Women and Politics in Canada: More Image than Substance

Alexandra Dobrowolsky. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb and Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


This essay follows the general structure and pattern of others in this volume, but also underscores four main themes: (1) the extent of diversity involved in the Canadian case; (2) the idea that women practice politics at many levels and in multiple ways; (3) the fact that pervasive presumptions about the positive status (political, social, and economic) of women in this country, belie a more precarious, and less promising, reality; and yet; (4) despite significant setbacks, Canadian women persist in their efforts to advance an array of political agendas.

Theme one draws attention to the fact that writing about women in politics in Canada poses a challenge given the country’s complex and longstanding efforts to grapple with diversity of various kinds. For a start, Canada’s British colonial past, and early white settler nation priorities, have contributed to a complicated political present. On the one hand, disputes over sovereignty and nationhood continue to this day (for Canada as a whole, as well as in Quebec and for Aboriginal peoples), but now they play out in an independent, formally, federally bilingual country, comprising several distinctive regions, 10 provinces, 3 territories, and a population of more than 32 million people (approximately 52 percent of whom are women). To accommodate Quebec, as well as a range of territorial identities, the unique Canadian political arrangement fuses an executive-centered, British-styled, parliamentary system with one of the world’s most decentralized federal systems. On the other hand, substantial immigration from increasingly disperse countries has contributed to a multiethnic and multiracial Canadian “mosaic.” Canada, then, is “both multinational (as a result of colonization, conquest, and confederation), and polyethnic (as a result of immigration)” (Kymlicka 2004 , 37). Characterizing “women” in Canada, therefore, is no simple task.

Theme two emphasizes that the scope of the political is also less than straightforward. Obviously, it involves the formal political realm (from political parties and Parliament at the national level, to politics in provincial legislatures and municipalities, and, increasingly, to the political decisions that get made in the courts), but it also encompasses informal political mobilization that occurs in a range of networks, both visible and invisible (Melucci 1989 ). Women’s political activism can include becoming a politician or lobbying one; it can be about engaging in violent and disruptive public protests or in more quiet forms of private resistance. And, of course, politics for women in Canada can also be intertwined with other struggles, such as the gendered experiences of seeking sovereignty for Quebec, or attaining political goals in the context of Aboriginal nationhood (Clio Collective 1987; Green 2001).

Theme three contrasts Canada’s benign image with a harsher reality. Canada’s political institutions, infrastructure, resources, and recent successive fiscal surpluses are often envied, and even emulated, abroad. It is widely assumed that Canada is a wealthy, healthy, happy, progressive, politically stable democracy. It is also commonly presumed that Canada pursues benevolent policies that benefit women. Here Jill Vickers (1997) makes the useful distinction between “women friendly policies,” that is, those of indirect assistance (e.g., a universal public healthcare system), and “woman positive policies,” that is, those specifically geared to helping women (e.g., combating breast cancer). Because it has recognized equality rights and affirmed multiculturalism, for example, Canada would seem to be quite woman-friendly overall. This is especially the case when contrasted to its neighbor to the south (Bashevkin 1998, 2002).

Indeed, mobilization by women’s movements, racial and ethnic organizations, and persons with disability ensured that Canada’s 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms prohibits a range of discrimination and contains equality rights (Sections 15 and 28). The charter also allows for affirmative action, counteracts regional disparities, and contains commitments to such groups as Aboriginal peoples. This is a far cry from the U.S. Constitution and explains why both South Africa and Britain looked to Canada as a template of constitutional progress in the 1990s (Dobrowolsky and Hart 2003). More recently, because gay and lesbian organizing and litigation resulted in the de facto extension of charter guarantees to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, here too Canada has broken ground (Smith 2005).

Yet things are not always as they seem, and more to the point, Canada has failed to make good on its commitments to women. Racialization occurs and certain women are problematically instrumentalized (e.g., the targeting of Muslim women in a post-9/11 environment). What is more, and somewhat paradoxically, the invisibilization of women has become more pervasive as women’s concerns and issues, in general, have fallen off of the policy agenda (Brodie 2002; Crocker et al. 2007; Dobrowolsky 2008). Women’s representational advances in multiple political realms have stalled, and state funding for a range of woman-positive initiatives has dried up (Jenson and Phillips 1996; Burt 1997). The few national social programs that remain, for example, health-care, are at risk of privatization (Cossman and Fudge 2002 ) suggesting that even women-friendly policies are few and far between.

