There’s still more work to do to level the field in politics

Three Canadian political trailblazers share their thoughts on what it will take to get more women elected
By Steve Paikin - Published on Nov 23, 2020
Kim Campbell served as the 19th prime minister of Canada from June 25 to November 4, 1993. (Chuck Stoody/CP)

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Last month, the Greens’ Annamie Paul made history when the first Black national major-party leader ran for a seat in a Toronto byelection.  

And there was another significant breakthrough that night.

Thanks to the election of two new women MPs — Marci Ien in Toronto Centre and Ya’ara Saks in York Centre — there are now 100 female MPs in the House of Commons.

That’s never happened before in 153 years of Confederation.

That achievement notwithstanding, more than 70 per cent of the members on Parliament Hill are still men, so perhaps the huzzahs should still be a bit muted. When it comes to female representation in Parliament, Canada ranks 59th in the world — yes, ahead of the United States, which is 78th. But we’re somewhere between Albania and Estonia, which doesn’t feel like much of an achievement.

Despite the current prime minister’s once saying, “Because it’s 2015” in answer to a question about why he wanted gender parity in his cabinet, we’re still a long way away from that when it comes to everyday members of Parliament.

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Three Canadian political trailblazers explored why it still seems tougher for women than men in politics during a discussion hosted by the Canadian Club of Toronto last Friday. Ottawa’s first female mayor, Charlotte Whitton (1951-56; 1960-64) may have famously quipped, “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” But that joke belies how elusive gender parity still is in partisan politics.

Kim Campbell, still Canada’s only female prime minister out of the 23 we’ve had, pointed to the difficulty women have when it comes to most of the political prerequisites for election.

“Women are loath to ask for money,” she said, referencing the fundraising required to run a good campaign. “And we’re socialized not to toot our own horns, which you sometimes need to do in politics.”

And, of course, there’s the issue of power.

“When people have a privileged access to power, they may not want to give it up,” Campbell added. “But a lot of this privilege is invisible to men. It’s not that they’re bad; they just don’t see it.”

The city of Waterloo has been electing MPs since 1867. Famous ones, too, such as William Lyon Mackenzie King — Canada’s longest-serving prime minister — and former hockey legend Howie Meeker. But never a woman, until Bardish Chagger did it in 2015. A year later, she became the country’s first-ever female government house leader. She insists politics shouldn’t be about taking something away from men.

“It’s about creating more space and the conditions for success for others,” she said. Now that Chagger is the current government’s minister for diversity, inclusion, and youth, she said, “I represent all voices, including people who don’t identify as male or female. We simply need to create more pathways for success.”

“We all have to commit ourselves to opening up the narrative and understanding why exclusion is so unjust,” added Campbell.  

Then, in a nice non-partisan gesture, Chagger told the audience on Zoom that, when she gives her constituents tours of Parliament Hill, she makes sure people see the portrait of Campbell.

“It’s my favorite picture to show people,” she said. 

Paul, the new leader of the Green Party of Canada, the country’s first Black major-party leader, and the first Jewish woman to lead a national party, was a graduate student at Princeton University in the late 1990s when her son was born. “I just brought him to class with me and breast-fed him in class,” Paul recalled. “I didn’t ask permission, because I knew they’d say no. My professors just looked to the sky when I’d talk!”

What’s Paul’s advice?

“The structures of politics are not designed with women in mind,” she said. “We have to eliminate the barriers to women’s participation.”

Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, once famously said, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see.”

“If you’re not reflected in institutions, you won’t think to do it,” Paul said. “The good news is, we’re living in a moment where things we previously thought were impossible are now possible.”

Campbell also pointed out that, when her predecessor, Brian Mulroney, appointed her (and Mary Collins) to cabinet in 1989, “neither of us had kids. That meant managing our personal lives was easier. If you look at the majority of men in the U.S. Congress, they have wives that don’t work. So we have to look at the structural things that get in the way of women serving.”

Paul echoed those comments more than three decades later.

“Unless there are profound changes to the system, we have no hope for balance,” she said. “I couldn’t have done this job if my kids had been younger.”

To be sure, legislatures across Canada are more family-friendly places today. Back in Campbell’s day, she and others made sure the House didn’t sit one week out of every four, enabling everyone to get home for a sustained period of time. They also did away with night sittings.

“It wasn’t just good for us,” Campbell pointed out. “It was good for men, too, who didn’t want to sit around all night drinking and playing cards waiting for a vote. They wanted to be with their families, too. So we didn’t just do this so the ‘girls’ could serve.”

Canada’s 19th prime minister has championed a controversial idea that could fix the House of Commons’ gender imbalance in one election: ensure every riding has one male and one female MP. That’s right, two MPs for every riding. If the idea of doubling the number of politicians in Ottawa offends you, make the riding boundaries bigger and have fewer of them. The point is, the House could achieve gender balance in one fell swoop. Whether you like or dislike the idea, it would surely be a grand experiment in whether increased female participation in public life makes a difference. It’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t.

Campbell now lives part of the year in Florence, Italy. A daughter of World War II veterans, she noted that 50 Canadian soldiers, most of them in their twenties, are buried in Florence.

“They put their lives on the line,” she said admiringly. “I’m so glad I don’t have to be that brave. But we can all do more. Just step up. Watch the news, and you’ll see what happens if we don’t take care of our democracy. Vote. Write a cheque. The alternative is unthinkable. Women have a unique role to ensure those eventualities don’t happen.”

It wasn’t that long ago that six of Canada’s 10 provinces had female premiers. In fact, Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne became the sixth in 2013. Today, there are none. (Caroline Cochrane, the lone female government leader in the country today, is premier of the Northwest Territories.) But Campbell isn’t despondent.

“Don’t allow the setbacks to lead you to think there’s no support for women out there,” she said. “In 2016, 65 million people pulled the lever, marked their X, or punched their chad for a woman as President of the United States. Whatever the difficulties, we shouldn’t think people don’t get it, because a lot of people do.”

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