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Toronto Star 

More than tokens
May 22, 2004

OTTAWAThe 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 nation-building."

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 Qubcois 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 campaign.

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 interested.

"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 membership-selling blitz.

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 so underrepresented."

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 the party functionaries at head office and at the constituency level 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 says.

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 riding.

Public Health Minister Carolyn Bennett, who was famously criticized by former prime minister Jean Chrtien 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 Hlne 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.

They did.

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 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 the kind that tend be more available to men than women 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 political parties.

"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 riding."

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 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, she says.

"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.'"


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