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Quotas and Gender Equity: Women and Politics in Canada

The Famous Five Sculpture

On October 18th, 1929, the government of Canada declared women to be persons under the Constitution. The decision was forced by five women in particular known to this day as the Famous Five. These trailblazers in women’s rights  were Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby.

In 1916, Manitoba and then Saskatchewan and Alberta granted women the right to vote and hold office. By 1919, most women 21 or older could vote (native women still could not). In 1921, Agnes Macphail became the first woman elected to the House of Commons (she would later become the first woman sworn into the Ontario Legislature). By 1940 Quebec, the last provincial hold out, granted women the right to vote and had the first political party to be led by a woman in Canada, Therese Casgrain. in 1957, Ellen Fairclough became Canada’s first female cabinet minister as Secretary of State in the Diefenbaker government.

In 1984, Jean Sauve, who had been the first female speaker of the House of Commons became the first female Governor General of Canada. In 1989, Audrey McLaughlin of the NDP became the first Canadian female to lead a major federal political party. In 1991, Rita Johnston of British Columbia became Canada’s first female premier and in 1993 Catharine Callbeck of Prince Edward Island became Canada’s first elected female premier. Finally also in 1993, Kim Campbell became Canada’s first female prime minister.

These dates are notable because they shouldn’t be. They are notable because women were denied rights that others held since before Confederation entirely because of the gender they happened to be.

Despite the struggles women have faced throughout Canada’s history, the office of the Prime Minister has been held by a woman, though by an unelected woman and only briefly.  What more progress can we possibly ask for?

A lot more. The tenure of Kim Campbell was 17 years ago at a time when the composition of the House of Commons was 21% female. This level was maintained until the 2008 election when women finally cracked the standard and reached 22.4% of those elected. Nearly 30% of candidates in that election were women. The main problem however is that despite the election of a women to the highest office in the country nearly 20 years ago, women still only represent less than one quarter of the legislators in this country yet make up over half the population. Despite all the work that has been done, there is still more to do.

The issue of further integrating women into the political process and in simply attracting them to it in general is on the radar of many women (as well as men) and many possible solutions to the gender imbalance in governance have been put forth.

One such solution that I outright reject is the implementation of list-proportional representation. The argument is that it would reflect badly on a party to select only males (specifically white males) to their party lists and therefore more women would be selected and elected. I am against PR in all forms in all occasions, but that is an argument for elsewhere. Those selected from party lists are not elected because they lack a constituency and direct legitimacy (in my opinion) and to suggest that women can only become legislators under such a system insults the ability of women in the political world and underestimates their appeal.

It is argued women would be elected if they could simply get nominated and that the nomination process itself is what stands in the way, hence the obsession with PR lists. The argument that the nominating process is the problem has merit. In the 2008 election, women made up around 27% of the candidates for election and just over 22% of the elected MPs were women. Women clearly are highly electable when given the opportunity. However with only 27% percent of nominated candidates actually being female, it is clearly impossible to reach 50% female representation in the House.

However I don’t believe the entire system must be adjusted (and in my opinion made less fair and accountable in other ways) simply to achieve the 50/50 goal of the legislature representing the population. Why not simply mandate that political parties nominate a certain number of candidates in each gender to reach a number that accurately reflects the population? After all it is the voting process within parties themselves that apparently suggest women are unelectable. They aren’t barred from running at the party level, they are just not supported. So instead of fiddling with the constitution why not pass simple regulatory legislation for party politics?

This is the argument I would make if I felt it was right to legislate gender equity. While I think such legislation is required in things such as equal pay for equal work (which is still not in force despite it being 2010), I think politics is an entirely different issue. Of course you should be paid the same money for the same work regardless of gender, color or creed. But demanding democracy produce certain types of candidates goes against the very idea of democracy. The people get to choose their representatives, no matter how ill advised their choices may be.

I think it is important that we support women in politics and make it easier for them to run and even recognize that maybe it is that much more difficult for them to do so than men (even in today’s society female careers often come second). And while our elected representatives should represent the different genders, races, languages and other distinctions that exists across the populace the most important is the type of ideas that a candidate stands for.

I think electing women is great. I also think electing men is great. I think electing aboriginals, French speaking candidates, and any other kind of candidate is great. But only so long as they are great candidates with great ideas that I can support. I will not vote for a woman just because she is a woman. I will vote for her because she is capable, brilliant and believes in the same ideals that I do. If not, I’ll vote for the candidate that these things are true of. We shouldn’t demand candidates of any specific type. We should demand good candidates who will do good things in government because of their individual traits or in even spite of them. A candidate’s gender, ethnicity, or language does not make them understand me or represent me any better as an individual because we are all too unique to be summed up by our gender, color, language or any other traits. So why should we let our vote be determined that way?

In March of this year I met the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons. I can’t think of many instances where I have met someone so powerful and impressive who came across that way simply by speaking so wisely.  She spoke of growing up in Grenada and the struggles she faced. She told us a story of how the school she attended as a young girl used to rank the students in the class based on their assignment grades. The numbers would range from 1 to however many students were in the class and the numbers we made available to everyone. One day Jean Augustine received an assignment back and realized she was ranked number 1 in the entire class. She raced back to her grandmother’s house and received a proud welcome. Augustine’s grandmother began to tell everyone in the village that her granddaughter was smarter than all of the boys in the village. Jean Augustine, after the enormous fuss her grandmother made, knew she had to keep that hold on the number one place or face the laughter of her classmates. And she did.

Augustine worked her way up from Grenada to Canada and went from the small classroom where she was smarter than all the boys to the University of Toronto where she studied education. She ran in the 1993 election and experienced a series of firsts in the House of Commons, being the first black female elected to the House and the first black female to hold a cabinet position. She said in the talk I attended that her whole life has been a series of firsts, just like that day in her classroom in Grenada.

Jean Augustine needed no help in all of her great achievements. Her life could have been made easier at many turns and should have been. But the remarkable thing about Jean Augustine is all she accomplished by simply being herself, the smartest student of either gender in a village in Grenada.

We should demand there be more female candidates, that parties and the system in general make it easier for women to run for nomination and then election. But we must also remember to demand high caliber candidates regardless of gender or any other considerations. Candidates who disappoint us or do not have what it takes to govern well only damage the political process. And female candidates who do so do nothing to advance the notion that representatives of 50% of the population should make up 50% of the legislative body.

The Famous Five argued that they were persons, that their gender had nothing to do with their place in society and that the things they could and would accomplish had everything to do with the drive inside of each of them and not the gender they were born into. The focus should not be what we can do as women, but instead what we can all accomplish as equal yet individual people. We should demand process be more inclusive to women, yes, but we should really demand better of all who represent us as a whole and let the best candidate win.

2 comments

  1. West-Coast Bob says:

    Proportion of MPs that are female (by party):

    Conservatives 11%
    Liberals 20%
    Bloc 30%
    NDP 41%*

    *The difference being: the NDP has an active female recruitment policy, which aims at nominating 50% female candidates in all winnable ridings. Just saying… socialists do it better.

    1. Theresa says:

      This is a great point. Of course the issue is that while the party nominating systems are flawed and usually weed out women except as you point out in more left leaning parties like the NDP, the party that the Canadian electorate has supported the most in recent years is the Conservatives and they continually nominate and elect the least number of women. As with a lot of issues, the electorate is often a major part of the problem.

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