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Female leaders, MPs changing political conversation for better

The Hill Times by Nancy Peckford 19 November 2015

Maria Fitzpatrick, a first term NDP MLA, rose in the Alberta legislature this past week to support a Private Member’s Bill on violence against women. As a private members’ bill, the proposed measure might have seemed modest to some — to enable women fleeing spousal violence to break a lease without financial penalty.

The legislation tackles just one dimension of the very complex terrain women must navigate when attempting to leave abusive partners.

But the measure is groundbreaking in its acknowledgement that women often have to take extraordinary and urgent measures to escape extremely dangerous and abusive situations. Situations about which, we can safely presume, only a few legislators in Alberta have had meaningful insight. Up to now.

Ms. Fitzpatrick stood in that legislature among her colleagues and shared her personal story of domestic violence, a story so harrowing and awful, that it is a marvel that she and her children  made it out alive, let alone to live a future so much brighter. She told CBC’s As it Happens that many of her colleagues and constituents had no knowledge of this nine year ordeal, no understanding that she had suffered broken bones, two miscarriages, the sound of an (empty) handgun at the base of her neck as she awoke, her husband laughing hysterically as he threatened to kill her and their daughters. She had fled to a women’s shelter three times, each time returning home after she had stayed the maximum two or three weeks.

Financial resources were a major obstacle- and a lease. As the situation became desperate, she fled with her girls on a bus to Yellowknife, a sixty two hour journey to an unknown future.

A week earlier, the new interim Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Rona Ambrose, did a 180 degree turn on her own party’s longstanding opposition to a national public inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Something the New Democratic Party, in its role as Official Opposition with a caucus that was forty percent female, had tirelessly championed in the last Parliament, despite former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comment that it “wasn’t really on their radar”, even with a groundswell of grassroots support. Ms. Ambrose stated to a national media audience that such an inquiry should never have been political and that her party would lend the effort their full support. Incidentally, before entering politics, Ms. Ambrose was an active volunteer with a women’s shelter in Alberta. She likely knows a thing or two about the desperation women fleeing violence encounter.

Many dismissed the Conservative Party’s about face as cynical and meaningless. I don’t see it this way. In both instances, Alberta MLA Ms. Fitzpatrick and CPC Interim Leader Ms. Ambrose are using the power of their voice and their perspectives to change the conversation – and, we hope, the culture given that matters that disproportionately affect women have received short shrift over the last hundred years.

Do women have the capacity to change politics? Absolutely. But in order to do that, they need to be in positions of power – and enjoy the support of a key number of their colleagues. Every move in politics comes with political risk. I would expect that Ms. Fitzpatrick felt more comfortable sharing her story in a legislature that is nearly 40 percent women. The fact that she serves in a governing caucus that has chosen to tackle this issue in an intelligent and comprehensive manner is a tremendous help too.

I would think Ms. Ambrose as leader of a party that is now coming to terms with itself – and its new position in the political landscape – felt a certain amount of freedom and collegial support in taking a different position. One that likely bucked the former PMO’s presumed allegiance to the RCMP’s own narrow analysis of the problem.

What’s the moral of this story? That critical mass matters. In other words, in electing more women and ensuring that the conditions are there for them to serve in powerful positions, we will get different results. Not because women are unified in their positions or policy priorities, but because they bring their lived and very diverse experiences to the table.

But critical acts also matter too.  In each instance above, two very different elected women from opposing parties used their voice and influence to change a conversation, in two legislatures. For the better. Here’s hoping that our federal Ministers, back benchers and Opposition MPs, as the going gets tough and the power-brokering intensifies, will be able to do the same.