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When it comes to gender parity in Parliament, better is always possible

The Globe and Mail by Nancy Peckford and Grace Lore 20 October 2015

It was an election premised on change. Canadians saying they wanted it. Countless organizations telling us we needed it. The parties offering their versions of it. And, boy, did change come. After nearly 10 years of Conservative rule, we have a new Liberal majority government. Some new ideas on the table. And an opportunity to revisit some of the values that many Canadians believed were in peril before this election.

Some women, in particular, are breathing a sigh of relief. Respect for reproductive rights, pay equity, the rule of law, critical investments in infrastructure, financial support for young families and yes, even religious freedoms should no longer be in question. And Canadians voted overwhelmingly to ensure that this was the case.

But there is one change that we at Equal Voice hoped for that did not happen. The percentage of women elected to the House of Commons did not meaningfully increase. It is just one point higher than the last time, at 26 per cent. How could this be? Many remarkable women were elected. Eighty-eight in fact. Fifty of them Liberal women. Further, the Conservative party, which fielded the lowest percentage of women, lost. Resoundingly. And yet, still the percentage of women barely increased.

In short, we can’t elect more women unless far more of them are on the ballot. More women won’t win unless many more women run. While overall in this election, there was a small uptick in the percentage of female candidates for the major five parties (33 per cent), it wasn’t enough. The significant variability among parties produced, in the end, a House of Commons whose gender balance is no different. While the NDP has a much smaller caucus of over 44 MPs, 18 are women (41 percent). The Conservatives, now with 99 MPs, elected 17 per cent women, the same as when they were in government. The Greens, despite hopeful projections, elected only the party’s leader Elizabeth May. The Bloc Québécois elected two women out of 10.

The women-held NDP seats that were lost in Quebec went to largely male contenders from the other parties. In Ontario, while Liberal women won far more seats, 28, it wasn’t enough to make up the difference. In Alberta and B.C., while the raw numbers stayed the same even with the addition of new seats, proportionally, women won fewer of them than they did last time. Other than Ontario, only in the Atlantic and Saskatchewan did we see an increase in the proportion of women elected.

Election after election, the uneven addition of women candidates to party slates has meant very small incremental gains when it comes to women in the House. And while the dramatic turnover in party fortunes means the addition of some incredibly talented newly elected women, in addition to the return of some high performers from all sides, the pace of change is incredibly slow. Given this rate of change over the last five elections, it will take 89 years years before we reach parity.

We know we can and must do better than this. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Canada’s ranking has changed from 50 to 48 among 190 countries when comparing elected women in national Parliaments. Equal Voice has a plan to change this. Our multi-partisan national board has committed to encouraging and equipping up to 5,000 women to run over the next five years. This way, political parties won’t have to do all of the heavy lifting. We will recruit and help prepare hundreds, if not thousands, of prospective women candidates. So that more women will self identify as candidates, say yes when approached to run or, even better, not wait to be asked.  We know the next prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who understands the merit of a cabinet that is 50 per cent women, wants to make his own mark on the just society to which he believed so many Canadians wished to return. We can imagine no better goal than ensuring gender parity in the House during his lifetime. In his words, better is always possible.