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How do women beat Canada’s “steel ceiling”?

by The Concordian March 8, 2011

Today is the 100th International Women’s Day. In casting around for a suitable angle for this week’s editorial on the subject, the topic of politics came up. If you want to follow Gandhi’s saying to be the change you want to see in the world, getting elected is one way to make waves on issues you care about. And that’s why it’s important to have more women elected to office in Canada.

Women have made significant strides in the political realm in Canada in the last century – including earning the right to vote federally in 1918, and the first female prime minister Kim Campbell taking power in 1993 (albeit for a short time). Steady growth has brought the percentage of women members of parliament from just under 10 per cent in the 1980s to 21 per cent today. But, that’s just 1 out of 5 women filling the seats in Parliament. The Senate has a higher percentage, around 30 per cent, but those seats are appointed. It’s not impossible to have an even representation of both genders – this is happening in Rwanda (56.3 per cent), Sweden (46.4 per cent) and South Africa (44.5 per cent).

A review of the politicians who represent the interests of this corner of Montreal reveals a near-unique occurrence. Concordia’s Loyola campus is one of a handful of spots in Canada that has a women representing them at all levels of government – federal, provincial and municipal. (A quick, but not exhaustive, overview of the 68 ridings which have female members of parliament reveals at least two communities west of Montreal represented by women at all three levels.)

The three women in the trifecta of political representation include Marlene Jennings, who’s been a Liberal member of parliament for the NDG-Lachine riding since 1997. Kathleen Weil, a lawyer by profession, was a political newcomer when she first ran for the Liberals. She is now Quebec’s Minister for Immigration and Cultural Communities. Susan Clarke was elected in 2008 with the Union Montreal party as the councillor for the Loyola district.

Jennings spoke with the Concordian about her thoughts on how three women came to represent NDG; she believes the area has a “certain level of maturity that helps women get elected.” (Weil was not available for comment before press time, and Clarke is away on vacation.)

Right off the bat, Jennings unequivocally believes that Canada, a progressive, Western democracy, is faltering when it comes to women’s involvement in politics. “Somehow, we’ve hit – I don’t even call it the glass ceiling, I think it’s now a steel ceiling. And I really do believe that government, and the House of Commons, and political parties at the federal level, have to take really proactive measures in order to not just encourage more women to run for political office at the federal office, but to ensure that more are actually elected.”

Jennings, a longtime backbencher, has introduced a private members’ bill to persuade parties to run more women in riding elections. Political parties, since 2004, receive $1.95 in funding per vote each year until the next election as a method to curb party donations. Jennings proposes that if a party fails to obtain women filling at least 40 per cent of its representation, the party would lose part of its $1.95 subsidy.

Studies show, according to Jennings, that when at least 40 per cent of representatives are women, it creates a ‘substantive change’ in the way government operates. “The way in which decisions are made becomes much more collegial across party lines. There’s a lot less partisanship, jumping on minor errors to try and gain some one-upmanship and blacken the reputation of your opponents  […] There’s much more interest in investing public moneys into policies that have proven over the medium and long term to actually affect a healthy change for population.” Sounds like something Canada could use.

But, as her proposal is a private member’s bill that will wait another year or so before it is introduced, with a potential election looming, it might take a long while before her bill comes up for a vote. But if the federal budget fails at the end of the month, Jennings affirms she is ready to run again for her seat.

There has been a backlash among younger women against the perceived aggressivness of the term ‘feminist.’ The F Word, an excellent CBC documentary that aired last week, explored this topic in depth. Jennings, however, thinks that the term is not outdated, and that young women should consider themselves feminists. “I believe that any individual, male or female, who believes in equal rights, is a feminist. Because I think that that is the core of feminism.”

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