Second-wave feminism in Canada relied on successfully pressuring multiple access points within the legislative, bureaucratic and judicial structures of the federal state. Today these boundaries of legitimized political discussion have since shifted to exclude many feminists and “equality-seeking” women and their policy priorities. The possibility of fully realizing a women’s “equality agenda” within the federal legislature is doubtful unless the numbers of feminist women who are elected to the Canadian Parliament increases. With the increase in numbers, these women can be sanctioned to participate in public policy and debates on the basis of “feminist” principles, regardless of party.
Before going further I’ll need to define what it means when I use the term feminist and equality somewhat interchangeably. Feminist and/or feminism refers to the movement for gender equality while equality (i.e. equality-seeking or equality agenda) essentially meaning the same but refers to equality with a lesser focus on women.
Is Canada in Need of a Women’s Political Party?
I posed this question in Part I and II of this series as a discussion paper in 2011 and oddly enough I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was not alone in asking that question. Launching an all women’s political party has been tried but only a few sparse times. Luckily timing was on my side when after a celebratory event for the Famous 5 with Senator Vivienne Poy as the guest speaker, I learned of and later joined a small group of women who were steps ahead creating an all women’s political party; the Women’s Alliance Party of Canada. Sadly the Party didn’t last very long for the very same reasons its predecessors did not succeed in previous years. Financing, of course, was a large concern, a difference in philosophical outlooks, lacking focus in policy direction and strategy. Issues that aren’t new and points to larger symptoms about why feminism experiences backlash and can’t seem to complete its unfinished business.
To conclude this three-part series, let us take a moment to study the virtues of an “equality-seeking agenda” for women. Again, let me also state upfront, I am not advocating for an all women’s political party, although it is a good idea, however in our current Canadian political terrain our system is not organized in a way that would accommodate/facilitate such a venture. I will, however, analyze the different political systems where an “equality-seeking” agenda would best be served for feminism/ist and/or equalism/ist (perhaps humanism/ist might be a better word so I’ll take a cognitive approach throughout the article and see what we term we can agree on).
There are three mechanisms for political reform:
- establishing a feminist political party;
- The implementation of gender parity within the existing political parties, and
- moving to a system of proportional representation within the federal electoral system.
We will look at these three mechanisms according to the ability for elected representatives to pursue an equality-seeking agenda. But first, let us look at some of the issues that concern our women in an “equality-seeking” agenda vs Women’s National Policy Agenda.
An “Equality-Seeking” Agenda vs Women’s National Policy Agenda
Just because you are a woman it doesn’t automatically make you a feminist but at the same time not identifying as a feminist doesn’t mean that you don’t buy into the idea of “equality”. I say this because; having more female representation in politics will not necessarily receive the attention needed to forge ahead with a Women’s National Policy Agenda one that would prove beneficial to have if one could start and be successful in launching an all feminist political party. A Women’s National Policy Agenda will focus strictly on women’s issues. Concerns about child care, reproductive rights and violence against women, ending child poverty, are tenets that would be the primary focus for a Women’s National Policy Agenda.“Equality-seeking” agenda, on the other hand, will work within the established structures, in government and cabinet to pursue gender-neutral legislation that promotes equality between genders recognizing some policy items would need more attention from a feminist perspective. That would surely give shape to some of the philosophy, direction, focus, and strategy that’s lacking in past efforts to launch such a venture.
Discrimination Under Our Current System
It is been said that women suffer from systemic discrimination under SMP which is a form of FPTP. In a plurality system, women and minorities are less likely to be an on the ballot. Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley noted, “The current structure of parties and how local associations operate to discriminate against the participation of women.” It’s not because they are not electable; it’s because in the nomination process parties have historically favored “white male” candidates as the best choice for the winner-take-all competition.
White men are often considered to be more acceptable as candidates, and thus there’s a disincentive to choose women to run. Amanda Bittner states, “Part of the problem is recruitment. Part of the problem is that senior party officials have this idea that women and racialized minorities are not successful candidates, even though there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. All the evidence shows that when women run, they do win. So really, the issue is about recruitment.” Former Chief Electoral Officer.
“There are powerful, informal barriers that work to keep women out of politics, people who are not white out of politics, and people who are [I]indigenous out of politics. Simply changing the electoral system is not going to address any of these informal barriers that are in place.” Pipa Norris (and Ann Decter). Melanee Thomas went so far as to say that “…embedded in the recruitment process is sexist and racist perception of the ideal candidate.” The Supreme Court has ruled that the interpretation of the Charter must be consistent with Canada’s international human rights obligations. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, require member states to abolish all legal barriers to women’s political participation on equal terms with men.
Gender Parity – “Because it’s 2015”
October 2015 Federal Elections welcomed our 42nd Prime Minister, a self-proclaimed feminist Justin Trudeau and his Liberal team of an ethnically diverse cabinet of ministers in equal numbers of 15 men and 15 women who are mostly aged under 50. His ministerial team for the first time in history is equally balanced between men and women seeking to reflect Canada’s diversity. When asked why? His response was simply, “Because it’s 2015”.