To be sure, noteworthy new policies, like the compassionate care benefit Canada established in 2004, can conceivably be considered women-friendly as this benefit provides income support to informal family caregivers looking after family members who are seriously or terminally ill, and it is women who are mostly responsible for this kind of care work, along with other forms of social reproduction. However, this seemingly innovative benefit, and other women-friendly policies that deal with care, like the new paltry $100 CAD a month child care payments established in 2006, are fraught with gendered assumptions and limitations (Fletcher 2006 ). Similarly, potentially promising pledges made in recent years, such as past Liberal governments’ commitments to reduce child poverty can also arguably be considered to be women-friendly as women bear, and overwhelmingly rear, children (Luxton 2005 ). Yet this new focus on the child has tended to sideline women further by, for example, papering over the issue of the feminization of poverty (Dobrowolsky and Jenson 2004 ), all while child poverty rates have actually increased (Campaign 2000, 2005, 3).

Contrary to popular portrayals, a more depressing reality is detailed in a 2005 report on the status of Canadian women:

in this decade Canadian governments have cut away programmes and services women rely upon, introduced punitive and narrowed eligibility rules to control access to benefits and made women’s lives more desperate. The dire economic situation of many Canadian women, with its corresponding limitation of women’s civil and political liberties remains unaddressed by Canadian governments.” (FAFIA 2005, 9)

Women’s disadvantaged and declining economic status means that although formal equality exists, substantive equality is seriously in question. Canadian women cannot rest assured that they “will be treated with dignity and respect regardless of the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, where they were born, how much money they earn, how old they are, and whether they have mental or physical disabilities” (Trimble 2003, 132).

Nevertheless, both in spite of, and likely because of, this challenging context, women’s political activism continues. This constitutes the fourth and final theme of the essay. Political struggles to improve difficult, often deteriorating conditions still take place in the home and at the workplace, in wide-ranging communities, and from inside and outside the state.

Historical Context

The first wave of women’s mobilization for political rights—at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century—was spurred by a social reformist impetus. The latter led to campaigns for more conventional political action such as women’s suffrage and the right to political participation (Newman and White 2006, 69). But to say that Canadian women were enfranchised in a specific year is impossible. Women in the western provinces led the way (Manitoba being the first to grant women the vote in 1916) and this mobilization at the provincial level, in turn, put pressure on the federal government (Cleverdon 1974 ) to follow suit, which it did by passing the Wartime Elections Act of 1917. However, the Act only granted voting rights to women who served in the war effort or had male relatives in military service. The legislation was extended a year later to include more women, those who were aged 21 years or older. Still, women and men of Chinese, Japanese, and East Indian origin were denied these federal voting privileges until 1948. The provincial vote was won for most women by 1925. In Quebec, however, women had to wait until 1940 to vote in provincial elections. They embodied “the discourse of the French Canadian nation’s survival”; this and tradition help “explain their exclusion from politics and their confinement within the family” (see Tremblay and Trimble 2003, 4). Status Indian women obtained this basic citizenship right only in 1960, and many women with disabilities could not cast a ballot until 1992, when polling station accessibility was mandated (Trimble and Arscott 2003, 28).

Political milestones followed, such as Agnes Macphail becoming the first woman elected to the Canadian legislature in 1921, but women were still not even considered persons in the eyes of the law, under section 24 of the British North America Act of 1867 and thus could not be appointed to Canada’s Senate. In 1929, the “Famous Five” (Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, and Nellie McClung) launched the infamous “Person’s case” and successfully appealed the Supreme Court decision excluding women from the legal understanding of what constitutes a person. Two years later, Cairine Wilson became the first woman appointed to the Senate.

