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Despite progress, women remain a distinct minority in House

The Hill Times by Nancy Peckford, 8 February 2016

Since getting elected, most Members of Parliament now have fully functional offices, their staff are getting into the swing of things and everyone is adapting (or re-adjusting) to life as they straddle time on the Hill with the demands of their ridings.

Newly-minted ministers, including Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, among others, are doing a lot of heavy lifting as they’ve been thrust into the limelight to stick handle major portfolios. The expectations are very high, the files complex, and to say the workload is intense would be a massive understatement.

McKenna made headlines early in the new year when she drew a line between work and family, stating that she would be spending dinner hours with her husband and three children. In a city replete with evening receptions (during which much of the informal business is done), it’s a bold move. Of course, McKenna is able to do this because she lives and works in Ottawa, which is where her family resides. But this does not diminish the challenges of balancing work and life. In stating her priorities, McKenna rightly pointed out that working harder does not mean working smarter, something scores of women in the paid workforce have figured out, though they get little credit for it.

Time efficiency, innovation, and strong team building are survival strategies for strong women leaders. The current crop of men on the Hill may be able to learn a thing or two from these women about how to sustain a marriage/partnership, parent your kids and be an outstanding MP—all at the same time.

This said, the excitement about a gender-balanced federal Cabinet has worn off some as we come to terms with the fact that women remain a distinct minority in the House. Many have expressed their dismay at the fact that there are so few women on the 28 House and joint House/Senate committees in Parliament. Some have questioned the government’s commitment to leveraging the talents of the women.

Clearly, few have done the math. While it may seems egregious, the reality is that with women comprising just 26 per cent of the House of Commons, parity on committees is nearly impossible. There are only 88 women in the House (versus 250 men). 50 of those belong to the Liberal caucus—more than half of whom are serving as Cabinet ministers or parliamentary secretaries, thereby precluding their capacity to sit on committees. The remaining Liberal women MPs are fewer than the current number of committees established.

The opposition caucuses have, among them, just 38 women MPs and a limited number of seats on each committee. Ensuring there are more women serving as committee members can only happen if there are far more women elected to the House. It’s an obvious point but one that seems lost on many commentators.

This is why Equal Voice is so keen to encourage and equip thousands of more women to seek election—at all levels of government. And it’s precisely why we are preparing to do this work soon. It may seem premature, but the reality is that we will need hundreds of more women across parties to seek, and secure federal nominations in the coming years if we are to achieve anything close to parity in the House of Commons, not just Cabinet. Only the NDP broke 40 per cent female candidates in the past election. As we celebrate an historic 100 years since (some) women in Canada attained the right to vote, achieving equal numbers of women and men on the ballot within the decade should be the ultimate goal.

The changes being undertaken by Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc to reorganize the parliamentary schedule and adopt more family friendly measure will go some of the distance to getting more women to run. So will the leadership of newly-elected House Speaker Geoff Regan who appears to be holding a harder line. This past week, Regan shut down some heckling by seasoned players in the opposition—citing such behaviour as a disincentive for women entering the political arena.

Interim Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose is also apparently taking a tough stance, urging members of her caucus to quit the antics and focus on asking a good question. It’s not perfect, and the changes achieved are likely to be incremental. But they matter. A lot.

In late December, The Hill Times featured an interview with NDP MP Christine Moore, one of two federal candidates who gave birth on the campaign trail. For those who know anything about the intensity of caring for a newborn (not to mention recovering from the physical toll of childbirth), these women did the extraordinary—win or lose (Moore won, Quebec Liberal candidate Christine Poirier lost).

Any Canadian who doubts women’s commitment and capacity to serve in public office should look no further to see the courage and tenacity demonstrated here. But for many more women to be compelled to stand for federal office, the changes enacted by this Parliament could make all the difference.

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by Nancy Peckford
National spokesperson for Equal Voice, a national multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women in Canada.