Yes, it is 2015, Mr. Trudeau and because it’s 2015 there are many policies, as you have recognized and proposed in your campaign platform that also needs some change, for example, electoral reform. Yet when you think of gender parity we should also look at what Mr. Trudeau also said: “to reflect Canada’s diversity”. Denise Balkissoon of the Globe and Mail articulately states that “diversity” broadly defined – diversity of ethnicity, class, ability and so on – official policies about achieving diversity tend to focus on “women” full stop.” So to have 15 white females just to satisfy a gender quota agenda just doesn’t cut it for an “equality-seeking agenda”.
Women are easily identifiable and a solid half of the population. Setting a target is fairly simple. An “equality seeking” agenda understands the principles of intersectionality in a sense how our lives intersect through age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, cultural, religious and so forth. To have legislation and policymakers make decisions that best reflect an “equality-seeking agenda” the principles of inter-sectionality will also demand diversity in a gender parity cabinet. Yet let us hope this will include the equality of women beyond those who are well-off, well-educated and already run in influential circles. If what you want is fairness, stability, and exciting new ideas, make sure that your diversity goals do more than help relatively successful women achieve a little bit more, a little bit faster.
Out of our three major parties, The New Democratic Party (NDP), is known to consistently elects all members of the Federal Council on the basis of gender parity. Provincial or regional caucuses must select an equal number of male and female representatives for participation on this council. The NDP has internal mechanisms to attempt to foster diversity. They say they have “parity policies,” that aim for gender diversity in the party structure, leadership and delegates.” It also insists that ridings must provide documentation of efforts to search for a woman or minority candidate before selecting a white male. When the final candidate list was released, in the 2015 election cycle, the NDP touted a record proportion of 43 per cent women candidates.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party holds that the matter should be left up to the local riding associations to decide. After running only 38 women candidates in 2006 the party’s figure spiked quickly in 2008 to 63 candidates. In the 2015 elections, the Conservatives had 66 women, representing 20 percent of their roster of candidates he had running a candidacy. [CBC News] Parties have been equally reticent to self-impose in recent years, the New Democratic Party, the Progressive Conservative Party, and the Liberal Party have all established on-going trusts which offer some support to women’s candidates who have won their local riding nomination.
I will repeat this quote again: “There are powerful, informal barriers that work to keep women out of politics, people who are not white out of politics, and people who are [I]indigenous out of politics. Simply changing the electoral system is not going to address any of these informal barriers that are in place. ~ Pipa Norris (and Ann Decter). “
“Guaranteed representation for Indigenous people should be part of any electoral reform, and that such representation should make sure that Canada’s three Aboriginal people – First Nations, Inuit, and Métis – have direct representation in the House of Commons.” ~ James T. Arreak, Chief Executive Officer of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.,
FPTP system does a “very poor job” at producing a parliament that mirrors the population and it poses “significantly high barriers to the election of women. From the perspective of the Canadian women’s movement and its policy priorities, FPTP makes it more difficult for female candidates and would be candidates to secure election to the House of Commons compared to their male counterparts. The current riding system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins all, means that “women’s issues” are not likely to become a priority for the Canadian Parliament. This is so even where there isn’t significant popular support for an alternative agenda.
After many decades of thinking about how to accommodate women into current political structures, many feminists are now asking how the system can be reformed to better capture women’s civic engagement and enable women to pursue their goals for a “just, egalitarian society”. One way to do this is to change a country’s electoral system which often represents a far more realistic goal to work towards than dramatically changing the culture’s view of women. (International IDA Website 2001) The consideration of electoral bodies as sites of women’s organizing, however, must take into account the mixed results that have flowed from electing women to Parliament since the rise of second-wave feminism in Canada.
PR is not a single, particular voting system, but a unifying principle among a variety of voting systems, in which the number of seats given to a political party reflects the degree of popular support demonstrated at the ballot box (Loenen 1997). Party list systems include; mixed proportional systems and the single transferable vote. A simple internet search will enlighten you to the many forms and styles of PR system. The real question to ask is; how would any of these systems affect the representation of women, or increase the ability of women from across all parties to pursue a feminist policy agenda?
Reasons women fare better in PR systems include the electorate in each district is not forced to choose between a male and female candidate (sexist biases and institutional factors most often favor men), which is often the case in single-member plurality districts. Furthermore, in other PR systems, strong women’s movements have been able to mobilize parties, and in some instances governments, to mandate quotas, so that men’s and women’s names would alternate on the electoral lists of all parties.
The complexities of representation within the House of Commons are such that many women have not been able to consistently exert a “feminist analysis” given the constraints of political parties. This is particularly true when considering the policy-making processes within the governing party and given the re-orientation of Canada’s economic policies since 1988 to one of corporate-led, free trade. The challenges confronted by feminist women in Parliament have been exacerbated by the fact that there is not yet a critical mass of female MPs in the House of Commons. As a result, addressing women’s representational realities must include a systematic examination of the electoral processes by which women are selected for Parliament and the possibilities for coordination among “equality-seeking” women in all parties in the House of Commons.
