There was a picture circulating on social media this week of a group of men sitting around a U-shaped table, wearing their serious-but-still-just-plain-folks uniform of dark jacket and no tie. Could it be a photo from an Elks Club dinner in the 1950s? A vintage picture of Shriners discussing their next parade down Main Street?
But no, it was neither. This lady-free landscape was actually a meeting of Canada’s 13 premiers and territorial leaders, some of the most powerful politicians in Canada. In the hands of these men lie crucial decisions about each province’s health and educational policies, about the best ways to fight climate change, about jobs and wages. You’d think there might be one woman in there, piping up on behalf of 50 per cent of the population. Instead, it was a sausage party to which no girls were invited.
It’s been more than a decade since there’s been such a meeting with no female premier represented. Alberta’s Rachel Notley was the last woman standing, but her NDP government was defeated in April by Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party. Now there are no female premiers or territorial leaders at that Council of the Federation table. And as Canada’s first and only female prime minister, Kim Campbell, told me when I interviewed her about the lack of women in political leadership, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
What was on the table at this meeting of the Council of the Federation? Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford, facing a mounting patronage scandal back home, put it pretty bluntly: This was a pro-business, anti-red-tape bunch of guys. For the first time in recent memory, here you had a group of “like-minded” premiers: “This is the first opportunity this country has ever seen in recent memory that from coast to coast, from the East to the West, we have like-minded premiers – like-minded premiers that want their provinces to thrive,” said Mr Ford.
However, as anybody who’s studied decision-making will tell you, “like-mindedness” is not the best way to develop innovative solutions to problems. You’re not going to be able to address the challenges of a country as diverse as Canada when your management squad is as male as a football team and as white as a lobster roll.
Newfoundland’s Liberal Premier, Dwight Ball, seemed to be the only chastened by the alarming uniformity to his left and right. “Most of my political career I was used to coming to those meetings and seeing strong female voices at the table,” he told the CBC, “and that was missing today.”
At this premiers’ meeting, the men discussed provincial trade barriers, skills development, pipelines, transportation safety and other important issues. All well and good. But what important issues were left off the agenda? What about affordable child care, which Ms. Notley had made a centrepiece of her government’s vision, and which would be a crucial step to bringing more women into the work force? What about the issue of violence against women? A report from the Canadian Femicide Observatory this week revealed that 60 women or girls were violently killed in the first six months of this year, and at least nine of those victims were Indigenous. Is this something the “like-minded” premiers discussed?
Ontario’s former Liberal premier, Kathleen Wynne, recently talked about the brief, hopeful moment in 2013 when she was one of six female premiers at a first ministers’ meeting, and that momentum helped push for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, as well as for a national energy strategy. Six years later, we’re left with zero women at that table: ‘’It’s over,” she said, “and we need to be talking about how that happened.’’
Ms. Wynne was speaking last month at a historic gathering of Canada’s female first ministers held in Ottawa. It could have been called What the Hell Happened, but instead it went by the much more elegant name No Second Chances. The event, organized by political scientist and former provincial Liberal candidate Kate Graham in conjunction with the think tank Canada 2020, was the culmination of a very fine podcast.
The podcast and the summit are Dr. Graham’s effort to answer a few pertinent questions: How have we elected 309 first ministers in this country, and only 12 have been women? Why have none of them successfully led their parties to a re-election victory? What does it do to the hopes of girls in this country when they see a picture of their premiers, and it looks, in Ms. Notley’s evocative phrase, “like the cast list of Goodfellas”?
The former first ministers gathered in Ottawa identified a number of barriers to women’s political leadership, from the persistent old-boy culture of cronyism to a toxic public environment that may deter some potential candidates, but they all agreed on one thing: It made a difference to policy outcomes when their voices were represented.
Kathy Dunderdale, former premier of Newfoundland, encouraged every woman to think about running for office at some level of government: “It’s important for you to consider coming to the table because decisions are being made that affect your life, and they need to be informed by your experience. Things won’t change,” she said, ‘’unless women make the commitment to be part of that process. It’s probably the scariest decision you’ll ever make.” Kim Campbell talked about the need to change our ideas of what a leader looks like: “We have to create those expectations among young women – you do belong, so make time this afternoon to rule the world.”
Despite the gloom cast by this particularly bro-tastic moment, there was hope. All the leaders agreed that their hope lay with young, ambitious, dogged women. But I’d add this: Women can run all they want, but unless they’re promoted to leadership positions, and unless Canadians vote for them, we’re going to continue to see pictures like this week’s – men at the table deciding the rules, and women on the sidelines, out of the game.
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