Yet for years to come, women were still not truly “persons” nor were they treated equally given political actions and inactions. Canadian women were not even formally full citizens (apart from their husbands or fathers) until 1947. Practices in both public and private realms continued to be problematic and served to deny women full citizenship. For example, from 1947 to 1955, married women were required to give up their federal government jobs to ensure that there was work for men returning from World War II. Being married could have even more serious repercussions in that women had to wait until 1983 for recognition of their claim that they could be sexually assaulted by their spouses.

Formal political and legal barriers were incrementally scaled, but large obstacles to women’s rights remained. Contraceptives were legalized and abortions decriminalized in 1967, but the latter required the approval of medical gatekeepers until this law was struck down in 1988. Since then, no new law on abortion has taken its place and access has increasingly become an issue. Despite the passage of the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960, Canadian courts did little to further women’s equality. In the 1970s, a classic example of the limitations of formal rights occurred when Supreme Court ruled in the Bliss v Canada case “that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is not discrimination on the basis of sex” (Phipps 2006 , 8), remarkably oblivious to the fact that only women get pregnant. Women worked to put an end to such rationales by revising equality guarantees in the 1982 charter (Dobrowolsky 2006 ).

Women’s activism continued in the courts, through formal political channels and outside them. Canadian women’s movements grew and diversified, and feminist forces from without bolstered women working from within the state. For a time, the two worked in concert to build up a status of women machinery. This, in turn, led to the development of more women-positive and even women-friendly initiatives.

To illustrate, support in Canada swelled for a commission on women. By 1966, women in the newly formed umbrella group the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ) joined with 32 organizations in the rest of Canada to take up this cause. Canadian women outside the state lobbied, and the small number of female political insiders cajoled, but it still took the threat of mobilizing a protest of 2 million women on Parliament Hill for the government to act (Dobrowolsky 2006, 19).

In response, the 1967 Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW) was established. It traveled the country, received 468 briefs and hundreds of letters, heard from 890 witnesses, and commissioned 40 studies (Newman and White 2006 , 80). Its 1970 final report included 167 recommendations ranging from efforts to address Aboriginal women’s demands to a call for a comprehensive child care program. It also contained damning statistics showing that women held fewer than 2 percent of positions in public life; just 18 women were elected to the House of Commons between 1920 and 1970 (only 1 woman, Grace MacInnis occupied a seat in what was then a 264-member legislature), and only 49 women had been elected to provincial legislatures in the same time frame (Trimble and Arscott 2003 , 18-19). The RCSW then sparked further political activism inside and outside of the state. For instance, in 1972, what would become the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), formed to ensure implementation of the RCSW’s recommendations.

NAC has been described as a “parliament of women” (Vickers, Rankin, and Appelle 1993, 132), and although it often worked with state agencies and “femocrats” (feminist bureaucrats), particularly in its early years, the logic behind NAC was to have a political advocate for women outside the state, one that performed a critical watchdog role. Over time, what became apparent was that either NAC’s autonomy or its effectiveness would give because of its reliance on government funding. Still, as an umbrella organization, by incorporating an ever wider array of member groups (it grew from 30 members in the early 1970s to 300 in the early 1980s and to double that number in more recent years), NAC aimed to respond to a range of women’s issues and a complicated array of identities, interests, ideas, and ideals (Vickers, Rankin, and Appelle 1993 ). While it remained “at the forefront of feminist advocacy” (Grace 2006 , 226) into the early 1990s, its current “weakened condition” (Grace 2006 , 226) will be explored later in the essay.

A state-based status-of-women machinery was also erected in the 1970s (Chappell 2002, 90). For example, the Women’s Program in the Department of Secretary of State was established in 1974 and went on to fund countless women’s groups and projects. This had strategic limitations but reflected, nonetheless, that the state considered women’s claims to be legitimate, and thus it sponsored groups and programs aimed at ameliorating their condition. Furthermore, on the basis of a RCSW recommendation, the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women (CACSW) was formed to advise the federal government of Canadian women’s concerns.

