Original Post – Spring 2011: Is Canada in need of a women’s political party? I recently attended a Dialogue for Democracy meeting where the topic for discussion was on gender equality, women’s rights and women in politics. One subject, in particular, was the need for Canada to have a women’s political party. Why not? Currently, we have no political party that speaks on behalf of women. We have parties (see list) dedicated to the Christian movement, animal, and environmental rights, a communist party, a party of parody (Rhinoceros Party), a marijuana party and a legal party that wants to reform the information laws but no party that speaks for women on women’s issues. If a women’s political party formed, what would it be an answer to? Who’s the leader? What’s their platform? What’s the end goal?
Yes, I know, I see you men reading this, rolling your eyes and holding your breath, “oh no, the feminists are back.” Yet, for the most part, I’ve heard positive comments at such a suggestion from both men and women. Let’s remember feminism is about equal rights, and although many would think that feminism is dead it’s simply not the case – there’s still much work to do. A CBC documentary, “The F word“ quoted, “…according to the UN, women make up 53% of the world’s population, but they own only 1% of the world’s wealth…in Canada they are only holding 11% of the seats on corporate boards and 21% of the seats in Parliament. This number is low, according to Equal Voice; we need 1/3 to make an impact.
In the workplace, women hold 50% of the jobs but are taking home 20% less pay than men. More than half of all North American university students are women. If a stay-at-home mom got paid market value wages they would earn $117,867 a year. In Canada, men perform an average of 2.5 hours of unpaid work at home while women do an average of 4.3 hours. According to the Gender Gap Report, Canada ranks 20th in how well we divide our resources between men and women. That’s behind Sri Lanka, Latvia and the U.S.!
“We have NO excuse for not taking care of our own business.” -Naomi Wolf
And don’t worry, I’m not going into a discussion about today’s feminism and what it means for the fourth wave generation of women – that’s a whole different article. Yet the consensus among women is that within feminism we have unfinished business to take care of. With all the NGOs, government initiatives and programs aiding women through education, funding, and outreach at home and abroad, I still come back to the question; In Canada, is there a need for a women’s political party? It’s very existence could very well enhance and speed up the work of women.
Recently, I accepted an invitation to attend a tribute event for the Famous 5 at the Library and Archives of Canada. The Famous 5? I hadn’t a clue who they were. My friend’s mother is a member of the Ottawa Media Club where two of the Famous 5 was one of the earliest members of the Club. We arrive at the Library and Archives to a group of about 30 women, and one man, piled into the room waiting for the event to begin. Liberal Senator Vivienne Poy, was the guest speaker for the event. Poor woman, she was getting over a cold, and had to read verbatim from her script since no audio equipment was available for her to use.
Who are the Famous 5?
The Famous 5 opened the doors to politics for Canadian women. They were; Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby. These five women, in 1927, asked the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the question, “Does the word ‘Persons’ in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?” Also known as the Person’s Case, the Supreme Court summarized its unanimous decision that women are not persons. The judgment was overturned by the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which in turn had important ramifications for women’s rights.
Senator Poy was approached by the Famous 5 Foundation to support two sets of bronze monuments of the women, by Edmonton artist Barbara Paterson. Price tag? 1 million bucks! One set was to be placed in the Olympic Plaza in Calgary and the second on Parliament Hill. Placing a statue on the Hill is “off-limits because it had been historically reserved for prime ministers and monarchs.” says Senator Poy:
“Through persuasion and lobbying by women parliamentarians, all party support was obtained, and the Motion received unanimous consent in both Chambers.”
On October 18, 1999, 70 years to the date after the Privy Council’s ruling, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson (Senator Poy’s sister-in-law) unveiled the first set of bronze monuments in Calgary; and the following year the duplicate statues were unveiled on Parliament Hill. Today you can also find the Famous 5 appearing on our $50.00 bill, along with Quebec feminist, Thérèse Casgrain.
Doris Anderson, Senator Poy reminds us, in 1981 while Parliament was debating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; felt that it drastically undermined women’s rights. As head of the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, Anderson organized a Charter conference which the federal government pressured her to cancel. She resigned in protest, which triggered a demonstration in Ottawa by 1,300 women from across the country. The Ad Hoc Conference on the Status of Women led to the government adding Section 28 in the Charter which states that the Charter of Rights applies “equally to men and women.”
Recent history has shown us that women have an incredible capacity to mobilize themselves to join in large numbers raising their voices when fighting passionately for a cause. Yet our laws are liberal, inclusive and respectful towards women; aren’t they? No government is perfect, there’s always room for improvement, however, is there an issue that we should be aware of that might threaten or prevent our growth towards equal rights?
Czech and Slovakia
For example, last year  the Czech Republic’s new government decided to keep women out of the newly formed cabinet signaling that women have no say in the country’s future reforms. In the outgoing Czech parliament, women made up 17% of the total number of MPs. But at the end of lengthy negotiations on forming the current cabinet, leaders suggested women had been put off the posts by the tough negotiations. Others accused government leaders of hypocrisy and cynically promoting female candidates and backing more women in politics simply to get votes.
