16 Per Cent

Women in the Alberta Legislature

By Kim Gray

Half of Albertans are women. Yet of the 83 MLAs elected last fall, just 13 are women. Should there be more women in politics? Did these women face barriers as women in getting elected? Do women bring special qualities to the job? We asked all 13 MLAs and got very different answers.

Cindy Ady, MLA for Calgary-Shaw, PC.

Cindy Ady happens to be a blond, female politician, which was no big deal until Belinda Stronach ran for the federal Progressive Conservative leadership.

“Suddenly, people were asking me ‘so what’s it like being blond and in politics,’ ” recalls pc MLA for Calgary-Shaw during a conversation at Government House in Calgary.

“I don’t notice what is female or what isn’t. In my world, we’re all just colleagues doing the best we can for our constituencies,” she says—adding that her male comrades tell her they see her as one of them. (And joking further that one thing she can’t do, though, is swear like them.)

“I do know they have the capacity to let women in. If I drag the elephant to the table, then it’s my fault. If I let being a woman be a barrier, then it’s my fault.”

Nonetheless, she believes more women should be in politics. The Texas-born mother of four was elected to her second term as an MLA in November.

“Women aren’t running because of home responsibilities. We need them because of their perspective. I learned an awful lot of things being a mother. It takes a lot of creative energy to raise four human beings.”

The Conservative party member stayed at home when her children were young, but Ady (daughter-in-law of Jack Ady, former MLA for Cardston-Taber-Warner and one of her political heroes) still maintained an active life in her community. “Even if it was parent council. My advice to women looking for a life in politics is to remember there are seasons in life.” In other words, consider the time-consuming career of provincial or federal politics when your children (if you choose to have them) are grown.

“But don’t sacrifice family for a career,” says Ady, who has been married for 25 years and who describes her marriage as her number one commitment. “Otherwise, in the end, the career will feel empty. Family is what gives you fullness.”

 

Laurie Blakeman, MLA for Edmonton-Centre, LIB

Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman believes the best governing bodies are ones that reflect the people they are leading. “Which is why we need more women in politics,” says the MLA for Edmonton-Centre, who was recently elected a third time. “I’m also talking about people who have different ethnic backgrounds and people with a mix of life experience.”

Blakeman, who is a member of the Public Accounts committee, is well known for getting into a nasty verbal scuffle with Premier Klein last May over receipts for a golf trip. Klein demanded, repeatedly, to know if Blakeman was calling him a liar: “Why would you ask for the document if you are not suggesting I am lying?” he asked her.

“People asked me how I kept my cool and I replied ‘practice makes perfect.’ This is not uncommon behaviour.” She had previously dealt with chronic heckling in the legislature that was not related to her performance as a parliamentarian, but to her weight.

Blakeman is convinced, as are many of her colleagues, that the premier would not have taken her to task so aggressively if she had been a “he.”

“Political analysts, political pundits, all of them agreed,” recalls Blakeman— whose life previous to politics included being executive director of the Alberta Advisory Council on Women’s Issues and executive director of the Alberta Snowmobile Association.

Politics in Alberta, says Blakeman, is unquestionably a blood sport. “What women need to know is that there is lots of room for us to change the system and we are changing that system. Even with the more restricted way that the Conservative women come at the job. There is a more collaborative approach,” says Blakeman.

“I think the current government chooses an adversarial, male-based way of doing politics: a take-no-prisoners style rife with military language.”

 

Pearl Calahasen, MLA for Lesser Slave Lake, PC

Pearl Calahasen’s political hero is an “illit- erate Cree lady” who had strong character and who believed in her values. She also happens to be Calahasen’s late mother. “Sometimes I imagine she’s looking down upon me and saying ‘yup, go girl,’” says the energetic MLA for Lesser Slave Lake who was elected for the fifth time as a PC MLA. Calahasen, who is also Alberta’s Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, believes more people of her gender should be in politics.

That way, she says, it will become a “woman’s world” too. “If we want to see areas that we believe in get addressed, we should become involved in politics.”

A female’s political perspective is different from her male counterparts’, particularly in the aboriginal world, says Calahasen. “Even economically. We see economics from the perspective of family and how money contributes to the family and how we can make our quality of life better.”

The former minimum-security-prison teacher has two degrees and teaches as an adjunct professor in the University of Alberta’s faculty of education. She strives to be a role model for her 19-year-old daughter. “And also for the other young females around me in the province of Alberta and in my constituency.”