Although this “femocracy” (feminist bureaucracy within the Canadian state) peaked by the late 1970s and early 1980s (Findlay 1987 ), the federal government’s response was still noteworthy when one considers, for example, that no similar women-positive structures were erected in Britain until 1997. Moreover, in Canada, the provinces also established women’s agencies. Some were more explicitly feminist and independent, such as Quebec’s Conseil du statut de la femme (Rankin and Vickers 2001 ) but most operated in the form of a “coordinating bureaucratic agency—such as the Women’s Directorate in Ontario, the Ministry of Women’s Equality in British Columbia, the Women’s Bureau in Alberta, the Women’s Policy Office in Newfoundland—with women’s sections in such line departments as labor, health and the family” (Chappell 2002, 95).

The number of women’s groups outside the state and across the country also burgeoned, reflecting multiple structures, networks, goals, interests, and identities (Phillips 1991 ). Canada-wide groups included organizations like the National Association of Women and the Law and the Native Women’s Association of Canada, both founded in 1974. The Congress of Black Women formed in 1980, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund was set up in 1985 to provide legal support for women’s equality struggles, and the Disabled Women’s Network and the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women were both established in 1986.

By the 1980s and 1990s, however, these national organizations found it increasingly difficult to accommodate multifaceted issues given the array of women involved. This was true for groups in and outside the state. Both NAC and the CACSW were meant to represent Canadian women but were criticized for failing to respond to the concerns of diverse women. The NAC had to contend with regional issues (women from 10 provinces and 2, now 3, territories) and nationalist identities (women in Quebec and Aboriginal women), as well as accommodate many other distinctions, including race, ethnicity, immigrant status, age, ability, sexual orientation, and class. The CACSW faced similar problems compounded by the fact that this state-based body raised suspicions from “without” and “within,” that is, it was not feminist enough for the former, and was too feminist for the latter. Its work became even harder to reconcile as antifeminist organizations like REAL Women (Realistic, Equal and Active for Life, established 1984) sprang up to challenge any hint of a feminist agenda inside the state.

Also in this period, neoliberal policies were adopted (Bashevkin 1998), and the cutbacks, downsizing, deregulation, marketization, and privatization undertaken by both Canadian Conservative and Liberal governments typically came at the expense of women (Bakker 1996; Brodie 1996; Cossman and Fudge 2002 ). Women relied disproportionately on programs that now received reduced funding (such as social services) as well as the programs that were rescinded altogether (e.g., the family allowance in 1992). Women also held the jobs that were lost not only with state streamlining but also because of market-driven economic priorities like the free trade agreements the Canadian government negotiated, first with the United States and then with Mexico (i.e., the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA).

The rise of neoliberalism in Canada radicalized some women’s groups. NAC, for example, took dead aim against the state’s top priorities: first, Conservative governments’ free trade and constitutional reform foci of the 1980s and early 1990s, and then Liberal governments’ deficit, debt-busting, downsizing, and devolution of the mid-1990s. Not surprisingly, relations with the state soured and NAC, along with most other women’s groups, saw state funding dwindle away. Project funding became a thing of the past. Women’s groups were now either disregarded or demonized as unrepresentative, antidemocratic special interest groups (Dobrowolsky 1998 ). This leads to the more complex and contentious contemporary Canadian context.

Contemporary Context: Values and Women’s Place Today

Declining state support (Yalnizyan 2005 ) was reinforced by erroneous popular perceptions that equality between men and women existed and that feminism had had its day. The media took turns pronouncing that the women’s movement was dead or portraying feminist demands and those of other anti-oppression activists as superfluous voices of political correctness. When the media was not ignoring women’s groups, it homed in on the inevitable conflicts that occurred in a complex movement. Rather than acknowledging that the diversity of the Canadian women’s movement was one of its strengths, the media played up the fractious politics and portrayed a divided, divisive network. Today, many Canadian women, especially young women, are quick to disassociate themselves from the “f-word,” and women’s organizations are seldom seen or heard compared with even the early 1990s. Yet the reality is one where the basic needs and concerns of women are still not being met by a seemingly oblivious state. There are various explanations for women’s lack of political leverage.

