Donna Harpauer is the longest-serving female cabinet minister in Saskatchewan’s history and is on track to become the longest-serving female MLA, as well.
She has 21 years of provincial political service under her belt and by the time the next election is expected to be called in 2024, she will have 25 — a record held by the NDP’s Pat Atkinson who was in office from 1986 until 2011.
Harpauer has been a Saskatchewan Party mainstay since the early days, first forming the Opposition when she was originally elected in 1999.
In her first speech in the house, she told her colleagues that she had never been politically active before. She explained that she was a farmer’s wife with young children who wasn’t happy with the way things were going for friends and neighbours in her rural constituency of Watrous and that she was surprised to be standing where she was at that moment.
“I pledged to do everything in my power to be worthy of this,” she said as she wrapped up that first speech.
Blazing a trail
While she’ll tell you today that she doesn’t think of herself as a female politician, but “a politician who happens to be female,” blazing a trail for women has long been on her mind.
“My children are all girls,” she said. “It was very important to me to set the example to them that there are no limitations to women. There are no stereotypical jobs that you’re limited from.
“Give it your best and you can achieve anything and my career has sort of demonstrated that.”
In the two decades she’s represented the Watrous constituency, she said a lot has changed. From what she’s seen and experienced, she attributes it to changing attitudes around gender roles, in general, and to more couples sharing parental duties.
At the beginning of her career, Harpauer was one of only 36 women to sign the scrolls.
Since then, 26 more were added to the list, bringing the total number of female MLAs to date up to 62.
Jill Arnott, the executive director of the University of Regina’s Women’s Centre, said the positive growth associated with these numbers is encouraging.
“I think in some ways, we’ve seen our perception of who women are and what they’re capable of change,” Arnott said.
“We obviously have all kinds of room to grow,” she said. “If we aren’t talking about her pantsuit, but instead, what she is proposing in terms of platform or policy, then it’s far more likely that we will continue to see those number rise.”
Having the appropriate supports in place will further enable women to become active in politics and as politicians, Arnott said.
“There’s been some evolution,” she said. “Let’s take heart in that and run with it.”
Women won the right to vote in Saskatchewan in 1916.
Three years later, Liberal Sarah Ramsland, representing the Pelly constituency, became the first woman to have a seat in the legislature. According to clippings in the provincial archives, the mother of three was voted in as the successor to her husband, Magnus Ramsland, who died of the Spanish Flu. The party thought it would be a good way for her to earn income to support her family. She was defeated in 1925.
Nearly 20 years passed before another female MLA took office. Beatrice Trew, representing the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), won in Maple Creek in 1944 and served until 1948.
Slowly, over the next 25 years, women began to establish a presence in the house, a spattering of them victorious over the course of the various elections.
But it would take longer still for women to be part of the cabinet.
In 1982, under the Progressive Conservative government of Grant Devine, Patricia Smith was given the social services portfolio and Joan Duncan, government services and revenue supply and services.
Progressive Conservative Saskatoon Westmount MLA, Gay Caswell, also made history in the 1980s. She was pregnant with and gave birth to two of her children while in office.
More than 30 years passed before that another female MLA broke such ground. Nicole Sarauer, the interim leader of the Opposition NDP at that point, had her daughter, Olivia Biden, in the summer of 2019.
“I suppose the real challenge was that there was really no break. Work never stopped,” said Sarauer, who is now pregnant with her second child. “There is no traditional maternity leave. There’s no one really filling in for you.”
Just months before Olivia’s birth, with Sarauer’s persistence, the assembly passed new rules to allow infants into the house.
“It was something that should have happened, frankly, a long time ago,” said Sarauer, who, with Olivia, made history on Nov. 1, 2019 when they attended question period together.
Breaking down barriers
While it’s one hurdle out of the way, more, in terms of perceptions, still exist.
Sarauer’s new NDP caucus colleague, Aleana Young was pregnant on the campaign trail of the 2020 provincial election and feared what some people might think.
“I was sincerely worried that there were going to be folks out there who thought, ‘You should be staying at home and looking after your family, not doing this,” said Young, who had her daughter, Hara Roadhouse, on the eve of the election and on Dec. 7, brought Hara into the chamber.
Seeing other women continue to break new ground in provincial politics is inspiring for Harpauer.
“The fact that there are more females who now can see that this is a possibility for them is a very positive thing for our province.”