Did she face barriers getting elected because she is a woman? “Every person faces barriers. Whether you’re young, you’re a woman, you’re aboriginal. We overcome those barriers because we learn the process. I’m a politician first and foremost.”

 

Alana DeLong, MLA for Calgary-Bow, PC

Canadians need decent people, not necessarily more women, in politics— according to Alana DeLong, PC MLA for Calgary-Bow. “Of course, a balance of men and women in any organization is also good,” she continues, over a chicken salad at a local Italian eatery. “Pure male or pure female is not as effective as a mixed group.”

DeLong was born in Nelson, B.C., and elected for the second time as an MLA last November. She pauses when asked if she has faced gender-related discrimination during her career. “It balances out. There are advantages to being a man. But there are also advantages to being a woman.” For example, says the married mother of two, one of her pet issues is improving fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives after divorce. “When men work on this issue, it isn’t as effective,” she says. “They look self-serving.”

Previously, during her career in information technology, she says she might have been turned down for promotions because she was a woman. “But look, we all have our own realities to deal with,” claims DeLong, whose previous pastimes included opera singing, acting and television hosting.

“If a woman told me she wanted to go into politics, I would tell her to go with her strengths, whatever they happen to be. I would also remind her we are all just people. Nobody has a golden pathway into the future.”

 

Iris Evans, MLA for Sherwood Park, PC – Photo: www.gov.ab.ca

Iris Evans is a busy woman and so, when she finally replies to the e-mails and phone calls of an insistent journalist, she apologizes for not having more time.

“But I would like to send you a quote,” she writes in response to the question of gender and politics and the relevancy of the topic. If there is anything the Minister of Health and Wellness wants to communicate, it’s this: “I’ve always believed that in any profession or occupation, gender issues are not material.” With respect to her chosen field, the PC party member also maintains that “men and women are equals in pursuit of public policy and in terms of the imposition on their personal lives.”

Evans is reputed to be one of Alberta’s hardest-working and most dedicated politicians. Many women MLAs refer to her as a their political hero. Elected for the third time last November, the MLA for Sherwood Park has also made a name for herself as a health minister who walks the talk. The former nurse (mother of three and grandmother of five) has recently lost 60 pounds. She’s advocating that Albertans who buy gym memberships should receive tax deductions. She is also looking at proposed policies that would reward healthy people with tax credits. If Evans succeeds, Alberta would be the only province in Canada to offer these kinds of health-related financial incentives.

Evans believes it takes “a deep-seated faith and a desire to serve others” to succeed in public service.

 

Heather Forsyth, MLA for Calgary-Fish Creek, PC

Women should decide if they need more of their gender in politics, according to Heather Forsyth, MLA for Calgary-Fish Creek and Minister of Children’s Services. “I don’t think it’s up to government to choose. It really is a tough, individual choice,” says Forsyth who is in the Legislature for a fourth time.

If the married mother of two faced any barriers during her career because of her gender, she says she chose to ignore them. “I have to tell you, I feel extremely lucky to be one of 83 elected in the province of Alberta, in a population of three million. Even more honoured to be one of 24 in cabinet.”

Does Forsyth believe female politicians bring any special qualities to the table because of their gender? “I think every MLA brings a different perspective. It isn’t whether they are male or female. We have the rural and urban. Ethnic. Religious. Remember, you can have three women sitting together with three different opinions.”

Forsyth was named Reader’s Digest Canadian Hero in 2002 for her work in the area of children and prostitution.

She championed the issue and Alberta eventually passed the Protection of Women’s Health. Also, as former chair Children Involved in Prostitution Act, which characterizes child prostitutes as being victims of sexual abuse who require attention.

“For me, I get unbelievable satisfaction helping somebody. Getting protection for children involved in prostitution was a highlight in my career,” says Forsyth, who, before politics, was a committed volunteer with the Children’s Wish Foundation and the Youth Justice Committee.

Her final word of advice to women interested in a political career was, “Go for it. If you want to talk about it, I’d be pleased to talk to you.”

 

Yvonne Fritz, MLA for Calgary-Cross, PC

More important issues face government these days than “concerns around a glass ceiling for women achieving positions of influence,” according to Alberta’s Minister of Seniors and Community Supports, Yvonne Fritz. “My focus is on providing the right balance of services and supports for Albertans in need,” says the PC MLA for Calgary-Cross. She is referring, for example, to the pressing issues facing Alberta’s seniors and disabled such as affordable and accessible housing.

