Because it’s 2017: The Women in House Program

Chloe Magee (2L)

It was treated as an historic moment in Canadian politics: during a press conference held shortly after being sworn in, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked by a journalist why having a gender-balanced cabinet was so important to him, to which he confidently retorted, “Because it’s 2015!” The crowd in attendance reacted with clapping, whistling, and cheering, and the quip was further celebrated nationally and internationally, garnering attention from The New York Times and praise from Emma Watson.

Enough time has passed since this moment of optimism to ask ourselves, “Did Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet mark a watershed moment for women in Canadian politics, or was it just an instance of cunning publicity generation? Has Canada been justified in patting itself on the back for the last two years, or is there a lot more work to be done?” Without discounting the important progress that has been achieved, the likely answer is that more work lies ahead.

According to a table by the Inter-Parliamentary Union numbering countries according to percentage of women in national parliament, Canada is currently ranked sixty-fourth in the world, with women holding 26.3% of seats in the House of Commons. While this number represented an increase from the previous government, it was only of the order of 1%. The possible explanations for this discrepancy are multifaceted and complex, with historical, cultural, and institutional elements, to name a few, all at play.

However, before we can have a meaningful conversation about the “why,” it is important to acknowledge that our country still has miles to go. It is hopeful at best, and harmful at worst, to think that substantive gender equality has been achieved in the political realmor that we’re even close.

This is precisely what led Tina J. Park, a Ph.D. candidate at U of T, to create the Women in House Program. In 2013, Tina was in Quito, Ecuador, acting as advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and was shocked by how few women were in the room. At a reception, she met and discussed the glaring lack of female representation in government with Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, who agreed to help launch an initiative aimed at tackling the gender imbalance. They jointly created a program that provides an opportunity for young female students to network with politicians and shadow an MP or Senator on Parliament Hill for a day.

One way to tackle a daunting, pervasive problem is by taking practical, local steps. This fall, nine female law students participated in the program. Here’s what a few of them, myself included, took away from the experience.

Rachel Chan, paired with MP Sean Fraser:

When I first received my Parliamentary Host match, MP Sean Fraser from Nova Scotia, I was slightly disappointed. While I was sure he would be a great host, I was disappointed because there were not enough women in Parliament to pair with the hundred eager students from the University of Toronto. In fact, there are only eighty-eight women out of 338 seats.

But, once the program started, the Women in House Program exceeded my expectations. Not only was I warmly welcomed by MP Fraser and his staffers, I got an incredible glimpse of the workings of government. For example, moments before the Status of Women Committee, MP Fraser had a meeting with the party whip. The Liberal members of the committee had decided to walk out in response to the nomination of a Chair who they did not believe represented the best interests of women in Canada. The nominee had a track record of opposing abortion and trans rights. It was incredible to be in on this ‘secret’ and watch as it unfolded. It felt (mildly) like House of Cards. As we stepped out of the meeting, the press surrounded the Members and it was in the news minutes later. Although MP Fraser was certainly not a ‘Woman in House,’ he proved to be a strong ally for women’s rights and equality.

Chloe Magee, paired with MP Anita Vandenbeld:

At law school we often talk about hidden biases: what they are, and how to better recognize and address them. Coming into this program, I was expecting to learn about how hidden biases and stereotypes about women are prevalent in the world of politics. What I was surprised to discover was the extent to which overt forms of discrimination still linger around the Hill. Some are historical and are being addressed over time, since the Parliament buildings themselves were built with only male politicians in mind. When many of these women began their career in politics, there was no women’s washroom anywhere near the House of Commons.

Others, though, are cultural, and these biases manifest themselves both inside and outside of Parliament. For example, some women were faced with potential voters on the campaign trail expressing concern that they are ‘too nice’ for the job. (This happened to the MP that I was shadowing, despite the fact that her résumé included such tasks as working with dictators while assisting countries in their transition to democracy.) This experience gave me a newfound respect for female politicians in Canada, who are consistently challenging the status quo and bettering the institution in the face of significant barriers.

Spence Colburn, paired with MP Julie Dzerowicz:

This program was an extremely eye-opening foray into the world of federal politics, which I learned is a hectic one filled with meetings, frustration, and overworked assistants. But it is also a worthwhile struggle, and a quiet nobility can be seen underneath the tired and rumpled exterior of those who work on Parliament Hill. The most eye-opening and challenging part of my experience was undoubtedly Question Period, which I had never seen before. As I overheard two women say while they waited in line, ‘They are bullies in there.’ This was an understatement.

Despite the challenges of federal politics, I experienced many inspiring moments as well. During our visit, the Liberal party organized a walk-out of a meeting of the Committee on the Status of Women to protest the nomination of a candidate who was anti-choice and did not believe in same-sex marriage. I felt privileged to be in Parliament to witness this, and proud that we have a governing party that stands up for equality and the autonomy of women.

There seems to be a general consensus that our current government’s gender-balanced cabinet was a good start, or a step in the right direction. Still, what became clear after participating in Women in House is that substantive equality requires deeper institutional changesand these take time. The reality is that the House of Commons and the Senate are still male dominated. The importance of mentorship in accelerating the journey to a more genuinely representative government cannot be overstated. What we need are more candid conversations, like the ones facilitated by the Women in House Program, about where our nation currently stands and what steps we can take to improve our situation.