Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"They can expect nothing but their labour for their pains."

Herewith, my op-ed on women's progress in the Canadian political area, published on International Women's Day in the Ottawa Citizen:

Women's (lack of) progress through the decades
By Sheila Gervais, Ottawa Citizen March 8, 2011 5:24 AM

I am feeling my, um, demographics in this week that we mark the 100th International Women's Day. I'm a first-generation, middleaged, mixed-race, Canadian woman who has yet to see gender balance (note the politesse in this term; it's as if gender equity is just too unattainable, or perhaps too scary) in any legislative body in her country, in her lifetime, so far.
I'm feeling it, frankly, in a year when women elsewhere are making a difference in decision-making -where as we are told by Naomi Wolf in the Globe and Mail there is a feminist revolution happening in the Middle East, and that women have been courageously leading the way in Egypt, and also that while the circumstances in Afghanistan are increasingly challenging for women, there is nonetheless a greater percentage of women in the Afghan parliament than in Canada's.
And that's in this year, 2011.
All of a sudden it strikes me that years ending in "1" have some sort of significance for women. Well Canadian women at least.
Not always positive significance, but significance, nonetheless. It was 90 years ago, in 1921, that the first woman, Agnes McPhail was elected to the House of Commons, stating about her reasons for running and representing, "I want for myself what other women want."
Geesh. Who the heck wouldn't want that, regardless of just exactly what it was they wanted represented?
Especially when, no doubt and everywhere, gender is the only natural 50/50 split that exists. Interestingly and surprisingly timely, among other things, McPhail was an early advocate for prison reform.
Go figure.
It was 40 years ago, in 1971 (following the report of the Royal Commission a year earlier) that the first Minister of the Status of Women was appointed and 10 years after that in 1981 that the first female (and there have only been women since) Minister Judy Erola, was appointed, and not coincidentally that equality entered our Constitution.
And, thank goodness.
In the election after Judy became Minister, our ranks rose to a whopping 9.6 per cent of the elected House. By the time the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (Lortie Commission) reported in 1991 (a mere 20 years ago) we had pretty much doubled -a major and unmarked milestone -achieving 13.4 per cent in the election of 1988.
Taking a timeout to remark on the Lortie Commission's recommendations and legacy in this regard is warranted, particularly given the "1" year of the report. It just seems to take decades for change to occur in Canada, while elsewhere, it occurs at breakneck speed -(sigh, I digress).
The Commission had examined circumstances related to elections and representativeness around the globe and included proposals for increasing equity in the Can-adian Parliament based on those experiences and accomplishments. It noted, for example, how some countries that had already achieved gender balance had 40/40 rules: both women and men had to be represented to the level of 40 per cent.
In addition to other important incentive-mechanisms, the report recommended a regime that would kick in, in the next election, should "equitable" gender representation not reach 20 per cent in the House of Commons by the election following its tabling.
In simple terms, what Lortie recommended was that parties receive an increased reimbursement (or public subsidy) based on the numbers, proportionately, of women that they elected.
It recommended that this regime stay in place for at least two elections following the 20-per-cent achievement.
Readers should note that the generally accepted "rule" is that gender-based decision-making is impacted when a (national) legislature reaches what is called a critical mass; the UN sets this at one-third or between 30 and 33 per cent. At the election following the Report (1993) Canadians did indeed elect more women to Parliament, but missed the Commission's target by two percentage points and elected 18 per cent women.
The results since then, without the adoption of most of the Lortie Commission recommendations related to gender balance, or otherwise, are as follows: 1997: 20.6; 2004: 21.1; 2006: 20.8; and, 2008: 22.1.
It is accepted internationally that achieving gender balance makes changes in decision-making in national legislatures. Examples abound, but in South Africa, for example, where the 30-percent threshold has been exceeded, women legislators introduced gender-based analysis into the national budget process; studies in Costa Rica indicate that female representatives have an 80-per-cent success rate in getting legislation introduced and passed compared to a 48-per-cent success rate for men; and in Rwanda -usually at or near the top in gender balanced national legislatures -laws prohibiting women from inheriting land have been repealed.
Canada clocks in at around 50th place in terms of female representation in the world's national legislatures, depending on the year. So on the 10th anniversary of the founding of Equal Voice, a non-partisan organization dedicated to achieving gender balance in Canadian institutions, in this year 2011, where the power of women is making itself the power of the world and when Canadians are likely to elect a new government, how likely am I, given my demographic, to finally be represented?
Sheila Gervais, a former national director of the Liberal Party of Canada, sits on the Equal Voice advisory committee. She has written extensively on political party development and gender and politics.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen


  1. Thanks for posting the article here, so I could compliment you on it, Sheila.

  2. Why thank you Alice! I'm glad I did then.

  3. This Government treats women like they have no dignity and no rights.

    And just in case you think that I am just full of hot air, I PROVIDE THE PROOF HERE.

    I would love to hear from you.

  4. Women, like most "groups", are simply viewed as digits by this government. In that context, they don't really care about silly things like dignity and rights, just vote (or not) pandering.