Jana Ciglerova, a prominent writer on equal rights, told Czech media: “It’s an absolute slap in the face. To have a government that has absolutely no women in it is shocking! It’s the third millennium, and yet half of the population is still not represented in the government.” Czech women’s rights activists say their own country should look to Slovakia as an example because the situation is in stark contrast. Slovakia now has their first ever female prime minister under a new coalition government. The new Slovak parliament has 23 female MPs – one less than the previous parliament, and just 15% of the total number of MPs in parliament.
To have a government that has absolutely no women in it, I’d most definitely say would be grounds to create a women’s political party. Around the world gender representation in government has long been a hot-issue and “initiatives to increase women’s representation have shared one aspect: they have recognized gender as relevant to the electoral processes. In doing so, they acknowledge that dominant groups exist and that these groups are disproportionately disadvantaged in regularly achieving political power, to the exclusion of other groups.”
Partia Kobiet: Women’s Party (Poland) – Writer Manuela Gretkowska said she founded the party as the Polish government considered tightening already strict controls on abortion. “It is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said, adding that Poland’s political scene was usually run by men for men. “Its backing for equal pay for men and women as well as public funding for contraception would mark a major shift in Poland, where priests, not sexual-health practitioners usually set the political agenda”.
The women of the new Polish political party created a controversial poster campaign ahead of their national elections. Seven candidates from the Women’s Party are featured posing nude behind a billboard that read: “The Party of Women. Poland is a Woman.” The attention-grabbing move made waves in staunchly Catholic Poland, that has a fiercely conservative political agenda. “This poster is intended to shatter stereotypes in the anachronistic world of politics, which is more often dominated by uncommunicative men with their black tie outfits,” says Gretkowska “This is not pornography; there is nothing to see in terms of sex, our faces are intelligent, concerned, and proud. We do not have our mouths open nor our eyes closed. We are beautiful, nude, and proud. We are true and sincere, body and soul!”
The Party has more than 1,500 members, including several female celebrities. In the 21 October 2007 National Assembly election, the party won 0.28% of the popular vote and no seats in the Sejm (Senate of Poland). Support continues to grow.
Canada is one of the few countries with no legal restrictions on abortion and while applying the law we follow a doctrine called “the living tree doctrine”. Thanks to our Famous 5 women, it became to be known as the Doctrine of Progressive Interpretation and it’s deeply entrenched in Canadian constitutional law.
It’s a constitutional interpretation that says that a constitution is organic and must be read in a broad and progressive manner so as to adapt it to the changing times. In the “Persons Case”, Lord Sankey stated, “The British North American Act planted in Canada a “living tree” capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits. “This means that the Constitution must be read within the context of society to ensure that it adapts and reflects changes.”
We saw this doctrine’s applied in the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling, Re: Same-Sex Marriage, December 2004:
“The “frozen concepts” reasoning runs contrary to one of the most fundamental principles of Canadian Constitutional interpretation: that our Constitution is a “living tree” which, by way of progressive interpretation, accommodates and addresses the realities of modern life.”
One would hope the Supreme Court of Canada would use the same reasoning when rendering a decision if the abortion issue presents itself in court. Journalist, Marci MacDonald is also the author of, “The Armageddon Factor: the Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada”. In it she warns of a quiet revolution as the Christian right movement focuses on taking over the “gateways of influence” and it looks and sounds different from its American counterpart. “But in the five years since the prospect of same-sex marriage propelled evangelicals into political action, it has spawned a coalition of advocacy groups, think tanks and youth lobbies that have changed the national debate.”
“Without putting forth a single piece of provocative legislation, he [Harper] has used the enormous patronage powers of his office to shift the ideological leanings of key institutions, from the federal courts to federal regulatory agencies, toward a more socially conservative worldview. At the same time, he has eliminated many of the forces that opposed such a policy drift.”
Although Stephen Harper has ruled out introducing measures to restrict abortions or end same-sex marriages should he win a majority government. It doesn’t give us comfort when you hear stories such as; Conservative Sen. Nancy Ruth advising a gathering of women’s groups that they risk a backlash from the government unless they “shut the f–k up” on the abortion issue. “This is now a political football! This is not about women’s health in this country.” she then went on to say, “Canada is still a country with free and accessible abortion. Leave it there. Don’t make this an election issue.”
The day after those comments were made, the Harper government announced funding cuts to 11 women’s groups just prior to the G8 Summit. “With the stroke of a budgetary pen,” writes Marci, “he has defunded agencies such as the Status of Women Canada and the Court Challenges Program, leaving both feminists and gay activists without resources to take on hostile government policies, while his cutbacks to scholarly granting bodies have helped silence environmental critics in academia and science.”
Some accused the government’s defunding of these agencies as part of an “ideological driven” pattern of punishing feminist groups. Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said Ruth’s comment “revealed the true face” of the government since she is privy to what is said behind closed doors at Conservative caucus meetings. “Will [Harper] finally come clean about his true intentions and admit he wants to reopen debate on abortion in Canada by putting an end to foreign funding?” “We will govern on the platform we are elected on. They’re not in the Conservative platform. I have no intention of opening up those issues.” Says Harper.
So, we can all relax for now, but the time will come…..
“Women have all the power,” my best friend always used to say, “too bad they don’t know it!”