Outside the state, countless women across Canada “continue to act collectively around a specific issue (e.g., violence against women, child care)”; however, the reality is one where most women’s groups “find it difficult to act, given cuts to funding for core operations” (Grace 2006 , 336). For instance, Status of Women Canada (SWC) women’s program funding was reduced from $13 million in late 1980s to $8.6 million CAD in 1994 (Chappell 2002, 99). Conservative governments initiated the cuts, but they then grew deeper under successive Liberal governments. The SWC still functioned, but feminist inclinations were downplayed. “According to two senior bureaucrats in the SWC, in recent years most appointees to positions in women’s agencies in Ottawa have had an interest in, and knowledge of, feminism, but it has not been usual for them to be outwardly feminist or to use this term to define themselves … This pattern appears to be replicated at the provincial level (Chappell 2002, 92).

At the same time, inside the state, the pursuit of gender mainstreaming helped to perpetuate the invisibilization of women (Rankin and Vickers 2001 ) as women’s concerns were dispersed across departments and diluted to such an extent that they became insubstantial. Compounding the matter, the status of women machinery was gradually dismantled. For example, the Liberal government closed down the CACSW in 1995. And so, while there were attempts at generating gender-based analyses, gains were patchy at best. Inroads made were increasingly blocked. This was quite evident by the time Stephen Harper’s Conservative government came to power in 2006.

In late 2006, the new Conservative government dispensed with all reports that called for more not less funding for women and reduced the SWC budget by another $5 million CAD, gutting most of its research capacity and closing 12 of its 16 regional offices. The message was loud and clear: gender equality in Canada was a given, and thus women would neither receive state support nor merit special attention. The Harper government even erased “equality” from the Women’s Program mandate and then eliminated an array of programs used by women and other equality seekers: for example, closing down the Court Challenges Program (which supported equality test cases) and the Law Commission of Canada (which researched reform policies, often deemed women friendly).

In Canada today, the endorsement of feminism in popular culture is rare, and support for women is tenuous at best in the formal political arena where, currently, even an economic, sociological, and political fact such as inequality between women and men fails to be recognized. Moreover, blatantly sexist attitudes remain both in the media and in politics. As one illustration, when Belinda Stronach ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2004, portrayals of her bid were rife with inappropriate commentary. Press coverage included the following descriptors: “dishy blonde,” “bodacious,” and “hot babe.” Stronach stood out in the Conservative pack not only for being a female but also by espousing more progressive beliefs. Her support for same-sex marriage and reproductive choice for women spurred REAL Women to attack her as a threat to true conservatism in Canada.

2007 Federal Budget: Implications for Canadian Women

The following excerpts are taken from Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action’s (FAFIA) report, 2007 Federal Budget Overview: Not a Budget for Women. http://www.fafia-afai.org/files/budgetoverview2007 (accessed September 8, 2008).

  • “The Conservative’s 2006 campaign promised to fund Aboriginal women’s organizations. However, this is the second budget for this government that contains no financial commitments to Aboriginal women’s organizations” (p. 10; for more info: www.nwac-hg.org).
  • The “National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada and FAFIA regret that the problem of the impoverishment and poverty of immigrant and refugee women and their families respectively has not been meaningfully addressed in this budget” (p. 10).
  • “Social programs are of particular importance to women, and women need more money put into social programs and social services. In this regard, the budget is also a startling disappointment. When Canada is so wealthy, the Conservatives have cut 1 billion dollars out of Canada’s fledgling child care program, and have reduced the federal contribution to child care so drastically ($250 million per year) that women and families face a future of searching frantically for safe, affordable places for their children” (p.15).
  • “It is also a problem for women that the increased transfers to the provinces carry with them no standards, no conditionality and no accountability” (p. 15).
  • “Only one in three unemployed women collect [employment insurance] benefits, down from 70% in 1990. For more info: www.clc-ctc.ca ” (p. 16).
  • “The 2007 budget also signals $20 million over the next two years for Status of Women Canada (this includes the $5 million for 2007-08 already announced by the Minister which was generated through significant cuts … closures of regional offices … reduction in staff from 131 to 70). What was not announced is that the rules (Terms and Conditions) for the Women’s Program have changed significantly to disallow all (domestic) advocacy, and most research with these funds. Further the mandate of the Women’s Program has been changed from one of explicitly promoting women’s equality, to one of facilitating women’s full participation in social, economic and cultural life. www.womensequalitcy.ca or www.psac.com ” (pp. 16-17).
  • “The family model with the most to gain from this federal budget is a high-earning male with a stay-at-home partner/wife. This and other provisions in the budget make it clear that the Conservatives have a preferred model of the family that is not reflective of the realities of Canadian women” (p. 17).

