Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh, or Justin Trudeau? As the 2019 federal election looms, this complex question is permeating across the country. Between Trudeau’s recent missteps with SNC-Lavalin, Scheer’s inability to shrug the ghost of Harper, and Jagmeet stunning lack of charisma, I must admit that it is shaping up to be an interesting race and a difficult question for Canadians. However, the true story, and the most difficult question associated with the 2019 Election, lies beneath the surface level politics and electoral drama. It is a question which strays from the current headlines of SNC-Lavalin and the budget drama. It is a question of why. Given the hundreds of qualified Canadian female politicians, none are on the ballot as a major party candidate. It is the question of why, even after years of political experience, policy wins, and dogged campaigning, women in Canadian politics have been unable to rise to the top. It is the question of why almost every women in Canadian politics today stands behind a more powerful man. It is the question that no one dares to ask, but it is a question we must answer.
Allow me to pose another list of names. Lisa Raitt, Candice Bergen (no, not the actress), Nikki Ashton, and Michelle Rempel. Do any of these names sound vaguely familiar? Probably not. Even after following Canadian politics for years, I only had a distant sense of who these women were. To me, they were respectively: the woman next to Harper, the woman behind Harper, the woman who often spoke after Leader Mulcair, and the woman who occasionally popped up to Harper’s right. They were familiar, as they all had immense roles in the Chamber. However, they lacked any of the celebrity surrounding many of their male colleagues. The questions arises as to why these women remain unknown and why the Canadian population remains uninterested.
Now part of the problem with this conversation is that, often, Canadians are seduced by the misleading global stereotypes surrounding their country. In many ways, the use of the country as an example of a utopian democracy, heightened by favourable comparisons with our southern neighbour, causes us to become lazy in criticizing the flaws that surround us. It leads us to brush off legitimate concerns about our democracy. It leads us to underestimate the misogyny and hatred that exist here at home. It is a prime example of the laziness associated with perceived supremacy, and it is a massive problem. In order to make our country what we desire, we must continue to ask questions and use critical thought. We must keep our Democracy dynamic.
Another difficult aspect to this conversation is that many do not believe it is necessary to have. Given the rose coloured lens described above, many Canadians memorize statistics which support their foregone conclusion that Canadian politics is welcoming to all. If one is searching to make a superficial argument, there exist many figures which seem to show tremendous success. For example, the 42nd Canadian Parliament (brought in during the 2015 federal elections) brought in 94 women. “Almost a hundred woman”, they gasp. And, of course, as I am often reminded, we have had a female Prime Minister. If I could count how many times I have heard people defensively state,”But, remember Kim Campbell”, forgetting that she was appointed (not elected) only after Brian Mulroney was ousted. There is clearly a problem if an interim Prime Minister, so unknown she is mostly saved for trivia games and political wonks, is Canada’s foremost female politician.
The problem is not participation. In the 2017 leadership races for all major parties there were numerous serious female candidates. Startling, however, was their performance. Even with objectively qualified candidates such as Nikki Ashton and Lisa Raitt, the largest share of the votes a woman gained was 17.4%. Again, the question swiftly arises as to why Women in Canadian politics are not taken as serious candidates and struggle to gain the traction of their male candidates. This is a hard reality to swallow given the reception of candidates such as Rob Ford and reality star Kevin O’Leary.
To make this point clearer, one can compare the careers of NDP Leader, and perhaps Prime Minister in waiting, Jagmeet Singh with his caucus member and previous leadership opponent Niki Ashton.
It was only in 2016 that Jagmeet Singh burst onto the national stage. Before this, he was an MPP in Ontario and deputy leader under Andrea Horwath. Building a brand as a progressive firebrand, Singh began to climb in the polls. Meanwhile, Ashton was running for her life. Even with a similar policy platform, arguably stolen by Singh, she failed to invite the same energy. Likewise, Ashton, aged 36, failed to gain the moniker of youthful and energetic which catapulted Singh, aged 40, to stunning success. For Ashton, this was not the first time. Her bid in 2014 had placed her in 7th place, behind six men.
It is not just Ashton, there is a generation of female Canadian politicians who have done everything right, ran every race, and have absolutely nothing to show for it. The question for Canada is how. How, in this country which professes to be a progressive utopia, we fail to take female political figures seriously.