Influential women's groups from Quebec to British Columbia have joined forces to push the Liberal government to adopt proportional representation, wanting to ensure Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's declarations that he is a feminist and committed to gender equality are not just empty promises.
Proportional representation is considered by some experts to be the best way to increase the number of women and other minorities in the House of Commons – women represent only 26 per cent of the MPs in the chamber.
"We definitely want any reform that will increase our ability to affect who is being [elected] and to make sure we choose people who will actually promote women's rights and other oppressed groups' rights," said Hilla Kerner, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter.
Ms. Kerner's shelter has joined the Every Voter Counts Alliance, which was formed in February, to push for proportional representation. Alliance members include representatives from the Broadbent Institute, the Canadian Labour Congress, unions, the Idle No More indigenous rights group and even former privy council clerk Alex Himelfarb and former Stephen Harper chief of staff Guy Giorno.
On Wednesday, the Alliance announced the inclusion of new women's groups, including Ms. Kerner's shelter as well as the National Council of Women of Canada, the Canadian Network of Women's Shelters and Transition Houses and several women's groups in Quebec.
Mr. Trudeau promised during last year's federal election campaign it would be the last one fought under the first-past-the-post vote-counting system. Many Canadians have long argued the system is unfair. For example, both Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau's majority governments were elected with less than 40 per cent of the vote.
"Among civil society, for sure, there is an understanding this is the fairest system and certainly the best way, in particular, for there to be better representation of women in the House of Commons," said Willy Blomme, the spokeswoman for the Alliance.
Some European countries with proportional representation systems, for example, have more women in their legislatures than Canada. Ms. Blomme, a political scientist with the Broadbent Institute, said academic studies have shown that the system increases by up to 8 per cent the proportion of women in legislatures.
Proportional representation allows for parties to submit a list of candidates – if the party gets 40 per cent of the vote, for example, it would win about 40 per cent of the seats and so 40 per cent of the people on the list would sit in the Commons. If half of the candidates on the list were women, and ranked at or near the top, women would have a better chance of becoming an MP.
This recent banding together of the women's groups into the Alliance follows the recent announcement by Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef that an all-party committee will study the issue; it must report by Dec. 1.
Ms. Monsef repeatedly emphasized during her announcement that the federal government is committed to reforms that "respect the shared values of fairness, inclusiveness, gender equity, openness and mutual respect."
This has also been a running theme of the Prime Minister, who appointed women to half his cabinet posts and who says he is a feminist.
The YWCA Canada joined the Alliance in February because it believes that proportional representation can help elect more women, and put them in leadership roles. Chief executive officer Paulette Senior said she's hoping the Prime Minister's decision to make his cabinet gender equal is just the beginning for women in politics.
"I see the gender-parity piece as giving momentum to other aspects of gender equality in our political system," she said. Adopting an electoral system that could elect more women is part of that, she said.
"We have a government now that seems to be quite committed to gender equality and we would support [it] looking at proportional representation. … That is a critical tool in helping us get there," she said.
However, the Liberals hold the majority of seats on the committee, and the opposition is concerned it will select a system – such as a ranked ballot system that would benefit the government because of the way it is designed. During the Liberal leadership, Mr. Trudeau said he favoured ranked balloting.
Under that system, voters pick their first, second and third choices. If there is no clear winner, the candidate in the last place drops off until one earns more than 50 per cent of the vote. The thinking is that the Liberals, being neither on the left or the right of the political spectrum, would most likely be everyone's second choice and win more often than not.
The NDP favours a proportional representation system while the Conservatives want to keep the current first-past-the-post system.
Some political scientists do not see proportional representation as a big boon for women. Simon Fraser University's Marjorie Griffin Cohen says she's not convinced more women would be elected under the system.
"It depends on how they are selected," she said. "The hardest part is getting nominated, and that's where the old boys' system really, really comes into play. … The big stumbling block is the parties themselves."