Stronach subsequently defected from the Conservative Party, joining the Liberals, complaining that Harper, the Conservatives’ new leader, “was not sensitive to the demands of a ‘big and complex country,’” which “prompted the Tory leader to shoot back: ‘I never really noticed complexity to be Belinda’s strongpoint’” (Ivison 2006 ). later, Conservative foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay made headlines by referring to Stronach (his former mate, partisan, and otherwise) as a “dog” in the House of Commons. These are just a few comments in a much longer string of slurs directed at women in the House, including former Liberal member of Parliament (MP) Sheila Copps being “called a ‘slut’ … and a ‘bitch’” (Stewart 2006). This sorry state of public discourse leads to a broader review of women’s formal political participation and representation.

Political Participation and Representation

Stronach’s bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party and her subsequent Liberal cabinet post attest to the fact that women have made formal political gains. The list of women “firsts” has grown and has gradually included more diverse women. In 1972, Rosemary Brown became the first black woman elected to serve in a Canadian legislature when she won a provincial seat in British Columbia’s legislative assembly for the New Democratic Party (NDP), and in 1988, Ethel Blondin-Andrew became the first Aboriginal woman elected to the House of Commons (representing the Yukon and the Liberal Party) (see Trimble and Arscott, 30).

Many high-profile firsts, and significant improvements in women’s numerical representation, have occurred in appointed, rather than elected, bodies. Canada’s first female Supreme Court justice, Bertha Wilson, was appointed in 1982, and since then several women have served on the bench of Canada’s highest court (now typically one-third female) including the current chief justice, Beverley McLachlin. The first female governor general (Jeanne Sauvé) was appointed in 1984, while Canada’s last two heads of state were also trailblazers in light of their distinctive backgrounds, identities, and professional contributions: Adrienne Clarkson (who served as Governor General from 1999 to 2005, was of Asian heritage and entered Canada with her family as a refugee); and the current Governor General, Michaëlle Jean (who came to Canada from Haiti, also under challenging circumstances). Both have worked to revamp the office’s role and image.

Women have also made marked numerical gains in Canada’s unelected Senate. Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien appointed 33 diverse women senators, doubling the rate of previous female appointments (Trimble and Arscott 2003, 32). By 2006, 35 percent of the seats in Canada’s Senate were held by women (Cool 2006, 2). This is a far cry from the 1929 “Person’s case” alluded to earlier, and yet, the fact that women have made inroads here is more than a little ironic given that the Senate’s legitimacy is constantly in question; women have thus achieved “critical mass” (usually considered 30-40 percent), only in a democratically challenged, and therefore often belittled, appointed upper chamber.

Women are present in elected office, but their numbers are still relatively low. In a July 2008 ranking (from highest to lowest), of the percentage of women in national parliaments worldwide, Canada was 51st on a list of 133 countries. Women’s representation in Canada’s House of Commons seems to have stalled at just over 20 percent, after reaching its highest level of 21.1 percent in the 2004 election (and dropping to 20.8 percent in 2006). In 2000, “the presence of visible minority women … increased, from 1 MP to 4” despite the fact that the 1996 census indicated that “over 11 percent of Canadians self-identify as a member of a group considered a ‘visible minority’” (Trimble and Arscott 2003, 29). Only three Aboriginal women have been elected to the lower house since 1867 (Cool 2006). Clearly, isolation and tokenism are problems that continue to plague women in politics.

Prime political posts have proven to be elusive for women, particularly at executive levels. Canada’s experience with having a female prime minister was only fleeting (see later sections), and it has yet to see a female finance minister at the federal level. Women have been assigned to some prestigious (albeit often feminized) positions and portfolios, but women’s proportions in cabinet are still small. In a 2003 cabinet shuffle, Prime Minister Chrétien appointed 10 new members, only 1 of whom was a woman, so that, overall, women constituted only 10 of 38 executive-level appointees (including cabinet ministers, ministers of state and secretaries of state). Under the next Liberal prime minister, Paul Martin, 11 women were appointed to his first 38-member cabinet, but this number dropped to 9 in his July 2004 cabinet shift. In 2006, there were only 5 (of 27) women in Stephen Harper’s first cabinet.

