As Canadians remain focused on day-to-day life in a pandemic, the nominations that will determine the face of Canada’s next Parliament are proceeding under the public’s radar. The federal parties like nominating under the radar. They work hard to keep it that way.
Federal political parties, using processes they set for themselves, are choosing today who will decide how Canada rebuilds after COVID-19. Can we be confident that women will reach parity with men in the next Parliament? Women now hold 30% of seats in our House of Commons, giving Canada a ranking of 52nd in the world. We have a long way to go.
Our experience with COVID-19 adds urgency to increasing the representation of women, in all their diversity. Many of the challenges we face have their roots in long-standing family and work realities that are gendered and racialized.
Looming particularly large are the structural faults laid bare by this scourge, including women’s labour force participation, the need for accessible and affordable child care, reform of the care sector, enhanced income security, overall preparedness and sustainability.
A rare plus of Canada’s efforts to manage COVID-19 is that we have seen women successfully operate in top leadership positions: a federal finance minister, federal and provincial health ministers, heads of public health agencies, medical professionals and experts. What explains the marked underrepresentation of women in the House of Commons?
We cannot blame women for not stepping forward or not wanting to run. In 2019, 736 women ran for office federally, enough to fill the House of Commons twice over. And we cannot blame the voters either, since academic research and public opinion surveys have shown that Canadians are consistently as willing to vote for women as they are for men.
A key source of Canada’s electoral gender gap is party gatekeeping. One of the few things federal political parties agree on is that they must be self-governing and their alignment on this issue has blocked any parliamentary action to reform nominations processes.
As recently as April 2019, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women, after a wide study of women’s representation in electoral politics, tepidly “observed” (it did not “recommend”) that it “encourages registered parties to set voluntary quotas for the percentage of female candidates they field in federal elections and to publicly report on their efforts to meet these quotas after every federal election.”
Party processes are not easily accessible by the public. Research suggests that the Liberals, NDP and Greens require a diversity search committee as part of candidate nominations; it appears that the Conservatives do not. There are no voluntary quotas and there is no voluntary transparency on the recruitment and nomination of women, as the Commons committee “encouraged.”
As a result of relentless scrutiny and advocacy by women over decades, national parties have slowly increased the number of women they nominate as federal candidates. The women who are nominated, however, are elected less often than men.
In the 2019 campaign, 39.3% of Liberal nominations went to women but in the election, just 31.1% Liberal MPs elected were women. The Conservatives nominated 32% women but only 18.2% of their MPs who won seats were women; the NDP nominated 48.5% women and had 37.5% elected; the Greens nominated 46.1% women and had 66.7% elected.
After analyzing data from the 2004 to 2011 federal elections, university professors Melanee Thomas and Marc André Bodet argued that women are disproportionately nominated in other parties’ strongholds, not those of their own party.
Prof. Thomas stressed that point once again in a CBC News report published after the 2019 election that found that for every 100 women running, only 16 won a seat in the Commons, while for every 100 men running, 29 were elected: “The issue is that parties consistently across the board keep nominating women in places where they can’t win.”
It is time to shine a spotlight on nominations and demand better information, transparency and financial accountability through existing mechanisms under the Canada Elections Act and the Chief Electoral Officer.
Candidates should be required to disclose their sex/gender on their nomination paper. (Currently this is not mandatory, and this information is not included in the “List of Confirmed Candidates” published by Elections Canada.) Canada should adopt a definition of “stronghold riding” and should report on results in stronghold ridings by sex/gender. We should also change our political financing rules to incentivize or sanction the parties to achieve gender equity.
Canadians have every reason to want their federal parties to eliminate the gender gap in nominations and election results. Given the historic reluctance of the parties in the Commons to increase public scrutiny of their operations, these modest initiatives could be launched in the Senate, thereby giving Canadians a forum to study the proposals and express their views.
Senator Donna Dasko represents Ontario in the Senate.
This article appeared in the April 10, 2021 edition of The Globe and Mail.