Why northern Ontario politics has a gender-parity problem

Just two of the 36 mayoral candidates in the region’s five largest cities are women — and while things are changing, some say they’re changing too slowly
By Claude Sharma - Published on September 18, 2018
Tanya Vrebosch (back row, right) is the lone woman on North Bay's 11-member city council. (facebook.com/tanyavrebosch)



The last two provincial elections saw significant increases in the number of women running for office — and this year, both the NDP and the Greens fielded more female candidates than male. But gender parity has proven more elusive at the local level: just 27 per cent of candidates registered to run in the 2018 municipal elections are women, according to a preliminary estimate from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (the data excludes Toronto).

While there are some municipalities in the north whose electoral slates feature, according to AMO data, more female candidates than male, just two of the 36 mayoral candidates in the region’s five largest cities — Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins, Sudbury, and North Bay — are women. In Greater Sudbury, women make up slightly more than 30 per cent of sitting councillors, but this year’s candidate pool is less than 15 per cent female: eight women to 48 men. (That does mark an improvement over the 2014 election, when just seven of 70 candidates were women.)

So why are so few women running for local office in northern Ontario? Compensation is a major factor, says Amanda Kingsley Malo, founder of PoliticsNOW — that is, Northern Ontario Women — a non-partisan grassroots organization that encourages women in the north to run for office. “Most of the councillors are not making a living wage, because it's considered a part-time job.” The majority of city councillors in northern Ontario earn less than $35,000 a year, she says, “so it's not feasible for women that are building their families and their careers to drop what they're doing and go into municipal politics.” On that kind of salary, she says, women can’t afford to continue acting as the primary caretakers of their children and of aging family members.

As well, Kingsley Malo says, the networks that help women break into politics are less developed in northern Ontario than they are in the south. Take “campaign schools,” for example, which teach campaigning fundamentals through mentorship. “I would say women in southern Ontario have more access to a variety of campaign schools,” says Kingsley Malo, who has never run for office herself. She’s aware of groups in Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, and London, but knows just one comparable group in northern Ontario — Women in Politics, which operates out of Thunder Bay.

Men in northern Ontario face the same north-south disparity when it comes to campaign schools, Kingsley Malo says, but they have other social advantages that can help in building a political career: they tend to be more established and have better-paying jobs and a larger network of potential donors.

Certain legislative changes may make it easier for women to run for office. For example, the provincial government now requires that local governments offer parental leave for elected members of council and school-board trustees.

North Bay’s lone female city councillor, Tanya Vrebosch, who has sat on council since 2008,  was able to make use of the city’s pregnancy, birth and/or adoption child leave policy earlier this year after giving birth to her daughter Danielle. “Council has been very supportive,” Vrebosch says. She went on maternity leave for five months but says she still followed developments at city hall closely.

Trevor Tchir, a political scientist at Algoma University, in Sault Ste. Marie, says the problem of gender disparity in local politics should improve over time, as younger, more progressive voters start participating in greater numbers. “You’ll see more women in all levels of politics,” he says

But Kingsley Malo and others aren’t waiting for change. PoliticsNOW, for example, is, taking an active role in preparing women to run — hosting educational workshops and providing women with advice on how to campaign and fundraise. As Kingsley Malo says, “How do you know you’re getting the most qualified people when half of the population isn’t even running?”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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