Donna Dasko, Ontario Senator, is a former pollster and co-founder of Equal Voice, an NGO which promotes greater representation of women in politics.
Will 2019 be the break out year for Canada – the election when the number of women elected to Parliament finally breaks through the glass ceiling?
I have advocated for more women in politics for more than 30 years. Back in 1988, I joined a group of women who had banded together with the ambitious goal of achieving gender equality in Parliament by 1994. By 1993, we were one year away from our deadline, but light years away from our goal. Women made up 18 per cent of the House of Commons, and Canada ranked 21st in the world in terms of its representation of women in elected office. Frustrated and disillusioned, we threw in the towel.
Flash forward to our most recent election in 2015, in which women won 26 per cent of seats. This modest improvement over two decades now earns Canada the dismal ranking of 61st in the world. We have improved slightly, but so many other countries have moved ahead of us.
The good news in the 2019 election is that all of this country’s political parties have put forward more women. With nominations now closed, the New Democrats lead with 49 per cent of their candidates female, followed by the Green Party at 46 per cent, the Bloc Québécois at 45 per cent, Liberals at 39 per cent and the Conservatives at 32 per cent. All parties have improved their representation since 2015. Especially notable are the Conservatives, who ran women in 20 per cent of their ridings in 2015 and now have a slate of 32 per cent. The Bloc Québécois has increased its female representation in Quebec by 17 points. It almost feels as if a quiet revolution has taken place.
These increased numbers should result in more women elected on Oct. 21. But that depends on where they are running. If they are incumbents or running in ridings that are winnable for their party, we should see more women in the next Parliament. If they are “sacrificial lambs," running in losing ridings, we will see little change.
Our history has shown us that even the most significant gains for women in politics can be quickly lost. Think back to 2013, when six provinces had female premiers. Now let us recall that photo taken during last summer’s premiers’ conference, with its all-male cast. Not even one female premier remains in office.
We are long past the time to introduce policy measures to promote more women in politics. It is a well-known fact that some forms of proportional representation can help advance women, and if this country had adopted electoral reform, as promised by the Liberals in 2015, we would be looking at a permanent change that would be favourable to electing more women. But electoral change is now dead, at least for the short term, and we have to look elsewhere.
Recently, Parliament passed legislation that required some corporations to report on their representation of and plans to promote women and other groups on their boards and in senior management. This “comply or explain” model could be adapted to apply to political parties for their female nominees. Another policy option involves offering financial incentives to political parties for votes received by women, as does New Brunswick legislation. We could penalize parties who fall below a certain level of nominations, as was proposed in a private member’s bill introduced into the House of Commons in 2016, which was defeated at second reading. Or, we could legislate targets or quotas, which have become popular around the world, with more than 130 countries implementing some form of quota for women in politics. And yet the so-called “q” word seems to draw scorn even from the most ardent supporters of female equality.
Canada lags far behind in every respect when it comes to electing women. On Oct. 21, we will likely elect more women than in 2015. But for a country that embraces gender equality as a core societal value, we will have to do much better.
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