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Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.
Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.

Elizabeth Renzetti

Young women take a political stand by sitting in the MPP’s chair Add to ...

The majestic walls of Ontario’s legislature are hung with portraits of the province’s political grandees, and it’s hard not to notice a certain similarity among them, chiefly in skin tone (pinkish), hair colour (grey to white) and chromosomal composition (that would be XY). This similarity does not escape the attention of a group of young women passing through the halls.

“That is a lot of old men,” one of them laughs. The others nod. They may be on their best behaviour – they are in Queen’s Park, place of provincial lawmaking – but deference is not on the agenda. These young women may be well dressed and well spoken, but they’re also here to learn how to dismantle things from within, and rebuild it their way.

These are the Daughters of the Vote: Across the country, a young woman between the ages of 18 and 23 has been chosen to represent every federal riding in Canada. It’s a project sponsored by Equal Voice Canada, which works to increase women’s political participation in this country (which continues to be dismal: Only 26 per cent of federal MPs and 18 per cent of mayors are women. Two of the country’s three female premiers are in the news for the misogynistic or homophobic comments directed at them). On March 8, International Women’s Day, the Daughters of the Vote will be on Parliament Hill, where they’ll each take the seat of their MP in the House of Commons.

This week, more than 100 of them visited Queen’s Park to learn about the messy, exhilarating, exhausting business of governance. They heard about compromise, and committee work, the need to have a thick skin (but porous, Premier Kathleen Wynne told them, so that they can still feel.) They learned, most of all, how to get a toe in the door and not let anyone dislodge it.

“It goes back to how we’re socialized,” Carly Pettinger told me. “We’re not taught that this is a career we might be good at.” Ms. Pettinger, who is representing the riding of Kitchener Centre, clearly did not listen to that advice. She works as an assistant to New Democrat MPP Catherine Fife and hopes to run as a school-board trustee in 2018.

Maymuna Mohamed, a university student and spoken-word artist who represents York Centre, also thought the door was never open to her. The child of Somali immigrants, she felt institutional discouragement as early as primary school: “I’d say the problem is access to opportunity. … Without opportunities there’s no way to build confidence. From day one you’re taught to lower your standards for yourself. You’re not taught to aim high.”

You’re also not taught where to aim, as Samantha MacKenzie pointed out: “No one tells you how to get into politics. There’s no path or someone to help you through it. That’s a major barrier.” For Ms. MacKenzie, a teacher representing Sault Ste. Marie, politics is local: She has no interest in being an MP or an MPP, but she would like to work with her reserve, Garden River First Nation, on ground-level issues such as transportation and access to groceries.

The Daughters of the Vote events across the country and in Ottawa in March are intended to address the knowledge deficit, to help these women build networks of their own. The barriers to their participation are crumbling, but still entrenched in many ways: Women are recruited as candidates in smaller numbers than men (and, to be fair, put themselves forward less often); they do not have the same access to fundraising; they are handicapped by a system that favours incumbents.

It’s also a particularly toxic time to admit a love – or even grudging affection – for politics. These days, you might as well admit you want to be an arsonist, considering how maligned public service has become. And yet these young women are rushing into the burning barn, sometimes to the consternation of friends and family. “There’s such a taboo, especially around women in politics,” says Azra Alagic, who’s studying political science at McMaster University in Hamilton. “People will say” – here she adopts a comically horrified expression – “ ‘you want to be a politician?’ Like it’s something really bad.”

On top of that, there is the public hostility directed at female politicians – mainly involving, but not restricted to, social media. At one of the sessions at Queen’s Park, three female MPPs outlined the various horrible things that had been said about them over the years. Their message to the young women could be distilled as: Speak up for yourself. Speak up for each other. Don’t let the trolls win.

That panel “was raw, and real, and so inspiring,” Hillary Scanlon said. “They’re still here, and they’re going to stay.” Ms. Scanlon, who is legally blind, is studying global policy and Arabic at Wilfrid Laurier University. She hasn’t decided if she wants a career in politics, but she does know she’s found her tribe with a group of equally engaged young women: “Until last night, I’ve never been able to have a full dinner conversation about social-justice issues without someone saying, ‘Okay can we talk about something else?’”

It’s a good thing – for Ms. Scanlon, 337 other delegates and the country as whole – that the conversation’s just beginning.

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