Avril Phaedra Douglas Campbell

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Avril Phaedra Douglas Campbell

Avril Phaedra Douglas Campbell (born 1947), Canada's first woman prime minister and first prime minister born after World War II, held office for 132 days before her Conservative Party was crushingly defeated in the October 25, 1993, federal election.

The second daughter of George and Phyllis Campbell, Avril Phaedra Douglas Campbell was born on March 10, 1947, in Port Alberni, British Columbia, and raised in that province's largest city, Vancouver. Her father, a World War II veteran who was wounded during the Italian campaign, received a university degree after the war and became a lawyer. The parents divorced when their daughter was 12. In her own words, "My mother left a very difficult marriage … it had everything to do with the powerlessness of women in those days. The breakup … was very painful for me and being on my own as a teenager was very painful …. " It was during this period of emotional turmoil that Campbell began calling herself "Kim." She did not see her mother for a decade after the divorce.

The young Campbell was hard-driving, outgoing, and adventurous—among her interests were the piano, the guitar, and the musical theater—and she had an aptitude for academic pursuits. At the age of 16 she was elected the first "girl president" of Vancouver's Prince of Wales High School student council, and she was the valedictorian of the graduating class of 1964. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of British Columbia (UBC), where she served as vice-president of the student government and developed a reputation for conservative, traditionalist views.

After beginning an M.A. in international relations at UBC, Campbell won a scholarship in 1970 to pursue doctoral studies in Soviet government at the London School of Economics. In 1972 she married her companion of five years, Nathan Divinsky, a mathematics professor almost twice her age; they divorced in 1983. She returned home in 1973 without her Ph.D., teaching political studies at Simon Fraser University, UBC, and Vancouver Community College, but not obtaining a permanent academic position. She would later express the opinion that this was because she was a woman and not because she had not completed a graduate degree. Campbell entered law school at UBC in 1980, began work at the influential Vancouver firm of Ladner Downs in 1983, and was called to the British Columbia bar in 1984.

Campbell launched her political career in 1980, winning a seat as a trustee on the Vancouver School Board. From 1982 to 1984 she chaired the board and presided over its $150 million annual budget, vigorously defending high profile cost-cutting measures. Her controversial commitment to restraint in the face of labor union opposition impressed the right-of-center Social Credit premier of British Columbia, Bill Bennett. Campbell ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the provincial legislature under the Bennett banner in 1983, and in September 1985 she left Ladner Downs to serve as executive director in the premier's office.

Against the advice of colleagues and although still a novice in politics, Campbell contested the leadership of the provincial Social Credit Party after Bennett resigned in May 1986. She finished last, obtaining a derisory 14 out of almost 1,300 votes cast by delegates at the convention, but impressed audiences with a powerful speech delivered on primetime television. Campbell was elected to the provincial assembly in October, but she had denounced the new leader in her convention address and she was never part of his inner circle. She married lawyer Howard Eddy during the summer of 1986; that marriage too did not last.

Campbell jumped to national politics in 1988, winning a Vancouver seat as a Conservative and attracting much favorable attention within the party and in the media. The prime minister, Brian Mulroney, took note and brought her into his cabinet as the junior minister for Indian affairs and northern development. On February 23, 1990, she became Canada's first woman minister of justice and attorney general. She championed tougher gun control regulations after the murder of women engineering students in Montreal, as well as legislation establishing stricter standards for the prosecution of rapists. Critics pointed to the compromises made along the way and to her support for the criminalization of abortion except when a woman's health was in danger. Campbell's growing list of admirers replied that she was adapting to the realities of politics, learning the flexibility and accessibility that she had always been accused of lacking.

In January 1993 Campbell was appointed Canada's first woman minister of national defense and minister of veterans affairs. Controversy quickly ensued. In the midst of a recession, and with millions of jobless Canadians, she determinedly defended the contract negotiated by her predecessor to buy $5.8 billion worth of sophisticated EH101 helicopters. Then, on March 16, a prisoner was tortured and beaten to death while in the custody of Canadian peace-keepers in Somalia. Campbell claimed that it was not until March 31 that she learned the death had been "characterized as a homicide." Her senior military commander contradicted her publicly.

Nevertheless, Campbell had transformed herself into the most striking politician in the country and the logical successor to retiring prime minister Mulroney. She had large quantities of charisma, humor, energy, intelligence—and, apparently, "winnability." One by one the stalwarts of the Conservative Party, including former prime minister Joe Clark, dropped by the wayside, leaving only one other serious candidate, 34-year-old environment minister Jean Charest, to oppose Campbell at the leadership convention. In the final analysis, Charest came within six percentage points of victory, but Campbell's superior organization and the early support of the party bosses was decisive. She was elected Conservative chief on June 13, 1993, and was named prime minister on June 25.

The new prime minister pared down the size of the cabinet, initiated a massive reorganization of government structure, attended the July G7 Summit in Tokyo, and crisscrossed the country to drum up support. Polls showed that she was well-regarded but that the weight of a decade of Conservative rule under the deeply unpopular Mulroney was enormous. The mandate of the Conservatives was almost up, and an election had to be called soon. When the campaign came in September-October 1993, the Conservatives lurched from disaster to disaster, and Campbell was herself not blameless. She had been chosen as a fresh face, but her inexperience showed, and she spoke frequently without sufficient thought or tact. The opposition leader, Jean Chrétien, meanwhile performed flawlessly, while regional parties in Quebec and the West further sapped Conservative strength.

The result was the greatest electoral defeat ever suffered by a major national party in Canadian political history. The Conservatives won only two of the available 295 seats, and Campbell's was not one of them. She left the premiership on November 4, 1993. Without a base in Parliament and hounded by a legion of detractors, she resigned as head of the party on December 13, 1993. Later, in the summer of 1996, Campbell was appointed by Prime Minister Jean Chretien to be the Canadian consul general in Los Angeles.

In 1995 Campbell, along with four other living Canadian Prime Ministers, was awarded her own coat of arms. Campbell's features the motto, "Seek Wisdom, Conquer Fear, Do Justice." It includes a white square with four Canadian Maple leaves in the center to signify that she served as prime minister. The international symbol for woman is also displayed on the shield, to show that she was the first woman to hold the office. She published her memoirs, Time and Chance: The Political Memoirs of Canada's First Woman Prime Minister in 1996, but the book proved to be less sensational than a 1994 book from her own senior advisor, David McLaughlin: Poisoned Chance: The Last Campaign.

Further Reading

The best study of Canada's 19th prime minister is Robert Fife, Kim Campbell: The Making of a Politician (Toronto, 1993). Murray Dobbin is more critical in The Politics of Kim Campbell: From School Trustee to Prime Minister (Toronto, 1993). E. Kaye Fulton and Mary Janigan, "The Real Kim Campbell," Maclean's (May 17, 1993) was helpful in preparing this biography.

Additional information is available in several issues of Maclean's: December 6, 1993; December 20, 1993; October 24, 1994; April 8, 1996; April 15, 1996; April 29, 1996; and August 19, 1996. □