Grassroots organization aims to foster gender equality in municipal government

·8 min read

On this day, 102 years ago, women were granted the right to run for municipal and provincial office.

Currently, women hold 27 per cent of the elected municipal positions in Grey and Bruce counties, but make up a little more than 50 per cent of the population.

In an effort to balance that equation, a number of local politicians have launched a new non-partisan, volunteer organization with the goal of achieving a sustainable gender balance of elected municipal officials.

“The goal is to get more women to run for office, to help get them elected and then help them thrive in their first year once they are elected,” said Mariane McLeod, councillor with the Town of Collingwood and a founding member of the electHer organization.

“With 51 per cent of the population being women but only 27 per cent of the elected municipal officials in Grey and Bruce counties being women - that's not representative,” she continued.

The organization was launched in June last year with 19 founding members who are all currently holding a seat in municipal government across Grey, Simcoe, and Bruce Counties.

“I really love local government. I think it's such an opportunity and a place to learn,” said Danielle Valiquette, councillor for the municipality of Grey Highlands and a founding member of electHer.

“I believe women change politics. I have been fortunate enough to see that in Grey Highlands, not only in my tenure, but in the women that came before me, like Lynn Silverton,” Valiquette continued. Lynn Silverton is a former councillor for the municipality of Grey Highlands and currently chairs the Grey Highlands Police Services Board.

McLeod agreed, adding that the electHER organization hopes to build on the progress that has been made over several decades.

“There is a lot of work that took place. A lot of women have been breaking ground together for a long time,” she said.

Ontario was the fifth province in Canada to grant women the right to vote and run for office. The legislation passed April 12, 1917, after more than half a century of activism.

On April 24, 1919, the Women's Assembly Qualification Act passed, giving women the right to run for office in provincial and municipal elections.

Constance Hamilton was the first woman elected to city council in 1920 in Toronto.

Grey County’s Agnes Macphail was the first female member of federal parliament (elected in 1921) and one of the first two women elected as members of provincial parliament in August 1943. Margaret Rae Luckock and Macphail were both elected as MPPs in 1943.

Canada’s first female senator also hailed from Ontario: Carine Wilson, a Liberal from Ottawa who was appointed to the Senate in 1930.

Indigenous women were granted the right to hold office on First Nation reserves in Canada beginning in 1951. In 1954, Elsie Knott became the first female chief, leading the Anishinaabe Curve Lake First Nation, northeast of Peterborough.

Zanana Akanda was the first Black woman elected as an MPP in 1990 for the NDP in Toronto.

Dr. Jean Augustine was the first black woman to be elected to the Parliament of Canada in 1993 as a Liberal for the Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding. In 1995 she introduced a motion to declare February as Black History Month.

Fast forward a few decades and last week marked another notable moment for women in politics in Canada as Chrystia Freeland became the first female minister of finance to present a federal budget.

“We stand on the shoulders of giants, but we still have a long way to go,” McLeod said.

Data collected over the past decade backs McLeod’s sentiment.

In April 2019, the Standing Committee on the Status of Women presented a report to the House of Commons: A Roadmap for Improving the Representation of Women in Canadian Politics.

The report detailed the barriers that are facing women in politics in Canada and included testimony from numerous organizations, individuals, and government departments.

Findings from the report confirm that women remain underrepresented at all levels of government and increased representation is necessary to achieve greater social, economic and political outcomes.

According to the report, in the early 90s’ the United Nations Economic and Social Council called on governments and other stakeholders to aim at having women hold at least 30 per cent of leadership positions in order to ensure effective gender diversity.

“Diversity, in every way, always brings healthier discussion and better decisions,” said Paula Hope, councillor with the Town of the Blue Mountains and founding member of the electHER organization.

“Women represent 50 per cent of the population, but they're also about 85 per cent of the consumer population. So having more women at the table, they provide a majority view, but also a consumer perspective,” Hope added.

In Canada in 2018, 91 of 335 seats in the House of Commons were occupied by women, representing 27 per cent. Less than one per cent of these seats were occupied by Indigenous women.

The report also notes that Canada ranks 60th, out of 193 countries worldwide for the representation of women in single or lower houses of national parliaments.

In December of 2018, women occupied 46 of the 101 occupied seats in the Senate, representing 45.5 per cent of senators in office. However, the senate is not an elected position, but rather a position appointed by the Governor General.

At the municipal level, data from 2015 shows that on average women represent 18 per cent of mayors and 28 per cent of municipal councillors in Canada.

The same data set shows women are also underrepresented on First Nations band councils with 30.5 per cent of councillors and 17 per cent chiefs being female.

The standing committee outlined a number of factors that often deter women from participating in politics, which include: gender stereotypes and discrimination; lack of confidence in abilities; insufficient efforts to recruit female candidates; difficulties financing campaigns; an absence of family-friendly workplaces; gender-based violence or harassment; as well as gender-biased media treatment.

Through its report, the committee suggested Canada should place a focus on improving the collection of intersectional data on women’s political participation, shifting societal perceptions regarding women’s political participation and support organizations and projects that promote political participation of women.

Enter the electHer organization.

“Just getting more women to run, we think is a good step. In Collingwood, for example, six women were on the ballot in 2018, and five of us got elected. Women can get votes, we just need to be on the ballot,” McLeod said.

McLeod explained that electHER is non-partisan and will not endorse any candidate, but rather provide resources and networking opportunities.

“There are women who definitely face trouble and difficulties in politics because they're women. In a couple of the municipalities in Grey and Bruce, there's only one woman on the council,” McLeod said. “To have this safe space with this group, to be able to vent and ask questions in a supportive environment, has been so important.”

Valiquette, who is in her first term as a council member, concurs adding it is nice to have a community of like-minded individuals to share and exchange ideas with.

“As an elected politician, as well as a climate leader, I get a lot of yucky stuff. Social media and the anonymity that people feel has created this environment in which people feel entitled to send you really awful things that I don't believe a man would ever receive,” Valiquette said.

“This group is really a bunch of women saying that these are our experiences. This is the reality. But then also, here are resources and connections for you that will support you in these unique obstacles that women face,” she continued.

Hope added having this network has been beneficial during her time at the council table but also throughout the election process.

“It's quite a daunting task to run for election. And it's great to have support but getting training is key,” Hope said.

ElectHer held its first virtual training event in March, which focused on how to make the decision to run for office. Fifty people attended the initial event.

“If you have never run before, and you don't know what it's like, and you don't know if you can handle it, having another woman tell you bluntly, transparently and honestly with kindness, what it really like, it's easier to move forward,” Valiquette said.

The organization will be holding its second virtual event - Learn about the job - on Tuesday, May 11.

The event will host a panel discussion with Christine Robinson, mayor of West Grey, Shirley Keaveney, deputy-mayor of Meaford, Megan Myles, councillor with the Northern Bruce Peninsula and Cathy Moore Coburn, councillor in the Georgian Bluffs.

“A good starting point is to familiarize yourself with how it [municipal government] works because there is a definite purview that municipal politics is, and so figure that part out and know what you're getting into,” McLeod said.

“The person who knows the rules is the one who rules. So you need to learn your procedural bylaws, you need to learn your parameters, and then you can work within them to get things done,” she continued.

McLeod adds that if politics is not your thing but you are still interested in supporting the advancement of gender equality in Grey-Bruce, electHER is also always looking for volunteers and supporters.

“You need help to get elected. Everyone who gets elected generally has an army of helpers and so there's definitely a place for them too,” said McLeod, adding that the group will likely be looking to offer training for volunteers in the future.

The next municipal election in Ontario is slated for October 24, 2022.

Jennifer Golletz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca