When the revolution finally began, it was swift and complete. On October 1, the Northwest Territories moved from having the least representation by women (11 per cent) to the most (47 per cent) in a Canadian legislature. The 19 members of the 19th Assembly then elected a woman premier (the only one in Canada at the moment) and four women to Cabinet (of six members). (In consensus government there are no parties. Members self-nominate for Executive Council positions; they are then elected by secret ballot by the members.)
The women elected are diverse. Six of the nine are Indigenous; two have small children; one was chief of her band for 12 years; one is an engineer and another is a lawyer. They come from constituencies across the NWT from Inuvik to Fort Smith. One woman said she ran because two women she went to high school were running. She figured if they could do it, she could too validating the “see it, be it” principle.
This change, from being behind to being ahead in women’s representation at the territorial government level, was no fluke.
In the last 20 years, there has been an average of 10 women who were candidates in each territorial election. Of that number, two or three women were elected each time. When my colleague Caroline Cochrane, MLA Range Lake, and I, were elected in 2015, we were determined to increase the representation of women, confident that more women on the ballot would amount to more women in the House.
The Status of Women Council of the NWT has been offering campaign schools for women for years. Both Ms. Cochrane and I are graduates of the 2015 school. Once elected that year, we taught at campaign schools in Hay River, Fort Simpson, Inuvik and Yellowknife. I hosted a young women’s leadership development workshop called Daughters of the Vote in February 2017, building on the Equal Voice initiative that year. I received a small grant to offer a series of election-preparedness workshops called Women on the Ballot last winter. Many volunteers have spent hours and days talking to women about issues ranging from developing confidence and managing family responsibilities while away from home, to the substantive issues of governance. There have also been many private mentoring efforts.
Our male colleagues at the Legislative Assembly also supported our efforts. On International Women’s Day in 2018, we unanimously passed a resolution to make every effort to increase women’s representation – to a modest 20 per cent by 2023. Enter the special committee of MLAs appointed a year ago with me as chair (see the terms of reference here. The committee travelled to 10 communities to find out what it would take to get women to become candidates. We met with women who held leadership positions in community and Indigenous governments as well as former MLAs.
The result, described in the interim report tabled in March (see it here) was recommendations for policy changes such as ramping up campaign schools and allowing parents to claim extraordinary child care expenses incurred because of their MLA work. The final report, tabled in June (see it here) recommended legislative changes such as providing a rebate for election expenses. Some of the women we met with decided to become candidates and were elected. There is a direct connection between the committee’s work and the record number of women who ran: 22 in 2019 versus ten in 2015.
While there have been advances in women’s leadership at the municipal and territorial government level, we have had only one woman succeed at the federal level. Ethel Blondin-Andrew served 18 years in the House of Commons, including holding Cabinet portfolios in the Chretien and Martin governments. This is a tremendous accomplishment for a Dene woman from a small community in the Northwest Territories and hasn’t been equalled since her defeat in 2006. Perhaps one of the current Indigenous government, municipal government of territorial government politicians will make a run for the federal seat in the future.
The nine female MLAs are role models. Together we will bring real and lasting change to represent all northerners. We know that the system that existed before was not good enough, and we will work hard to change it so that others can succeed.
Photo caption: Women of the 19th Assembly of the NWT (l to r): Julie Green (Yellowknife Centre), Caroline Wawzonek (Yellowknife South), Frieda Martselos (Thebacha), Caroline Cochrane (Range Lake), Diane Thom (Inuvik Boot Lake), Katrina Nokleby (Great Slave), Lesa Semmler (Inuvik Twin Lakes), Caitlin Cleveland (Kam Lake), Paulie Chinna (Sahtu).