Archives: Rita Johnston becomes Canada’s first female premier

This day in Vancouver history: April 2, 1991

Rita Johnston becomes Canada's first female premier after being chosen by the Social Credit party’s caucus to replace Bill Vander Zalm, who had resigned in disgrace over a conflict-of-interest scandal regarding the sale of his Fantasy Gardens attraction to a Taiwanese billionaire.

Johnston, 55, defeated Attorney-General Russ Fraser in a secret 21-17 vote that came on the fourth ballot to become interim leader. Three other challengers -- Forests Minister Claude Richmond, Social Services Minister Norm Jacobsen and former finance minister Mel Couvelier -- were dropped from previous ballots.

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Johnston was first elected to the provincial legislature in 1983. Her association with Vander Zalm goes back to their days on Surrey municipal council together in the early 1970s, and she remained loyal to the former premier through his final hours as premier, including standing behind him when he announced his decision to quit at a Victoria press conference. 

She was formally elected leader of the Socreds at a party convention in July after narrowly defeating Grace McCarthy. However, she was unable to implement much in the way of policies or new programs before a statutory October election in which the ruling party lost by a landslide to the New Democratic Party led by Mike Harcourt. Johnston lost her own Surrey-Newton riding to Penny Priddy and she resigned from politics shortly afterward.

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