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The XX Factor: Will the 42nd Parliament be the one that fully leverages women’s potential as power brokers and leaders in their own right? (The Hill Times)

Jan 25, 2016


This article was originally published in The Hill Times. It was written by Nancy Peckford and Grace Lore on January 25, 2016.

The XX Factor: Will the 42nd Parliament be the one that fully leverages women’s potential as power brokers and leaders in their own right?


When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked why he was appointing a gender-balanced Cabinet, he said, 'Because it's 2015.' P&I photograph by Jake Wright


It’s been a roller coaster ride for elected women on the Canadian landscape over the past few years. Between 2010 and 2013, Canadians saw the number of women premiers triple—from a mere one (Eva Aariak, premier of Nunavut) in 2010 to six. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador joined Nunavut as part of a rather new and sizable club. Remarkably, when all six premiers were in place at the same time, more than 85 per cent of Canadians were being governed by women. It was astonishing, particularly after decades of just one or no women represented among Canada’s First Ministers. 


But it was not for long.  In several cases, the women who had successfully attained leadership of their parties had done so at a precipitous moment. In academic circles, it’s called the glass cliff.  Their parties were flagging in the polls, mired in controversy after years in office or, quite simply, short on vision. Consequently, not all of these newly minted women premiers survived. Some were outmaneuvered by very strong women opposition leaders. Others could not adapt to the rigors of an office fraught with as many internal as external dynamics.


However, throughout this time and beyond, Canadians have been witness to the power and influence elected women can yield on the provincial and territorial scenes. It hasn’t always been smooth—and not every woman has been up for the challenge, clearly.  But those women who have endured have thrived.  Premiers Christy Clark and Kathleen Wynne have proven to be adept political players who have engendered loyalty among their colleagues and know their electorates very well. They are also determined to govern with a style that is uniquely theirs.  One such example is the Ontario government’s public awareness campaign on sexual violence and harassment launched early in 2015. Developed in partnership with leading community organizations, the campaign has resulted in a seismic shift in public opinion with a majority of Ontarians now feeling a responsibility to intervene if they are witness to such behaviour. The campaign is unprecedented in its reach and has resonated around the globe.  


Amid this backdrop, the federal leadership scene has remained notably static—with very few elected women serving as significant powerbrokers or leadership contenders since the turn of the century.  However, on Oct. 19, Canadians opted for dramatic changes to the political landscape—which in turn appear to be expanding the prospects for women.  Now in place is the largest women’s caucus of any governing party in Canada’s history and a prime minister who has, it seems, made a steadfast commitment to appointing an equal number of women and men to his cabinet.  Rona Ambrose is interim leader of the Official Opposition, bringing a refreshing new tone and approach to policy making. The New Democrats, while a much smaller caucus, still have the highest percentage of women MPs at 40 per cent who bring a range of talent and expertise.  And, of course, the Green Party’s Elizabeth May remains determined to punch well above her weight and will likely be far more effective in doing so with a government whose priorities intersect with hers. 


It begs the question: will Canada’s 42nd Parliament finally be the one that fully leverages women’s talents and potential as power brokers and leaders in their own right? 


The path to victory


In total, 88 women were elected to this Parliament, 50 of them Liberal.  Overall, it’s 12 more than were elected in 2011 but, proportionally, given the 30 new seats that were added to the House, women will comprise just 26 per cent of the House. This represents a one point increase from the previous Parliament. Given the average one point rise in women’s representation in the House of Commons over the past five elections, reaching parity could take 90 years. It’s why leadership from this Parliament is so critical, particularly when it comes to long overdue Parliamentary reforms.


Women in this past election comprised one out of three candidates who ran for the major five parties—the Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats, Bloc, and the Green Party. This was up two percentage points from 2011, but this is largely because the Greens nominated a significant number of women in Quebec in the last two weeks of the campaign. Only for the Greens and the NDP did this election represent an all-time high of women among candidates; the Conservatives nominated a lower rate than in the previous two elections, the Bloc fielded fewer women than they had in 2011. The Liberals managed to improve on their 2011 performance and ran 31 per cent women, six points less than their 2006 record of 37 per cent. 

