Onetime deputy PM Sheila Copps lends voice to N.B.'s Women for 50%

Sheila Copps, a former deputy prime minister and one of the most prominent politicians of her generation, will speak today at a conference put on by Women for 50% as part of efforts to get more women into the New Brunswick legislature in 2018.

It's crucial to have women in politics, Copps said in an interview, because they bring issues to the table that might not get there otherwise.

"I think women do actually see the world a little bit differently," she said told Information Morning Fredericton. "The balance would change, the subject matter would change and expand the horizons of Parliament and the legislature."

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Gender balance changes the whole dynamic of Parliament, a legislature and city hall, said Copps, who was the outspoken MP for the Ontario riding of Hamilton East for 20 years, starting in 1984, and served as deputy prime minister under Jean Chrétien from 1993 to 1997.

More women in politics also changes the tone of political discourse, influencing budgets with more emphasis on health and environmental issues, said Copps, who held the Environment and Canadian Heritage portfolios in the federal cabinet.

"Where we spend money would be changed in a more gender equal Parliament," she said.

Copps said the increased presence of women has made Parliament Hill more family-friendly, with more access to childcare and sitting hours that accommodate parents with young families.

These issues weren't on the radar of her political colleagues when her daughter was born 30 years ago.

The electoral system itself is accommodating to women, Copps said, but political parties are not.

She said if a party's power structure is to expand to include more women, the party needs a strategy and the leadership prepared to push it.

A 'guarded' power structure

"Power is usually not given," she said. "It's usually guarded.

"Power structures don't necessarily like to spread themselves wider, they like to keep themselves tight. It's about self-preservation and survival of your own species."

This is especially evident in nomination process. Women have the appetite for elected office, Copps said, but political parties generally make getting nominating, in a riding where they have a chance of winning, more difficult for them.  

Meanwhile, 90 per cent of the people who keep the machinery of politics running in Canada are women.  

"If you go into any committee room and most of the people on the phones, licking the stamps, doing the legwork are women," she said. "There is an interest, there is an appetite for politics."

Aiming for winnable seats

But there has to be some kind of an incentive to encourage more women to become candidates in ridings where they can actually win.

"The blockage to women has not come from themselves," she said. "It's come from the system. It's a blood sport and there's a certain aspect of politics that you have to be prepared to embrace."

Copps said the imbalance doesn't apply to politics only but can also be seen in business and the media.

"Politics can't solve all the problems, but I think if you change the dynamics in the legislature, with a more equal Parliament or more equal city hall, then some of those issues are reflected back into the private sector and media."