Premier of British Columbia • April 1991 to November 1991
Reporters called her ‘Premier Mom.’
When Rita Johnston was appointed by British Columbia’s governing Social Credit Party as interim leader in April 1991, she became the first woman in Canada to serve as a premier.
A newspaper headline the next day raised the question of what to call a ‘lady premier’, declaring ‘It’s Madame (not Mrs. or Ms.) for the new premier.’ But ultimately the title that stuck was ‘Premier Mom.’
Johnston may have been new to the role of premier, but she certainly wasn’t new to the realm of public service.
Johnston was born in Vancouver in 1935, and married her high school sweetheart at the age of 16. Together they ran a trailer park and raised three children.
In 1983, she ran to become a Member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia representing the Social Credit Party. She was re-elected for a second term in 1986 and held several cabinet portfolios under Premier Bill Vander Zalm, who she had previously worked with when he was the Mayor of Surrey and Johnston was a councillor. Vander Zalm appointed Johnston as deputy premier in August 1990, months before resigning from office.
In April 1991, following Vander Zalm’s resignation – and the sharp decline in popularity for the party – Johnston was named interim leader. In July, she was formally elected as leader and called an election shortly after.
In October, British Columbia voters headed to the polls and both Johnston and the Social Credit Party suffered a devastating defeat. The party lost more than half of their popular vote, and was reduced from a majority government to just seven seats. Johnston herself lost her seat, and retired from politics. The Social Credit Party hasn’t held a seat since 1996.
A long-time B.C. reporter described Johnston’s political tenure this way: ”She was handed as bad a hand as any premier probably in modern times. She became the leader of the Social Credit Party after her predecessor Bill Vander Zalm resigned in scandal and had just a few months to turn it around. She didn’t manage to do this, which was no huge surprise. You know what they say, when a political party is really desperate, they turn to a woman and get her to run the thing. In Canada, that really started with Johnston.”