Despite suggesting that the subject of “women and politics” is less than relevant in Alberta in the year 2005, the married mother of two has nonetheless proven herself an advocate for women’s issues. She helped establish the provincial government’s Advisory Council on Women’s Health. Also as former chair of the Alberta Breast Cancer Screening Policy Council, Fritz encouraged a “holistic, women-centered approach” to screening for the disease.

The ex-nurse, who looks to her own “strong” mother as well as Premier Ralph Klein’s wife, Colleen Klein, for professional inspiration, says gender did not interfere with her getting elected. Nonetheless, Fritz observes that, over all, there could “definitely” be more women in politics.

Women are often the majority on local school boards, she says, and they typically represent about half of city council members. But female numbers continue to decline, she continues, in provincial and federal politis.

“It becomes more and more difficult for women to contribute politically,” says Fritz. “As a provincial politician it is difficult to balance work, family, friends and community life. The job requires longer periods of time away from home.”

 

Carol Haley, MLA for Airdrie-Chestermere, PC

A fourth-time PC MLA for Airdrie- Chestermere, Edmonton-born Carol Haley recalls growing up at a time when women were expected to become nurses, teachers or secretaries. “If you wanted to expand beyond that, you might get a push back from society,” she says.

Still, the veteran MLA and businesswoman, who has an extensive agricultural background, responds cautiously to the question of whether more women “should” be in politics.

“I do not believe there should be quotas, if that’s what you mean,” says the mother of two. “Women have come a tremendous distance as presidents of corporations, pilots and engineers. This is another area we’re gravitating to. But we have to be ready to run and understand the sacrifices that go along with politics.”

Insisting her gender has never been a barrier during her career, Haley adds, “Even if it was, I wouldn’t have acknowledged it. I refuse to look at the world that way. I believe I have something to offer the world. If people accept that, great. If not, they can disagree with me. I refuse to argue on the basis of someone’s sexuality.”

Any comment on whether women bring special qualities to the profession of politics? “The politically correct thing to say would be ‘yes.’ The truth is, I don’t believe I bring anything to the table that is special because I’m a woman,” says Haley, who is a member of Treasury Board and also chairs the standing policy committee on health and community living. “I believe I bring something to the table because of my unique experiences. I think it’s the same for everybody.”

 

Mary-Anne Jablonski, MLA for Red Deer-North, PC

Former Ontarian Mary-Anne Jablonski says Alberta is more receptive to female politicians than her native province. “The premier here is receptive to women. We don’t have an old-boy’s club attitude as ingrained as they do in central Canada,” says the PC MLA for Red Deer-North, during a lengthy conversation about gender and politics.

Still, despite what she sees as a woman- friendly political climate, she claims she faced some barriers when she first ran. “I think there was some resistance from a few ‘old boy’ types. However, when I was approaching people for my nomination, a number of people—including men— said it was time we had some female representation.”

Asked whether more women should be in politics, Jablonski issues a resounding “absolutely.” Why? “Because I believe women think differently. We can sometimes see an issue in a different light. If we have good debating skills and good persuasive skills, we can get other members to see our side of the issue,” says the married mother of three and grandmother of five. “It’s like the yin and the yang. We need both perspectives.”

The ex-businesswoman encourages other women to follow in her footsteps— but she has firm ideas about young mothers drawn to provincial politics. “Feminists forgot to value the privilege of child- rearing. I can’t think of anything more fun and exciting than watching a child develop into a loving and contributing individual,” she says. “The modern woman is not old when she is 40. She has an entire lifetime from that age on. What an incredible time to have a great career.”

 

Weslyn Mather, MLA for Edmonton-Millwoods, LIB

In 1972 Weslyn Mather was in a car accident that nearly killed her. “I believe I lived because of my husband. At no time did he let me think I wasn’t ok,” says the Liberal MLA for Edmonton-Millwoods. “It has been quite a journey.” Her husband, Dick Mather, was a well-liked Edmonton MLA who passed away in 1997. “I was his campaign manager,” recalls the former psychologist who, as a result of the car accident, uses a wheelchair.

