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One step back for women in municipal politics

Ottawa Citizen by Nancy Peckford 16 October, 2014

In politics, it is widely accepted that to be successful you have to play the long game. Short term wins don’t always translate. There are bound to be hiccups, setbacks and even big losses among the hard won victories. Staying the course, upping your game and remaining credible are key.

And so it goes with women and politics as we are nearing the finish line for Ontario’s municipal elections where it appears few women are getting ahead. In Ottawa, a mere 17 per cent of candidates are female and the one female mayoral candidate has little visibility. In Toronto, it’s just 12 per cent. Olivia Chow’s mayoral bid is just starting to gain the momentum many expected it to have by now.

In Ottawa, with two high profile councillors Maria McRae and Diane Holmes choosing not to run again, it’s anyone’s guess if those seats – or seats in other wards where there may be turnover – will be won by women. It’s possible there may be fewer women representing the nation’s capital come election day than during the previous council where women comprised 26 per cent.

On top of this, Equal Voice, Canada’s only national multi-partisan organization promoting the election of women, has been fielding calls from female candidates who are growing weary of the sexism on the campaign trail and related challenges. Doubtful such sexism exists? Recall Olivia Chow’s experience earlier this year when she found herself being described as “a major league b-tch” after an animated mayoral debate in Toronto. Putting that aside, getting your message out there is never easy. Without an incumbency advantage or well-oiled networks, raising money can be a perpetual challenge. Further, the daily evening routine of door knocking, debates and community events can be gruelling for any candidates with family commitments. And without the considerable support that can come with running under a political party banner, municipal elections for first time candidates can feel like a no man’s – I mean women’s – land. They are not for the faint of heart.

Of course, for many who watched Kathleen Wynne handily win the provincial election this past May, it’s hard to argue that Ontarians don’t want to elect women. In fact, Ontario now has more women serving than ever in the history of the provincial legislature (just over 35 per cent) and sits second in the country for its representation of women. Two very impressive women, each with their own unique style and history, are running for the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party: Lisa MacLeod and Christine Elliott.

When we talk about women starting out on a political path, municipal politics is often held up as a logical first step given that it’s close to home where women tend to be active anyhow – as advocates, parents and community leaders. But the data don’t support this. Only 16 per cent of Canada’s mayors are female. Just 25 per cent of Canada’s municipal councillors are female – which is precisely the same percentage as female MPs.

So what’s the fix for this? Quite simply, we need to #SupportHer. Election Day is only two  weeks away and female candidates could seriously benefit from your support. Women win when other women – and men – give their time, effort and money. Changing the face of council – and potentially the decisions they make – requires some direct action. It’s not difficult. Write a cheque today to an outstanding woman (even if she doesn’t live in your ward). Take a lawn sign. Knock on a door. Many candidates in this election are talented and dedicated women with decades of experiences.

Municipal elections are an incredibly important arena for anyone who cares about their local community. It’s time we all step up so that our council truly reflects the face of Ottawa. You can find a full list of candidates here: www.ottawa.ca.

Nancy Peckford is the executive director of Equal Voice.