After defeating Walter Noel in 2003, she was welcomed into the Williams’ cabinet and moved her way through a number of ministerial posts with increasing levels of responsibility.

Now that she’s finally in the top post, having won it on her own merits in the 2011 general election, she is determined to see her vision for the province fulfilled.

Premier Dunderdale says that descriptions of her as the daughter of a poor fisherman are inaccurate. Yes, her father (Norman Warren) was a fisherman and had been since he first stepped into a dory at 12 years of age. And yes, times were hard, with her father sometimes fishing for weeks and weeks at a time without catching enough fish to cover the cost of the food he ate on the trip, let alone support his family. Then, as now, the fishery was a heartbreakingly cyclical industry—the difference being that, back then, there were no social programs, no employment insurance.

In an effort to create a more stable income for themselves and their 11 children (Kathy is the middle child), Norman and his wife Alice tried their hands at a number of different businesses. One of those businesses went bankrupt, putting the family $4,000 in debt. “It took them two years to pay it off,” says the premier proudly, “but they paid back every cent of it.”

Even though it was a particularly hard time for the family financially, Dunderdale maintains that she came from a very rich family which had enough food to eat, clothes to wear, and lots of love and encouragement.

It was also a rich intellectual environment, with relatives and visitors often stopping by her mother’s bed and breakfast to discuss current events, both local and global. “My mother was a very intelligent woman who was interested in what was happening in the world. And … my uncles were great readers. They were also blessed with a great sense of humour and storytelling. Our house was always an interesting place to be.”

One of her most poignant and life-influencing memories, however, came from outside her tight family circle. This “a-ha” moment was courtesy of her grade four teacher, an inspired and inspiring soul who dared venture outside the prescribed curriculum to teach French to her pupils at a time when Latin was the standard second language taught in class. Along with the grammar and verb conjugations, this teacher also shared the story of how she had won a teaching competition. Her prize was a trip around the world. As this woman shared the stories of her journey, using it to inform her geography and history classes, she described what it was like to visit Rome and listen to Verdi under the stars.

“Your world changes when you hear that,” says Dunderdale. “This woman was born and raised five minutes from my house … I knew from that moment that if you worked hard and if you were educated, and if you had the means to provide for yourself in a way that wasn’t so mercurial, that many things were possible.”

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Dawn Chafe
About Dawn Chafe

For the past 19 years, Dawn has been editor of Atlantic Canada’s most award-winning and largest circulation business magazine: Atlantic Business Magazine. Under her editorial direction, Atlantic Business Magazine has won 14 Atlantic Journalism Awards, three TABBIE international business press awards and two KRW national business press awards.

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