In some provinces, women’s partisan and electoral gains have been greater. Even though it was slow to grant women the vote, Quebec soon led the way by having the first woman, Thérèse Casgrain, to head a Canadian political party (the Quebec wing of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation from 1951 to 1957) and by having women fill a majority of the leadership positions in a recent Parti Québécois cabinet (Newman and White 2006 , 97). Quebec also became the first province (territory and federal jurisdiction) in Canada to reach a critical mass of elected women members with 32 percent women in its National Assembly. However, women’s representation in provincial/territorial legislatures generally levels out at 20.6 percent, which is similar to that of the federal level and slightly lower than the municipal level of 21.7 percent (Cool 2006, 2).

Electing more women is no guarantee of increased attention to women’s issues (Gotell and Brodie 1996 ); substantive representation does not necessarily flow from numerical representation. After conducting a longitudinal content analysis of debates in the Alberta legislature, Linda Trimble (1997) concluded that higher numbers of women did not necessarily transform the content of legislative speeches, let alone produce more gender-related public policy responses. This is not to say that increased female representation is inconsequential but, rather, to reinforce the fact that formidable barriers remain when it comes to raising women-friendly or women-positive policy concerns. Feminist priorities are typically trumped given such factors as partisanship, parliamentary procedures like executive dominance, and ongoing systematic discrimination.

Some Canadian female legislators have attempted to overcome such obstacles. In the early 1990s, women from three federal political parties rose above the partisan fray on a parliamentary subcommittee on the status of women. Through cross-party cooperation, women politicians were able to move the political agenda forward on both women friendly (gun control, sexual assault) and women positive (breast cancer screening) policies (Young 1997 ). Still, party affiliation tends to be a hindrance.

Sometimes, however, it helps. In their analysis of the Ontario legislative debates of the early 1990s, Burt and Lorenzin (1997) found that having the leftist NDP in power made a positive difference in that it contributed to having not just female but also male legislators ready to raise women’s issues. This, in turn, meant that feminist concerns such as abortion, child care, and employment equity were more likely to be on the legislative agenda.

Left-leaning parties in Canada have tended to make greater strides when it comes to women in their ranks. The successes of Casgrain and Brown attest to this at the provincial level as does the research of Burt and Lorenzin (1997) . There is evidence of this pattern at the national level as well. Audrey McLaughlin became Canada’s first woman leader of a national party, heading the NDP from 1989 to 1995, followed by Alexa McDonough (1995-2004). The NDP is one of two national parties to have had two woman leaders, the other being the Green Party (currently led by Elizabeth May). Notably, however, both parties have failed to achieve electoral success at the federal level and their chances of a breakthrough in the near future are slim.

The former Progressive Conservative Party has also had one female party leader, Kim Campbell, who went on to become Canada’s first and only woman prime minister. Unfortunately, this story is a sad, albeit instructive, one. In winning the Conservative leadership in 1993, Campbell was meant to resuscitate a governing party on death’s door. The outgoing leader and prime minister, Brian Mulroney, had worn out his welcome. Canadians were disaffected with Mulroney, disappointed in the Conservatives, and disillusioned by formal politics. Campbell bore the brunt of this backlash, taking on an all-too-familiar role for women in politics, that of the sacrificial lamb. Free-falling from its electoral highs of majority governments in 1980s, the Conservative Party managed to hold on to only two seats after the 1993 election (reaching parity: one seat was held by a man and the other a woman!). Campbell lost her seat and stepped down as party leader.

