Although the number of female candidates running in the current federal election is up slightly from the last election in 2008, a significant breakthrough in the number of women who will go to the House of Commons after the votes are counted remains unlikely, says an advocacy group.
There are 407 women candidates registered for the May 2 election, representing 31 percent of the five major political parties, according to Equal Voice, a non-profit group promoting the election of more women to all levels of government.
At 41 percent of total candidates—59 women—British Columbia has a markedly higher percentage of female candidates than the national average. However, the number running in winnable B.C. ridings is just 21, or 36 percent.
Although women make up 52 percent of the population, that population is a long way from being equitably represented in the national legislature. The numbers of women elected to the House of Commons have hovered around the 20 percent mark since 1993, according to Equal Voice.
“Ideally, we would like to see half of the candidates that get into the House being women,” says Carolyn Jack, chair of Equal Voice BC.
“At a minimum, we would like to see at least 30 percent, which is what the U.N. recognizes as what will make a critical difference in terms of concern for issues that particularly concern women in any legislature. We’re not anywhere close to that currently.”
The New Democrats lead with 125 female candidates, nearly 41 percent of all its candidates—the highest percentage fielded by a political party in Canada’s history. The Bloc Quebecois has beaten its own record by running 24 of 75 candidates, or 32 percent of its candidates, up four points from the last election.
The Liberal Party is running 308 female candidates, or 30 percent, though this is considerably lower than in the 2008 election when the Liberals attained a historic high of 37 percent.
The Conservative Party is fielding 22 percent women, up two points from the last election. The Green Party has 98 female candidates (32 percent) on their slate, nearly attaining their goal of one third.
In 2009, Equal Voice’s “Canada Challenge” invited the major party leaders to improve the numbers of women they would nominate in the next federal election. The leaders agreed, but so far, at the overall national level, the smaller parties have fared better, particularly the NDP and the Greens.
“They have set a new bar in Canada at the national level. Their success underscores the fact that when parties work hard to reach out to women as potential candidates, women will rise to the challenge,” Donna Dasko, Equal Voice national chair, said in a release.
More female MPs, says Jack, would make for a “more equitable kind of Parliament.”
“I think that most Canadians look at question period and see big sea of white, middle-aged men—does that look like what you see when you look out the window? I think all of us who are concerned about having a vital democracy should be concerned about whether all of our society is getting represented in our national House.”
However, women continue to face many of the same barriers to entering politics as in the past, such as being the main caregivers in the family, and having limited access to financing compared to men.
They are also deterred by the often-rancorous tone of political debate, says Jack.
“They don’t feel as comfortable with what is becoming increasingly seen as perhaps a little bit excessively aggressive kind of campaign style and behaviour in the House.”
Canada’s international ranking on women’s political representation has fallen to 50th in the world. Despite enjoying economic prosperity and political stability, Canada now has fewer women elected than most of Europe, parts of Africa, and Australia, according to Equal Voice.