Leaders debate on women’s issues cancelled but debate long overdue

Canada Politics
Leaders debate on women’s issues cancelled but debate long overdue

It’s not a leaders debate on women’s issues, but it’ll have to do.

More than 30 years after Canadians last saw a federal election debate on women’s issues, the Up for Debate campaign has announced Plan B — that four of the five main party leaders have agreed to participate in an “alternative debate format” focusing solely on those issues.

The new format will see leaders from the New Democratic Party, the Liberal Party of Canada, the Green Party of Canada and the Bloc Québécois sit down for pre-recorded interviews on women’s issues. Quebec journalist France Pelletier is expected to conduct the interviews, which will then be screened with analysis and commentary at Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre on Sept. 21. They will also be made available online.

“If the major broadcasters in the country can’t get all five leaders to the table, it’s sad but not surprising that we can’t either,” says Ann Decter, director of advocacy and public policy at YWCA Canada and a spokeswoman for Up for Debate, a non-partisan alliance of over 175 organizations.

“We’ve been the majority of university grads since the 1990’s, we’re pretty much 50 per cent of the population, there’s been a huge change in the percentage of women with children, especially young children, in the workforce, and yet no national child care program,” she says. “A lot of things have stalled and we need a conversation about them. We need the leaders to be looking to build a country that works for women.”

Originally planned as an all-leaders debate to be held in Toronto and broadcast nationally, Up for Debate had to turn to Plan B once it became clear that neither Conservative Leader Stephen Harper nor NDP Leader Tom Mulcair would attend, essentially dooming the event.

Harper declined the invitation, though organizers did receive a “yes” from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe.

Mulcair initially accepted. However not long later the NDP announced that he would not be taking part in any debates that didn’t include Harper, a move that was lambasted on Twitter.

Caroline Andrew, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies, moderated the first — and last — election debate on women’s issues in 1984. Then Liberal leader John Turner, Conservative leader Brian Mulroney and NDP leader Ed Broadbent debated issues that included pay inequality, child care and security.

Andrew was not immediately available for comment. But in an editorial for the Ottawa Citizen on Aug. 14, she wrote that a new debate on women’s issues was long past due: “I have seen a lot change for women over the last 30 years, but remarkably many of the issues the leaders debated then — including child care, pay equity, violence against women, and women’s role in global peace and security — continue to be just as pressing today as they were back in 1984.”

In an article in the Star, a representative from Up for Debate said the word “women” was uttered just four times during the Maclean’s National Leaders Debate earlier this month.

According to Elections Canada, in the last two federal elections women voters have turned out at a higher rate than men (59.6 per cent compared to 57.3 per cent). In addition, the 2011 federal election saw 76 women elected to Parliament representing 25 per cent of total seats. In 2013, more than 85 per cent of Canadians had a woman for premier.

Despite these advances, there remains much to do.

According to Up for Debate, each day more than 8,000 Canadian women and children rely on shelters to protect them from violence, and since 1980, more than 1,100 aboriginal women and girls have gone missing or been murdered. Today, women still earn 20 per cent less than men for the same work and are more likely to experience poverty.

Decter says the organization is doing whatever it can to put women’s issues at the fore during the 11-week election campaign.

“We’ve been in touch with people hosting other debates and we’re trying to get the issues we’re looking at and our questions into those debates. In cities we’re organizing all candidates debates that focus on women’s issues, and we’re open to other ideas that come up,” she adds.

Up For Debate has called on all Canadian parties to commit to ending violence against women, addressing pay inequality and supporting women in leadership roles.