Being a woman and seeking nomination didn’t seem to matter in her riding, says the first-time MLA. The fact that the community was well acquainted with the couple probably helped. Now that she’s involved in political life herself, Mather is convinced that Alberta’s political scene could use more women. “When Premier Klein wrote the U.S. government in support of the war on Iraq, I don’t think that stand was representative of women in Alberta or even women in his own party,” she says.

Ultimately, she believes women are less concerned about public recognition and more conscious of human values.

“I haven’t experienced it yet, but more than one woman in politics has told me women are treated very badly. That they are patronized and treated with some disdain.” Their male colleagues, says Mather, should remember that women can offer a different perspective.

“Women often seek consensus rather than confrontation. Rather than looking at differences, we are more likely to look for common traits.We listen before we search for a rebuttal.”

 

Shirley McClellan, MLA for Drumheller-Stettler, PC

The Honourable Shirley McClellan maintains there is nothing extraordinary about the fact that she is a politician.

“Particularly in this day and age,” replies the minister in an e-mail. “The fact that I am a woman has no bearing on how I do my job, and my job is to represent my constituents as their MLA, and the people of Alberta in my role as minister of the Crown.”

The Conservative party member is both deputy premier (the second most powerful political position in the province next to premier) and minister of finance.

Born in Hanna, Alberta, McClellan and her husband run a mixed grain and oilseed farm in New Brigden. They have two children.

McClellan was first elected as MLA in 1987 and was re-elected for a sixth time last November in Drumheller-Stettler. She has spearheaded several projects over the years to improve access to education for Alberta’s rural population. “I don’t distinguish between the concerns of male or female Albertans. They are all equally important,” writes McClellan. “It would be curious to me if someone suggested my role as a politician is different from that of my male counterparts. We all have the same job.”

Final thoughts about the subject of politics and gender? “I do not think it is relevant in Alberta in 2005, or beyond.”

 

Bridget Pastoor, MLA for Lethbridge-East, LIB – Photo: www.gov.ab.ca

Despite a hectic schedule, Bridget Pastoor, Liberal MLA for Lethbridge-East, has still managed to do her homework. “I spent two hours considering your questions during a road trip with my daughter,”announces the energetic grandmother, who laughingly describes herself as “old, really old.” Should more women be involved in politics?

“Yes,” is the politician’s unequivocal response. “Women are profoundly affected by the decisions made by government, which is almost exclusively male.”

A female perspective, continues the first time MLA, is critical to a fair debate before policies are implemented. Gender, she says, at least in her case, was never an issue with respect to getting elected, because she had already formed deep roots in her community. “I was an elected city official. I sat on Lethbridge city council for six years. So I think I was genderless. I was just ‘Bridget’ to people.”

According to Pastoor, a former geriatrics nurse with a concern for social justice and political history, women do bring distinct sensibilities to the political arena. “I, for one, bring an appreciation for consensus building, co-operation and a plurality of perspectives. Women are also likely to have had hands-on experience with the disadvantaged. So we have more empathy for the issues these people face.”

Any advice for women considering a career in politics? “Don’t hesitate. I think the philosophy you have to have is ‘believe in what you’re doing.’ Do the best you can. And let the political gods take it from there.”

 

Janis Tarchuk, MLA for Banff-Cochrane, PC

“I have to say gender issues are not pertinent or part of my day-to-day existence,”says Janis Tarchuk, PC MLA for Banff Cochrane. “I live in an area where female participation is prevalent in all areas of politics and work life.” She insists she has never faced obstacles as a woman getting elected. Nor has being female ever “affected” her political performance in any way. “My view is that constituents want a representative that is open, listens, is respectful of diverse opinions, ensures integrity in public consultation and acts on the values and needs of residents,” says the married mother of two. Her family runs a construction business and she has lived in Banff for over 25 years.

If our provincial government is any example, says Tarchuk, elected in November for a third time, women in politics aren’t doing too badly. “Female MLAs sit on our most influential committees and fill some of our most powerful positions.” Tarchuk has been an active committee member and currently chairs the standing policy committee on economic development and finance.

Her “sole motivation” is serving her constituents. “I think that is true for most MLAs regardless of gender.” Still, does Tarchuk believe women bring distinct qualities to the field of politics? “The special qualities women bring into the political arena are their unique experiences as mothers, daughters and sisters,” she says. Then adds: “There are too many exceptions to characterize a gender difference in personal contribution or style of representation in provincial politics.”

Kim Heinrich Gray works from home in order to raise her children but maintains regular assignments as a freelance writer.

 

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