Civic election: Smaller communities, big gains in gender equity

When Lindsay Wilson launched a program to encourage women to go into civic politics, she never considered running herself.

"It was more about getting more women involved, training volunteers and building those networks, and just getting women to even consider that it was possible for them," she said.

Little did Wilson know, when she and Kate Leatherbarrow started the Municipal Campaign School last year, it would lead her to become the next deputy mayor of Ingersoll and Leatherbarrow a Woodstock city councillor.

"It's surreal, honestly," said Wilson, an economic development official for a non-profit called Community Futures Oxford. "To be at this point, I feel incredibly privileged and very grateful."

More women ran for civic office this year compared to the 2018 election. Across Oxford County, 18 women snagged a council seat in this week's elections, up from 12 female politicians elected in the last election.

The election brought historic change to the Town of Ingersoll, with Wilson joining three female councillors to make up most of the seven-person council, including the town's first Black female councillor.

"I just got a story published in my country, so I'm feeling the weight of what just happened," said Khadijah Haliru, a Nigerian-born business owner and active community member who moved to Ingersoll more than six years ago.

"I just thought, 'Oh, here's little me, just trying to do something for my community,' but it's resonated with a lot of people," she said.

A mother of three, Haliru said she looks forward to working with a council that is not only comprised of both new and old members but balanced in gender.

"A diverse council for me meant gender, experience and capabilities . . . so that we could actually reflect the true constituents that make up the town, and women do, especially women and children," she said.

In nearby Tillsonburg, Coun. Deb Gilvesy unseated Stephen Molnar, who served 15 years as mayor, in a shift that will bring more female representation to the helm. She joins two female councillors at the council table.

In Woodstock, women will take five of the seven council seats, compared to just three seats four years ago. Women's representation in the five remaining Oxford municipalities either stayed the same or slightly increased.

The strides toward increased women's representation aren't a complete surprise, mainly because a handful of the municipalities in Oxford elect councillors at large rather than by wards, said Jacquetta Newman, a political science professor at King's University College in London and a specialist on women in politics.

"The way the candidates are chosen in those areas makes it a lot easier for women candidates to actually win. So, with more running, it's not surprising to see that more are elected," she said.

While women in office surged in Oxford, female representation at the civic level took a hit in two other London-area counties. The number of women holding council positions in Elgin fell from 18 in the last election to 12 after this week's election, while the field of female candidates dropped to 15 from 18 in Middlesex.

Men dominate the political arena disproportionality, despite women accounting for half of the population. In Canada, women made up 18 per cent of mayors and 28 per cent of municipal councillors between 2018 and last year, according to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

But efforts to boost gender parity in civic politics are making a difference, Newman said, pointing to the women's caucus of Middlesex County that was formed in 2020 to support rural women in the fallout of COVID-19.

The caucus, comprised of five female politicians in Middlesex, was "really active" in spurring conversations "about representation and what it meant to be a woman on council," she said. "That probably had a lot to do with making more women feel comfortable about running and showing that women could have a real impact in these areas."

Newman hopes that, even with the loss of some of its caucus members, including Thames Centre Deputy Mayor Kelly Elliott and Strathroy-Caradoc Mayor Joanne Vanderheyden, both of whom were defeated in this week's civic election, the group will continue. "It was doing some important work," she said.

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press