A woman’s place

Enough with the Ottawa men's club

Men run Canada. They always have. You may not mind this if you feel the country has been a smoothly functioning engine emitting bliss and prosperity in the nine decades since Canadian women got the vote, but I have never met a voter who would say this, not sober anyway.

I mind a great deal that Canadian women are not present in federal or provincial politics in numbers proportionate to their existence. It’s not that I think we’re superior to men. It’s simply that we exist and thus should be heard. But we are not.

Only 20.7 per cent of federal MPs are women. We are outnumbered four to one. Yes, it’s better than 1984 (9.6 per cent), but for a decade now, we’ve been stuck at the 20 per cent level and can’t seem to breach it. Right now, women MPs make up only 11 per cent of the ruling Conservative Party. Canada has fallen from a pitiful 42nd to a pathetic 49th ranking in the world in the proportion of women elected to Parliament.

It has reached the point where activist women agree that asking and arguing and fighting for power has taken us pretty much nowhere. The next step is electoral reform. It was long the favoured cause of the late and great Chatelaine editor Doris Anderson, who realized that Europe was galaxies ahead of us on the issue of electing women.

Canada has a First-Past-the-Post system. Whatever its merits – it is tidy; I’ll give it that – it means that one party can win a huge number of seats without winning the popular vote. They can rule without a genuine majority.

This may have worked when there were only two parties. But now we have four or five, and even more voters are effectively discarded as the smug winner takes all. And, as Anderson pointed out, that’s why majority governments could “take a wrecking ball” to hospital care or social services, both issues dear to women’s interests.

Perhaps that is why so few Canadians bother to vote. Rightly or wrongly, they feel their vote matters little, if at all. But in France, which adopted women-friendly voter rules seven years ago, fully 85 per cent of French voters turned out in the first round of the last election, an astonishing figure that made France look like a genuine gleaming democracy at a time when the word is increasingly meaningless. And look at the rise of the glorious Ségolène Royal in the French presidential race. Win or not, what an achievement for a female politician!

Electoral reform was recently offered to voters in British Columbia and P.E.I. in referendums. It was turned down, but Quebec is debating the idea, and B.C. will vote again in 2009.

Ontario voters will get their chance this fall. Here’s what they’ll be offered. Each voter will vote twice, once to elect a local candidate (as before) and once for a party. The party vote, which measures popular support, means that a number of MPs will be chosen from party lists that should be at least 50 per cent female, if political parties are wise. That means that smaller parties will be represented and more women will have power. It also means that coalition governments are more likely to emerge rather than one party that gets its own way every time. It means more co-operation and less arrogance.

I am not saying that life will be better. But the resulting government will finally resemble the population it represents.

Here’s the plan. If Ontarians vote to change their out-of-date electoral system, it is more likely that other provinces will, too. Eventually the federal system will have to change.

Complicated as the new voting system appears to be (go to for all the details), Ontýarians will be hearing much more about it as the fall referendum approaches. All Canadian women should watch with interest, because if we ever wonder why European women have a much better deal than we do – better maternity leave and childcare, for instance – it’s because they have more women politicians speaking up.

We don’t let men run our personal lives. In real life, we speak our minds and have an equal say. It is wrong for politics to be a funhouse-mirror twisting of the way we really live.