'Gender never came into my mind,' says woman who brought N.W.T. Legislature to Canada's 1st female majority

·4 min read
Jane Weyallon Armstrong, MLA-elect for the N.W.T.'s Monfwi riding, admits that along the campaign trail, in which she competed against three men, 'A lot of people said … that we need a woman there.' (Chantal Dubuc/CBC - image credit)
Jane Weyallon Armstrong, MLA-elect for the N.W.T.'s Monfwi riding, admits that along the campaign trail, in which she competed against three men, 'A lot of people said … that we need a woman there.' (Chantal Dubuc/CBC - image credit)

Jane Weyallon Armstrong was excited and slightly nervous on byelection day in her community of Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., but she gave little thought to the history she was making.

A political science professor at the University of Calgary confirmed Wednesday that after Weyallon Armstrong's win the N.W.T. is the first provincial or territorial legislature to be led by a majority of women.

"Gender never came into my mind," Weyallon Armstrong told CBC News. "I went in there with good intentions, with a good heart.… I want to do good work for my people."

The MLA-elect for the Monfwi riding admits, though, that along the campaign trail, in which she competed against three men: "A lot of people said … that we need a woman there. A woman's view is very important."

Weyallon Armstrong is now the first woman to hold the Monfwi seat in the N.W.T. Legislature. Her election Tuesday took the number of women in the house from nine to 10 out of 19.

Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, a political studies professor at Queen's University, said the next closest legislatures would be:

  • B.C at 42.5 per cent women after the 2020 provincial election.

  • Quebec at 42 per cent after its 2018 election.

  • Yukon at 42 per cent women now.

Walter Strong/CBC
Walter Strong/CBC

Premier 'ecstatic'

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane, currently Canada's only female premier, was "ecstatic" at the win, in part because she's worked with Weyallon Armstrong before, in part for what it means for her government.

When Cochrane was first elected in 2015, she was just one of two women MLAs, alongside Julie Green, who is now the territory's health minister. After the election it was time for MLAs to vote on who would serve in cabinet, as is the custom in the N.W.T.'s consensus-style government.

"We [Julie and I] were told point blank by the other ministers that they wanted one woman in cabinet," Cochrane said.

Green met with her and asked "Which one of us should run?" and Cochrane recalls she replied: "'Why one of us? Why can't we both run?' So we both ran."

Mario De Ciccio/CBC
Mario De Ciccio/CBC

After 2019, Cochrane recalled, there were so many women MLAs this wasn't an issue.

"It's not what it means to me, to me as a woman," she said, of having achieved a majority female legislature. "It's an honour, but ... more importantly, what does it mean for the generations of young women coming forward?

"It tells them, don't limit yourself. You can be here. You need to be here. You deserve to be here."

A passion for social justice

Louise Elder is the executive director of the Status of Women Council of the Northwest Territories and has also worked with Weyallon Armstrong.

"I was delighted but not the least bit surprised that Jane had been elected."

Elder said Weyallon Armstrong has a passion for social justice, and a wealth of experience and knowledge. She's also pleased to see one more woman in the house.

"To have gender parity in our Legislative Assembly for the first time and to be setting an example for the rest of Canada was just — it was our dream," she said.

Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC
Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC

"All the younger females that are aspiring to leadership can look at what's happening here."

Elder said she noticed a shift after 2019, when women came close to half the territorial legislature. There was a greater focus on family violence, gender equity and more consultation with organizations like hers, she said.

But, she adds, there's still a long way to go to break down barriers for women in leadership.

"I've been watching the news and women are taking a stand against things like the bikini beach volleyball bottoms and the leotards for gymnastics," she said. "It's hard to believe that we're still having to break down these barriers."

First up, visiting communities

Weyallon Armstrong won with a solid lead, taking half the votes and nearly twice as many as the next closest contender. People in Behchokǫ̀ celebrated immediately after with a drum dance.

Her first priority, she said, will be visiting the communities of Whatì, Wekweètì and Gamètì, the three other Tłı̨chǫ communities that make up the constituency. along with Behchokǫ̀.

Chantal Dubuc/CBC
Chantal Dubuc/CBC

She plans to focus on housing — something voters said was top of mind — addictions and healing. They're all issues Weyallon Armstrong knows well from her role as president of the Native Women's Association of NWT, as a councillor in Behchokǫ̀ and as a student support guidance worker at the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency, which is part of the Tłı̨chǫ Government.

"We're in a crisis situation," she said. "We need a treatment centre. We need a healing centre.… We need to move forward. That is the only way that we can make progress in life."

Her main focus, though, is listening to people.

"I'm here for them and they can call me. They can. They know where I live.

"I thought of my late parents last night too, and our ancestors," she said. "If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here."

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