Canadian political life can be hostile to women. In November 2016 Alberta MLA Sandra Jansen received misogynist, hateful comments when she crossed the floor after dropping out of the Progressive Conservative leadership race. In February 2017 Liberal MP Iqra Khalid received death threats and sexist taunts after sponsoring an anti-Islamophobia motion. As Stalled: The Representation of Women in Canadian Governments reveals, these recent incidents are but the latest trials in the long struggle for gender parity in political representation in Canada.
Published in 2013, Stalled updates two earlier works by the editors—the 1997 landmark In the Presence of Women, edited by Linda Trimble, a professor at the University of Alberta, and Jane Arscott, an associate professor at Athabasca University; and Women and Legislative Representation, by University of Ottawa professor Manon Tremblay. Through 14 chapters written by contributors from across Canada, most of whom are female political science professors, Stalled reports on the number of elected women at all levels of government, including municipalities, provinces, territories, the House of Commons and those appointed to the Senate.
The book is well researched and the chapters helpfully structured, with each containing a table that sets out key information for that jurisdiction, including the right of women to vote and stand in elections (most women in Alberta earned the right to vote in 1916); historical firsts in politics (the first women to run for office in Alberta were Louise McKinney and Roberta MacAdams in 1917; both won and were in office from 1917 to 1921); current representation as of the last election before publication (for example, in Alberta in 2012, 23 of 87 MLAs, or 26 per cent of elected persons, were female and only four of 19 cabinet members were female); women political party leaders (in Alberta in 2013 Alison Redford and Danielle Smith were leading the PC and Wildrose parties); and the state of the Advisory Council on the Status of Women (disbanded in Alberta in 1996).
The tables make it easy to compare jurisdictions across Canada and to contrast the current state of women’s political representation with how it was but a few years ago.
Today, following the May 5, 2015 election won by Rachel Notley’s NDP, women representing the PCs, Wildrose and NDP hold 27 of the seats in Alberta, a slight increase from 2012. But women now hold half of the cabinet seats, and the NDP established the Ministry of Status of Women. Later in 2015 Justin Trudeau appointed Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet. Clearly these events raise hopes that there is a shift for women in politics across Canada.
The book’s contributors hint at and explain this surge in female representation. In a chapter on Alberta, Brenda O’Neill notes that left-leaning and minority parties have traditionally encouraged and included more women candidates—so when the “underdog” NDP won in 2015, more female candidates resulted in more females in government. Contributor Jocelyne Praud notes that a party’s nominating more female candidates can influence other parties to do likewise.
Still, over time the gains for women have been rather modest. Ugly incidents, threats and harassment still occur. While the contributors to Stalled describe several movements that seek to improve the numbers of women in Canadian politics, such as Equal Voice, we have a long way to go to increase female representation. Stalled provides an interesting, thoughtful and guardedly hopeful discussion of this issue.
—Linda Mae McKay-Panos is the executive director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre in Calgary.