Currently, with 26% women MPs, the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks Canada 64th overall in the world in terms of women’s representation. A move to a system that incorporates PR, however, would not be a quick fix for women’s equality, “whether or not women had an effect on politics is less a matter of numbers than of other facts such as political climate or prevailing ideology, the existence or absence of an independent women’s movement and the structure of the political system”. (Bystydzienski 1995)
Women’s Political Party – What could it look like?
“Ultimately, at this point in our history, it is not about competing over different perceptions of what is or what is not feminism, but about replacing the dominant top-down culture of war and aggression.”~Women’s Alliance Party
Do we really need an All Women’s Political Party?
An all women’s political party would be one that would strictly focus on feminist’s issues. It may be a group of feminists or a mixture of equalists and feminist. The unifying goal would be seeking simply equality. Yet being mainly a feminist political party the issues, legislation and policies they’d pursue would be found in the realm of the “woman’s” category. Some of these issues they’d be pursuing could be a: National Day Care Act, something we’ve been promised so many times by various governments yet nothing has come to fruition.
In her speech, Senator Vivian Poy cites the 1970 Commission on the Status of Women’s Recommendation that Canada urgently needed a National Daycare Act. 47 years later no successive government has delivered on their promises. Both the Liberals and the NDP have budgeted about $3.3 billion over four years to building affordable, high-quality child care centers across the country. Their plans are more similar than different and both are committed: Universal child care was the first promise the Liberals made in their platform, and the NDP vow to enshrine it in law — like Medicare — so a new government couldn’t scrap the plan without a debate in the House of Commons. In 2006, after a painstaking year of negotiating agreements with each province and territory, the Liberal minority government launched a $5 billion program to build new child care spaces across the country. Then, a non-confidence vote triggered an election, and the Conservatives came to power. One of the first things Harper did was kill the program.
Strong Aboriginal Women Representation – While many Aboriginal women share goals for the advancement of their people, their voices are often ignored by the Aboriginal leadership and male-dominated political organizations. During the Canadian Constitution talks of 1992, the independent national Native Women’s Association of Canada was not granted a seat to take part in the talks with the federal government, provincial premiers and the four major Aboriginal organizations. Other Aboriginal women’s organizations formed as dependent adjuncts to the national and regional bodies including the Metis National Council of Women (now Women of the Metis Nation) and the Saskatchewan First Nations’ Women’s Commission). In 2012, there were 111 women chiefs out of 633 First Nations across Canada. Although the percentage of female Aboriginal chiefs in 2012 was only 17.5 percent, this was slightly higher than the percentage of female mayors of Canadian cities. A growing number of Aboriginal women hold leadership roles in regional and national political organizations. [Daughters of the vote]
Then there’s working to eliminate child poverty, violence against women, and of course these issues will play a central role in any agenda about reproductive rights from safe access to abortions, affordable to free birth control, advancement in the health and bio-health sectors involving reproductive rights including advancements in cancer treatments or appointing indigenous women on various inquiries such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, to reverse sexist clauses written into the Indian Act restricting inheritance if they marry outside their community.
A Feminist political party would be tasked further to challenge the present government to have a gender-balanced budget, tax system, census forms (bring back the long form, measuring household work), any legislation about law enforcement, military, or our police structures, this party would advocate for female officers. Gender balanced national housing plan, pension plan (women receive much less pension funds because of the time they take off from work to raise a family) etc. etc. issues are endless. A strong feminist agenda would be articulated under A Women’s National Policy Agenda.
Here we can see much value in such a venture and I would applaud and even support a group of fearless women who might take on such a challenge. Canada is in the need of a women’s political party, but the atmosphere is unwelcoming for such a venture. Diversity in gender parity and electoral reform are avenues that probably best fit our current political climate. Yet, our present electoral system cannot handle the needs of an all women’s political party – especially the campaigning challenges that it would present. We will need electoral reform to open to the avenue for “specialty” parties to take part in what seems to be a two-three party system .
In fact, by virtue of their numbers, women have become somewhat more visible in the House and are fulfilling significant roles as Parliamentary committee chairs, Opposition critics and ministers. The increase in the numbers of women in the House of Commons compared to 20 years ago, however, has not translated into the adoption of more progressive policies to improve women’s lives. Still, achieving gender parity is an attractive goal for “equality-seeking” feminists seeking to effect change within the political and legislative areas of government. Increasing the number of female participants could ensure issues of concern are reviewed at least at the Party level.
“Women have all the power,” my best friend always used to say, “too bad they don’t know it!”
Strengthening Democracy in Canada: Principles, Process and Public Engagement for Electoral Reform, Report of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, Francis Scarpaleggia (Chair), December 2016
A Mandate of Equality, Women and Electoral Reform: Pursuing a Feminist Policy Agenda in Canada, written for the National Association of Women and the Law by Nancy Peckford, November 2002