It’s worth noting that the NDP’s policy of holding nomination races only after attempts have been made to recruit under-represented groups, including women, has consistently produced the highest number of women candidates over the last four elections. They fielded 43 per cent in this election, a federal record for any party. Nonetheless, in 53 ridings, the candidates for all the major five parties were men. When you narrow it down to the major three (Liberals, NDP and Conservatives), 98 ridings had no women. And, not surprisingly, more than 91 per cent of Canadians voted for one of the major three parties.  


Equal Voice paid particularly close attention to federal seats where an incumbent was not running, including the 30 new seats created before this election. Would these races create new opportunities for women?  Unfortunately, only the NDP came close to achieving parity when fielding women in these ridings. For the Conservatives and the Liberals, women’s proportion of these seats, as candidates, was slightly lower than that of women being fielded generally by these parties: less than 33 per cent for the Liberals, and less than 20 per cent for the CPC.


Of course, in advocating for more women to run, Equal Voice is interested in the degree to which federal female candidates are as diverse as the Canada they hope to represent. With this in mind, Equal Voice researched the 33 ridings where minorities are, in fact, a majority.   In these ridings, more than half of all candidates for the major three parties were visible minorities and 40 per cent of these visible minority candidates were, in fact, women.  Overall, women were significantly better represented among the candidate pool considered visible minority than they were in the remaining candidate pool in these 33 ridings. Among the other candidates for the major three parties who were not considered visible minority, only 21 per cent were women. Women were similarly well represented among Black and Caribbean candidates, making up 52 per cent (13) of the 25 candidates; and Indigenous candidates made up more than half of candidates who were women. It goes to show that in engaging more women as candidates, parties are also reaching out to diverse communities in which those women are making their mark as leaders, innovators and advocates.


Moving beyond civility


With this new Parliament, there is good reason to be optimistic, on two fronts: the very clear signals from the Liberal Party that they will plan to re-inject civility and respect into the House of Commons are encouraging and Ms. Ambrose’s commitment to leading a constructive Official Opposition party and Tom Mulcair’s efforts to leverage the talents of a smaller but powerful caucus. When Equal Voice launched its ‘Talk Tough, Not Rough’ campaign back in 2010 in a bid to turn the heat down for just one day, the challenge in securing all party agreement foretold of things to come.  Equal Voice stopped hosting groups of young women for Question Period, concerned it would be turning too many off of federal politics. 


Re-imagining Parliament for contemporary times


But a new era of civility won’t fix what’s broken. Canada’s Parliament, and most of its rules, were created before women—any women—gained the franchise. Much of how it functions is a relic from centuries past and when the expectations for men were about prestige, ambition, and testosterone-laden breaks from the homefront.  


For decades, women (and increasingly men), have bumped up against this structure—but little has been done about it.  In a telling moment in 2013, when new mother and NDP MP Sana Hassainia took her nursing infant into the House for a mandatory vote, it elicited such a response that then-Speaker Andrew Scheer had to subsequently clarify whether or not infants, in any instance, were welcome at all.  He obliged, stating that yes, babies were welcome—as long as there was no disruption which, if you’ve spent any time around an infant, is never guaranteed. It was a modest gesture from a Speaker with little power to change the rules. But it didn’t go far enough.


If there is one parliamentary reform legacy that this government could leave to future generations, it would be re-imagining Parliament for our times.



The House of Commons typically has the longest number of siting days of any legislature in Canada. In 2014, a non-election year federally, there were 127 days for the House of Commons and 72 for the Ontario legislature which already has the highest number of sitting days of any provincial legislature in Canada. 


