Fixing Canada First

Canada talks a lot about protecting women's rights abroad. Why not do the same at home asks Anouk Dey.
By: /
April 27, 2012

Foreign Minister John Baird has made the protection and advancement of women’s rights “a key pillar of Canada’s foreign policy.” This is commendable.

Before looking abroad, however, perhaps Baird ought to look at home. In the cabinet in which Baird serves, women represent less than 25 per cent of ministers. The same proportion plagues Parliament, ranking it 40th in the world on the count of female representation. We are trounced not only by the usual suspects – Finland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark – but, ironically, also by many of the countries to whom our foreign aid agenda has traditionally been directed, such as Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia, among others.

This week, Foreign Policy’s Sex Issue published a list of the 25 Most Powerful Women You’ve Never Heard Of. There were no Canadians on it. Had Foreign Policy published a list of the 25 Most Powerful Women You Have Heard Of, it’s still unlikely a Canadian woman would have made the cut (Louise Arbour might be the lone exception).


Getting more women into powerful political positions is a key step in the promotion of women's rights. Three arguments are usually made in favour of more women in Parliament.

The first argument rightly asserts that Canada is failing to tap into an enormous pool of talent. By making political life undesirable for women, the argument goes, Canada is not served at home or represented abroad by the cream of the crop. More Canadian women than men earn a high school diploma, enrol in college and university programs, and leave these programs with diplomas or degrees. Our best and brightest, it follows, should be at least 50 per cent women. Follow Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s handiwork on the F-35 file and you will no doubt agree.

The second argument is one of fair representation. It makes the case that Parliament is democratically elected. Since slightly more than 50 per cent of Canadians are female, then to be representative, Parliament ought to be about 50 per cent female. Underlying this argument is the assumption that all women think similarly.  Though I am reluctant to accept that there is a uniquely female way of reasoning, or that I am more likely to arrive at the same conclusions as Bev Oda rather than Michael Chong, there are certain issues in which, indeed, female experience begets good policy. Consider maternity support services: is it a surprise that Sweden, a country with 45-per-cent female representation in its parliament, boasts one of the strongest maternity support systems in the world?

In many ways, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. More women in Parliament begets stronger maternity support systems, which begets the opportunity for more women to run for Parliament, which begets more women in Parliament…

The final argument contends that women have certain uniquely female traits that make them valuable additions to Parliament. Andrea Horwath made this argument earlier this week, when she was honoured with Equal Voice’s 2012 EVE Award. She cited the female knack for consensus, exhibited in full force in her past week of political negotiating, as one reason why Canada would benefit from more female politicians.

While Horwath clearly has an aptitude for this type of political maneuvering, it is a mistake to employ this rationale in defence of improving the number of women in Canadian politics. Just as the logic “Women have x which makes them good for x” can be used to advance the goal of increased female political representation, so too can that logic be used to argue, “Women have x which makes them good for…” This sentence is too often finished with “communications” – or in Parliament, “social development” and “international co-operation.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with communications, and our ministers of social development and international co-operation are integral to the success of Canada. I would just like to see more Canadian women following in the footsteps of our four female provincial premiers, demonstrating that women can compete on the same playing field as men, and that no uniquely female characteristic positions them well for one role but not another.

Photo courtesy of Reuters