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Toronto's 2018 election has opportunities for women, but barriers too

CBC

Talisha Ramsaroop says she dreams of becoming a Toronto city councillor, but while the 2018 election does offer an opening, there are still plenty of barriers.

Ramsaroop, a 25-year-old community advocate in the Jane and Finch area, is one of two winners of the Pam McConnell Young Women in Leadership Award. McConnell, who died last year, was a strong supporter of getting more women into politics, and Ramsaroop admits winning the prize named after a "hero" of hers does add some pressure to run for office.

Yusra Khogali, a leader with Black Lives Matter Toronto, is the other winner of this year's award.

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"That's been kind of in the back of my mind and it is one of the dreams I've had for a really long time," she told CBC Toronto ahead of accepting her award, which will be presented on International Women's Day.

Ramsaroop says one or two elections will pass before she's ready, but she expects it will still be a challenge then.

"It's pretty much like double of triple the work that it would take to run as a woman, especially as a woman of colour, as it would be to just run as a traditional white man … that's what people expect as politicians, so when you're challenging that expectation it does take a lot more work."

Women underrepresented on council floor

Women hold just 14 of 45 seats in the council chamber, despite making up half of the city's population, and they're also underrepresented on the city's most powerful committees. Mayor John Tory's executive committee, for example, has three women and 10 men.

Other governments have had better success at elevating women, although unlike Toronto, they're operating under a party structure. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a gender-balanced cabinet. At Queen's Park, Premier Kathleen Wynne's cabinet features 13 women and 16 men.

Toronto's council makeup will change after October's election due to the creation of several new seats plus the departure of several long-time councillors, including Coun. Shelley Carroll who is running for the provincial Liberals.

But Carroll says if the city really wants some fresh faces, it needs to re-evaluate its campaign finance rules. Someone like Ramsaroop, she says, would likely have a harder time generating big donations to fund a strong campaign than an incumbent politician. She says one way to help would be for the city to provide grants to candidates who can prove they have the support, but not necessarily the cash, to compete for a seat.

"That would change the entire universe of Toronto. Especially for women. Especially for people of colour, women of colour," she said, noting New York City has done this with great success.

However, Carroll says she hasn't found much support on council for plans that would eliminate the incumbent advantage.

Voters play a big role

One positive, Carroll says, is shifting attitudes on the campaign trail. At doorsteps, as recently as 2000, she recalls always being forced to speak with the man of the house, who would be deciding the city's vote. Now that's rare, although when it happens it shocks her younger canvassers.

Coun. Janet Davis says there's good reason for voters to support female candidates.

Women, she says, are more likely to depend on city services, ranging from child care to recreation to the TTC, something that may give them a better insight into certain policies.

"Women do bring a different perspective to the table," she said.

"We need to be making sure at council that we reflect the needs of women in this city."

Davis notes the city is starting to take an equity lens to its budget process, which is a good development, but women also need to be at the table when decisions are being made. She says she'd like to see Tory create more balance on his key committees.

"We've got to feel like there's a purpose in being here and that our voices will be heard and will be respected," she said.

Ramsaroop witnessed that issue firsthand when she served as Coun. Maria Augimeri's protege several years ago. In meetings, she says, Augimeri's opinions were often either ignored or not taken seriously, but the councillor taught her to persist. "Keep saying it and keep saying it until they are listening," said Ramsaroop.

Despite the hurdles, Ramsaroop remains optimistic that city council will look different in the future and that, in turn, will signal to women of colour that it's not impossible to become a councillor. She says she's already training her 8-year-old cousin, Anysha, to think that way, although with bigger goals.

Anysha, she says, is aiming to be the prime minister.

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