Because the NDP has taken positive steps to increase the numbers of women in its ranks, and the Conservatives have been more reticent to do so, the former has had a much better overall record. The NDP has followed a policy of freezing nominations at the local riding level until it can demonstrate that a woman or another member of an underrepresented group is in the running for a nomination. Similarly, the nationalist Bloc Quebecois (although it only runs candidates in Quebec for federal elections) also has been committed to actively recruiting and nominating women. Consequently, in the 2006 general election, the NDP had the highest number of female candidates, at 35 percent, followed by 31 percent for the Bloc (see Table 1). In contrast, the Tories nominated women in 12 percent of the 308 federal ridings (Galloway 2006). (3 of whom were women) and Liberal riding presidents with a questionnaire concerning women in the party. Then, just before leaving public life, Belinda Stronach helped to release and promote a Liberal “Pink Book” (a variation of the Liberal party’s “Red Books,” containing its election policy platforms) outlining women’s concerns and priorities.

In 2006, the Liberals, normally Canada’s governing party, ran 26 percent women candidates and elected 20 percent. Undoubtedly reflecting its 2006 electoral defeat (after 13 years in office) and a more insecure future, the Liberal Party began reassessing its approach to women. Former Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan chaired the Renewal Commission Task Force on Women’s Issues for the party, holding consultations across the country and writing to all 10 of the Liberal leadership candidates.

Table 1. Results of the 2006 Federal Election in Canada
Party Percentage of Women Candidates Percentage of Women Elected
Source: Cool (2006 , 8).
Bloc Quebecois 31 33
Conservative Party 12 11
Liberal Party 26 20
New Democratic Party 35 41
Overall 17 20.8

Because the total number of women candidates running for Parliament has declined in recent years from a peak of 476 in 1993, women inside and outside the parties have been compelled to mobilize. In the past, groups like the Committee for 94 worked to have equal female and male representation in parliament by 1994. Today new organizations such as Equal Voice focus on increasing women’s political presence.

Still, women’s less-than-optimal political situation is not helped by their precarious social and economic situation. Women continue to be significantly underpaid compared with men, their work is ghettoized, they do more part-time work and unpaid work, and they have less free time than men. Women have also borne the burden of welfare state restructuring (Bakker 1996; Brodie 1996, 2002; Bashevkin 2002 ). Through changes to social program financing and dramatic reductions in services and benefits, federal and provincial governments have “increased the social and economic vulnerability of women” (FAFIA 2005, 19). This has a negative impact on women’s ability to run for office as well as their relations with the state (e.g., again the relations are more conflict ridden and they receive much less financial support). This economic situation is difficult for many Canadian women (Townson 2005 ) and often dire for single women, single mothers, senior women, minority women, recent immigrant women, Aboriginal women, and women with disabilities (FAFIA 2005, 16, 17). This militates against more diverse women participating politics and acts as a barrier to all women’s equality.

Despite the uphill battle, women continue to struggle for equality, economic independence, and political engagement. For example, new and old forms of activism have emerged in opposition to recent actions taken by the Harper government. From coast to coast, women have launched campaigns to reclaim their rights. In January 2007, for example, the British Columbia/Yukon Status of Women office in Vancouver was occupied after a rally against federal cuts to equality programs. At the other side of the country, in the province of Nova Scotia, meetings, marches, letter-writing campaigns, and Web sites set up in the fall and winter of 2006-2007 united women politicians, unionists, academics, and activists (Keller 2006 ) in protest over the backsliding on women’s equality.

Global political activism has also intensified. Canadian women have forged transnational political networks with, for example, the World March of 2000. It began with la Marche des femmes à travers le Québec in 1995 and the FFQ working with 20 different women’s organizations across Quebec (Rebick and Roach 1996 , 183) to stamp out poverty and violence against women. This grew into the 1996 pan-Canadian Bread and Roses March involving more than 100,000 women in more than 100 communities and then the World March (La Marche 1999) where women in 157 countries took a stand against poverty and violence (Healy 2003).


Although it is impossible to provide sufficient details in an essay of this kind, it is nonetheless apparent that, despite the progressive image of Canada, the political picture for women is not bright. Marked progress on their numerical and substantive representation has not been forthcoming. Moreover, even women-friendly policies, leaving aside women-positive ones, are unlikely to unfold in a political context where women’s equality is assumed to exist, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. Thus, Canadian women’s political, social, and economic standing is by no means secure. Yet Canadian women have engaged in different forms of politics in the past, and this mobilization continues at present, precisely because equality is not a given in this country and because diversity is a reality that requires more than formal recognition.