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Women in the running

Photo: Raghad Khalil

The 2011 federal election saw a record-breaking 76 women elected to Canadian Parliament, though it still represented only a quarter of the 308 total seats.

While the country braces for an October federal election, a variety of female politicians spoke at the University of Ottawa last week hoping to break another record.

Ontario’s first female premier speaks at iVote

Premier Kathleen Wynne began her speech at iVote’s Women in Politics event on March 5 with a question.

“Who are the Mothers of Confederation?” she said while presenting a photo of the male founders of Confederation. Wynne, the first female and lesbian Premier of Ontario, traced the various issues that women have faced since the photo was taken.

“The danger is in silence,” she said, such as dealing with catcalls in Parliament, the struggles of maintaining a family, or sexual violence.

Wynne also emphasized the sexual violence barrier that many women in Canada face, and spoke briefly of her recent $41-million, three-year plan to reduce it, revealed the next morning. The plan requires that Ontario universities implement a sexual assault policy, with updates made every four years. It will also standardize public reports on rates of sexual violence from each university.

Caroline Andrew, U of O professor and recently appointed member of the Order of Canada, hosted a panel of academic experts earlier in the day to discuss strategies to encourage female participation in politics.

The main iVote event also featured another panel with Katie Telford of the Liberal party, Michele Austin of the Conservatives, and Anne McGrath of the NDP, moderated by Maclean’s journalist Anne Kingston.

Despite coming from different political backgrounds, the women were unanimous in their call for a Parliament representative of the population. McGrath said that having proportional representation is fundamental, and it’s “what democracy is supposed to be about.”

The panel also emphasized support for women through the contested nominations stage, as this is where most women tend to bow out.

Telford said she hears about doubts in potential candidates’ ability to run due to family commitments from women far more often than from men. Austin said that “women candidates need to stop thinking about themselves as women, but as candidates and winners.”

Fourth-year international development and globalization student Stefanie Di Domenico said that although these events are necessary “to help inspire change to a highly patriarchal system,” she noted a lack of diversity.

“Women are not a homogeneous group,” said Di Domenico, referencing the fact that the panellists were all white. She said racialized women face even greater challenges. However, being a white female, she stressed that her statements “would have a much stronger impact if they were coming from a racialized individual.”

“There need to be opportunities for diverse experiences to be shared, so that all women feel they can engage in politics,” she said.

The event was well attended by both male and female U of O students.

“A question we should ask more often, especially as guys, is how can we help,” said Philippe Garcia-Duchesne, a second-year conflict studies and human rights student. Coming from a male perspective, he said he now has a better idea of how to advocate for gender equality in politics.

Equal Voice discusses why women should run

The She Will Run conference hosted by the U of O’s Equal Voice chapter on March 7 also featured distinguished women of different political backgrounds: Conservative MP Kellie Leitch, the minister of labour and minister of status of women; Green Party candidate Lorraine Rekmans, the shadow cabinet critic of indigenous affairs; and Lynne Steele, president of the Ontario Women’s Liberal Commission.

Each recounted her journey into Canadian politics, what Canada has achieved in the fight for equality, and what work still needs to be done.

Dr. Leitch, an orthopaedic pediatric surgeon by trade, said she became involved in politics after much convincing from the late finance minister Jim Flaherty. She said she entered politics because it “allowed (her) to have a broader reach.” She emphasized the need for politicians in general to be experienced in a field other than politics to make them more useful as public servants and to keep them grounded.

Rekmans, the first woman to run for the Chief of Ontario, shifted the discussion to the experience of indigenous women. The continuous portrayal of indigenous women as victims is discouraging, she said. “I don’t want my granddaughter to inherit that story of victimization.”

Steele’s speech also emphasized the lack of equality for women in Canada. She advocated for a change of political structures so that they’re “friendlier to the family.”

“History proves time and time again that women are a force to be reckoned with united, but next to powerless when we’re scattered,” she said.