OTTAWA’ÄîThe huge statue of the Famous Five on Parliament Hill
is just a short walk from the House of Commons. Erected in
2002, the statue honours Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards,
Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Nellie McClung, early-20th
century women who struggled to expand the political rights of
women in Canada.
Isabel Metcalfe, a long-time Liberal and lobbyist who
fought fiercely for the statue, says it symbolizes women
taking their rightful place in power.
"When you're there, you're supposed to dream of
building a better country," she says of viewing the
monument. "It represents our role in
So, the question is: Why aren't more women entering
government to do just that?
According to Equal Voice, a national, non-partisan advocacy
group devoted to getting more women in politics, the
statistics going into this federal election aren't good.
Women make up 52 per cent of the population but only 23 per
cent of the overall candidates nominated as of May 11. The NDP
is faring best with 30 per cent, followed by the Liberals at
26 per cent, the Bloc Quˆ©bˆ©cois with 25 per cent. The
Conservatives trail with 11 per cent.
The issue always crops up as elections draw near, but this
time the disparity seems starker, particularly since Prime
Minister Paul Martin made an issue of it during his leadership
At the party leadership convention in November, he said
he'd actively recruit women in winnable ridings and run more
of them than ever before. He vowed the same thing last summer
when he attended a women's caucus meeting in North Bay.
At that meeting, Equal Voice urged Martin to adopt its goal
of getting 104 women in the House of Commons, or approximately
one-third of its seats, in the next election. According to
Rosemary Speirs, the group's chairperson, Martin couldn't
promise that, but seemed to support the idea.
"I don't know if it's as much a priority as he made it
sound originally," she says. "Maybe it's more
difficult than he thought, or maybe it's not the first thing
on his mind. Mostly we just asked for Martin himself to get
really involved in recruiting women and to make sure that
women who are interested in running knew they were welcome in
the Liberal party and would get his support. I haven't seen
him (doing) that."
Neither has Ottawa city councillor Diane Deans, who ran
unsuccessfully for the nomination in Ottawa South against
David McGuinty, the brother of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Deans decided to stand for the nomination after meeting
with the Liberal women's caucus. On Martin's instructions, the
MPs had compiled a list of potential candidates who could run
in winnable ridings, and the caucus asked if Deans would be
"I always wondered what happened to that list, because
I really don't think anything happened," Deans says. That
initial contact with the women's caucus was the only time she
felt the party's support, she adds.
Deans says she was given only three hours' notice before
the Ottawa South membership-selling deadline kicked in.
McGuinty had three days, she says, and with that knowledge had
spent the final weekend before the deadline on a
Thinking she had weeks to sell the memberships, Deans
figured she would win the riding, which includes areas she had
represented at Ottawa city council for 10 years.
"I don't think it's just the Liberals, I think it's
every party," Deans says. "Until the membership of
the parties demand change, this will continue. There were a
lot of great women overlooked this time around and I think
that's really unfortunate, especially since I think women are
Speirs agrees that the party needs to take responsibility
for the problem, both at the executive and the riding levels.
"Our target is the gatekeepers ’Äî the party
functionaries at head office and at the constituency level ’Äî
who seem to believe male incumbents can't be challenged, and
male professionals are still the best candidates," she
said in a speech last fall.
Anita Neville (Winnipeg North Centre) chairperson of the
Liberal women's caucus, regrets that that's often the case.
When it comes to riding associations, "men tend to
support other men," she says.
Even if a female candidate is extraordinary, she often has
little chance if her male opponents have been raising money
for years in advance, Neville says. Women, often juggling
family and career, can't always organize as quickly as men.
Parties have to start working earlier on women's behalf, she
Speirs says the prospects for women seem to be getting
worse, not better. According to Equal Voice, the number of
women running for Parliament reached an all-time high in 1993
at 476 candidates, but in the last federal election, the total
dropped to 373. Liberal women candidates dropped from a high
of 84 in 1997 to just 66 in 2000. This time they're at 76,
again as of May 11.
There are now 62 women MPs in Parliament.
"I think there was a period in the 1990s when people
seemed to be more conscious of the democratic deficit, of how
few women were being elected and the women's movement was very
vigorous," Speirs says. "There was also more
pressure then from the NDP when they were stronger."
Neville says she's "disturbed" by the relatively
low number of Liberal women running, but points out several
are campaigning in what the party considers winnable ridings:
Shirley Chan, appointed by Martin to run in Vancouver East;
Judy Higginbotham in South Surrey-Whiterock-Cloverdale; and
Yasmin Ratansi in Don Valley East, formerly David Collenette's
Public Health Minister Carolyn Bennett, who was famously
criticized by former prime minister Jean Chrˆ©tien after she
raised concerns about the decreasing numbers of women in
cabinet after a shuffle in 2002, says the Martin government
has fought hard for women, particularly campaign co-chairs
John Webster, David Herle and Hˆ©lˆ®ne Scherrer and national
campaign director Michele Cadario.
