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Politics Gender parity in Trudeau’s cabinet a positive start, advocates say

Maryam Monsef, Minister of Democratic Institutions, waves to the audience as she walks past Governor-General David Johnston after being sworn in on Wednesday. The Afghanistan-born rookie MP is one of 15 women in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.

Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Justin Trudeau promised gender parity in his ministry, and delivered that on Wednesday, also putting women in positions of significance and power. And with his new cabinet, Canada becomes one of only five countries in the world to achieve gender parity at the federal level, according to Equal Voice, a non-partisan organization advocating for more elected women.

Chrystia Freeland is one of 15 women in Mr. Trudeau's new cabinet, a historic high in Canada, where federal cabinets have been typically jammed with men.

"Fantastic, absolutely fantastic," Ms. Freeland, a Toronto MP and the country's new International Trade Minister, said about sitting around the cabinet table with so many of her female colleagues. "This is a cabinet that represents our country and it's great to be there in the conversation."

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In addition to Ms. Freeland's hefty portfolio, Mr. Trudeau named Jody Wilson-Raybould, a lawyer from British Columbia, as Justice Minister and Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett, a physician and veteran politician, as his Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

There is also a woman in Democratic Institutions, rookie MP Maryam Monsef, a refugee who left Afghanistan in 1996, when she was 11. In one of the delicious ironies of this appointment, she was elected in the riding former Conservative Dean Del Mastro had to vacate after being convicted of violating Canada's election law.

Eighty-eight women were elected to Parliament last month – 50 of them are in the Liberal caucus. The highest number of female ministers in former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper's cabinet was 12. He had a 39-member cabinet, and the portfolios given to the women were not as senior as those in the 31-member Trudeau cabinet.

Even now, Parliament is designed for men. All the imagery is masculine, from the portraits of stern-looking male former prime ministers hanging in the corridors to the fact that the distance between the government and the opposition in the House of Commons is two sword-lengths. Advocates for more elected women in political chambers across the country believe a critical mass of females changes the conversation.

Nancy Peckford of Equal Voice, which advocates for more women in elected office, says research shows that when you have more female cabinet ministers, there is more consensus building.

"There are more robust and diverse conversations where people are not afraid to put certain perspectives out there that may be a little bit unconventional or unanticipated," she said. "I think women take more risks.… By having 50 per cent more women, you always won't have those women's voices be marginal to the process."

She notes, too, that the research has shown that the more women around the table, the more accountability and transparency.

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"In addition, issues that disproportionately impact women, which have been long neglected or ignored, tend to get attention," she said.

However, Ms. Peckford notes that Mr. Trudeau could have done better by putting women in Finance or National Defence. The Finance Minister, considered the second most important job in cabinet after the Prime Minister, is a man. Bill Morneau, a rookie MP from Toronto who worked on Bay Street, got the job. The National Defence Minister is Harjit Singh Sajjan, a new MP from British Columbia.

Ms. Peckford says the challenge now is to see how visible these female ministers will be and how much latitude they will have to show their leadership skills.

She thinks it will take about a year to be able to judge.

So she is "encouraged," but now it is about "how they [the female ministers] get to demonstrate what they are bringing to the table."

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