The disparity speaks for itself.  The intensive amount of travel required of MPs from every corner of this country, particularly when many are already regularly travelling within very large ridings, is untenable. Women with significant care-giving responsibilities regularly cite travel intensity as a real barrier in standing for federal election, even with a dedicated partner at home.  Men too, like NDP MP Nathan Cullen, have begun to express the price they and their families pay for a grueling schedule that knows no bounds.  


Proposed changes by the Liberal government including shorter and earlier sitting hours in Parliament and the elimination of Friday sittings would be two very good first steps. At Queen’s Park, evening sittings were virtually eliminated in 2008 after Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod successfully rallied the McGuinty Liberals to put an end to them. MacLeod, who had gotten elected with an infant in tow, was frustrated by the late start to the day and frequent evening settings, which were often less productive and required MPPs to spend long days away from their families or constituents—or both. Nobody has complained.  It was a simple structural change that has had a tremendously positive impact on MPPs whose plates are already very full. 


Alberta is now also following suit. Increasingly, it appears, elected representatives have lives that aren’t so different from the constituents they seek to represent and that’s a good thing.


Virtual meetings


Is it really necessary for MPs to be present for every committee meeting, debate and vote?  Wouldn’t MPs and their constituents benefit from the increasing use of technologies that facilitate some off-site participation? Parliamentary committees now regularly use Skype and webcasting to hear from Parliamentary experts. Why not introduce a trial period where MPs could potentially participate in committee meetings via Skype or some other technology? The likely introduction of a weekly Question Period focused exclusively on the Prime Minister would also free up Members of Parliament from the government side. The impact of participating virtually could be assessed on an ongoing basis to discern whether it really is an effective way for MPs to conduct some of the business required of them.


Nomination oversight


Samara has characterized it as a ‘Black Box,’ and in their book, Tragedy in the Commons, they recount the experiences of many now former MPs who called the nomination process the worst part of their foray into politics:  a mysterious and murky process often (not always) fraught with ambiguity, backroom power plays, deception and, thankfully, acts of courage—an internecine war few dare to wage and for good reason. How do prospective women candidates make out in this terrain? We simply do not know. 


Canada does not have comprehensive data on exactly how many women sought to be candidates in the last election and were unable to secure the party’s nomination. Elections Canada has not had the mandate to define the process, or subject parties to any standards. Disputes about fairness or potential bias, real or perceived, must be taken up with party officials, not Elections Canada. The costs, which are not tax deductible, and the level of transparency (or lack there of) prove to be a deterrent for many.


Additionally, the parties’ different systems for green-lighting nomination candidates also complicates matters. In a matter of days, parties can disqualify a candidate who was gathering support for a nomination for months, even years.  It begs the question of where do you start counting who was a nomination contender? 


In a survey conducted by Andre Turcotte and released at the 2015 Manning Conference on women’s political ambitions in Canada, private sector female leaders, in particular, cited the leadership styles on display in the federal arena as a major disincentive to pursuing elected office. Women surveyed were also doubtful of the impact they could have in serving in office. Canada’s 42nd Parliament presents enormous opportunities for MPs to think about the long game when it comes to engaging Canadians, especially those who have been chronically under-represented in Parliament over the last 150 years.


On the cusp of Canada’s 150th anniversary, putting into place measures that promote a robust, dynamic and inclusive democracy should be the priority around which MPs from all sides rally. Why? Because women deserve, and merit, an equal voice at the table. 


It’s evident in how Canada’s three female premiers are charting a new course for many Canadians. Notably, the provinces where these three women hold power also have the highest percentages of elected women in their legislatures and the most women in their cabinets. Amid an imperfect system, they are making progress.  


Creating compelling conditions for more and diverse women to run—and win—at the federal level is not only entirely achievable, it is the only way forward if we want a balanced and representative Parliament that can ably lead us through the 21st century. It is the legacy we owe our sons and daughters—and it is long overdue. 


Link to original http://www.hilltimes.com/p_i/the-essay/the-xx-factor/44970

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