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Lisa MacLeod, MPP Nepean-Carleton on Bay St., near the Queen's Park Legislature. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Lisa MacLeod, MPP Nepean-Carleton on Bay St., near the Queen's Park Legislature. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Can a busy female politician give reliable evidence? A judge says no Add to ...

Lisa MacLeod is a young female politician who commutes to her job at Queen's Park from Ottawa and leaves her husband, Joe, and four-year-old daughter, Victoria, at home. Mr. Justice Douglas Cunningham of Ontario Superior Court said this is a big distraction for the 34-year-old woman and as a result he felt he could not accept her evidence as corroboration of the Crown's key witness in the recent high-profile, influence-peddling trial of Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien.

Judge Cunningham is 69; he was appointed to the bench in 1991.

His comments, delivered last week in his ruling dismissing the charges against Mr. O'Brien, are now drawing criticism from political strategists and activists who are shaking their heads, wondering when women will be treated as equals in politics.

I didn't know truth had a gender. Lisa MacLeod

"It is unfortunate that any woman in Ms. MacLeod's situation may be regarded as less reliable because of the demands placed on her life as a politician," said Nancy Peckford, national director of Equal Voice, an organization promoting women in public office. "Would the same approach have been taken with a male politician who is commuting and has a young family at home? Probably not."

On Monday, Ms. MacLeod, the Conservative MPP for Nepean-Carleton, called the judge's reference "pathetic" and "surreal."

"I didn't know truth had a gender or a family," she said.

Veteran strategist David Small, who has worked for many strong female politicians, including former Tory senator Pat Carney and former Joe Clark cabinet minister Flora MacDonald, called the judge's comments "absolutely beyond the pale."

"It's unacceptable from a public figure. … And it doesn't help recruiting women, which I do a lot of, when they as a gender are being dissed as being not up for the job because they have responsibilities for a dependant," Mr. Small said. "Give me a break."

In his ruling, Judge Cunningham said that "the defence was able to demonstrate that there were a number of rather significant things going on in her life when she gave her statement to the police. … "

"She was commuting regularly to Toronto for her work, leaving her husband and child in Ottawa," he read in his ruling. He concluded that her evidence was not corroborative of the Crown's main witness and said, "I must assign it little weight."

Ms. MacLeod said she has no problem with the judge's overall ruling and is happy for Mr. O'Brien and his family. She said she has not heard from the judge and does not expect to.

However, she found it remarkable that there was little comment on the ruling. Indeed, Mr. Cunningham's remarks were virtually overlooked last week as attention was focused on Mr. O'Brien's acquittal.

"The silence you would expect from some folks has been deafening," she said, referring to groups that try to recruit women to run for office.

"One of the things that you notice when you're a female politician is that there is a real drive to get women elected and then once we're there it's sort of like, 'Okay, well the job is done.' Everybody sort of claps their hands and the job is done. But really there is a whole new series of challenges."

Equal Voice responded after a reporter pointed out the judge's ruling.

Grassroots Liberal organizer Isabel Metcalfe said women politicians hear these sorts of remarks often.

"It still speaks to the working conditions young women in public life face," she said. "When I'm out recruiting women that's the issue that turns young women off. They do not believe that there is any way that they can have a family and be in public life."

According to Equal Voice, Canada ranks 46th out of 189 countries in the number of women elected to national parliament. Women make up 52 per cent of the population, but only 22 per cent of MPs are women and 21 per cent of representatives elected to municipal and provincial office are women.

Mr. Small, who is helping two women in Ottawa win nominations to run for the Ignatieff Liberals, said it's "very discouraging when women are trying so hard."

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