"I've watched them just slug it out riding by riding,
trying to increase those numbers," Bennett says, adding
the issue is an "ongoing conversation" with Martin.
But that slugging it out may be part of the problem, New
Democrat MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis says.
The veteran MP maintains the Martin Liberals' pugnacious,
aggressive style has infused its way into Parliament.
It came to a head earlier this month when things got so
heated between Conservative MP Peter MacKay and Treasury Board
President Reg Alcock as they argued about the sponsorship
scandal that Alcock challenged MacKay to step outside.
It didn't come to blows, but the next day, Wasylycia-Leis
introduced her question about pay equity in the Commons by
saying "enough of macho politics."
"This place has become so macho in its orientation and
I don't think that encourages women to run," she said,
the day after the Alcock-MacKay exchange. "It sends a
message to women. Why would they start looking at running for
politics if they see those kinds of games being played, if
they see the kind of treatment Sheila Copps got?"
Martin's only Liberal leadership rival, Copps, a former
deputy prime minister, was forced to run against Martinite
Tony Valeri in the new riding of Hamilton East. Last week,
Copps said a teary goodbye in the House, then sped from
Parliament Hill in a red convertible, waving to the cameras.
Neville says the Liberal party encourages women candidates
through the Judy LaMarsh fund ’Äî named after Canada's first
woman cabinet minister. This year, the fund is offering its
women candidates $2,500, but only to first-time candidates.
Metcalfe says she's curious to see how much the new
election financing rules that ban large corporate donations
’Äî the kind that tend be more available to men than women ’Äî
will level the playing field.
When it comes to promoting women, Speirs says the NDP is
the leader on the issue. Its affirmative action policy says a
nomination cannot be approved until the party can show it
actively searched for someone from a less highly represented
group, such as women, the disabled, a racial minority or a gay
or lesbian candidate.
But Conservative MP Deb Grey, who was the first Reform
party MP elected to the House of Commons, says policies such
as the NDP's amounts to tokenism. That's why her party has no
special process for appointing or recruiting women, she says.
"If (former Reform party leader) Preston Manning or
Stephen Harper came to me and said, `Deb, we want you to do
this because we want a woman for the job,' they would see my
south end going north," Grey says.
"We don't put candidates in areas where we know
they're going to lose."
She says Martin's promise about recruiting more women
candidates was a bad idea in the first place.
"So you make promises. Why? Just so he can have more
girls out there, token girls? Is he making a promise because
he thinks women are going to make great Parliamentarians,
because he wants people who are competent that have abilities,
that have skills? No. He wants to have girl power so he can
say, `I had the biggest number of girls running.'
"If these women fall for that kind of bunk, then I
want to have coffee with those girls and have a chat with them
and say, `Don't do it, girly.'"
The NDP, Speirs and Bennett have all championed electoral
reform as part of the solution. So has the Law Reform
Commission of Canada, which recently produced a report
recommending some form of proportional representation.
One option, says commission president Nathalie Des Rosiers,
is a mixed system, in which two-thirds of the seats in the
House would be elected according to the current,
first-past-the-post procedure, while the remaining one-third
would be filled from lists of candidates provided by the
"It's not a guarantee because if parties don't want to
put women forward, they can prevent it," she says,
"but, in general, most of the studies show that
proportionality is better for women representation."
Voters would get two votes: one for a candidate in a
riding, and one for the party of his or her choice. That way,
a portion of the seats would be determined by a
first-past-the-post system, while the remaining seats would be
determined by a party's share of the popular vote.
Being on a list helps women because it means they no longer
have to fight to win nominations, Des Rosiers says. They'd
still have to fight to get on the list, but there would be
more spots available than just a single riding spot.
"There's no doubt that adding an element of
proportionality does improve the likelihood of women
candidates being put forward by parties and getting
elected," Des Rosiers says. "Ideally, you want to
put them higher on the list rather than lower, because that
increases their chances of getting in."
Proportional representation usually yields more MPs from
smaller parties, which tend to have more women, she said.
And, as has been shown in New Zealand and Germany, such
lists allow women to get into politics in a different way.
"Women are not known. They do great work but they
don't have the same networks," she says. "But if
they get known because they get put on the list, then the next
time they have an increased likelihood of winning in the
Speirs says party leaders need to put women on the agenda,
too. In past election campaigns, particularly in the '80s,
party leaders debated women's issues, but that stopped in 1993
’Äî ironically, the year Kim Campbell became Canada's first
female prime minister.
It's time to bring those debates back, Speirs says.
And if party leaders are serious about attracting more
women to represent this country, it's got to start at the top,
"They've got to make it clear that they want a strong
contingent of women, they can't just let the riding
associations. It's a good idea, but not us.'"