Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/1/2016 (1854 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


One can only imagine what Nellie McClung would think of the state of politics in 2016. Sure, there are more women in political office. Certainly, there have been important inroads made in terms of equality for women. Women have more freedoms now than they've ever had. But do you think she'd be impressed?

The trailblazing women who broke ground in Manitoba politics I spoke with all suggested McClung would be happy to see women represented, but disappointed progress hasn't been faster.

Nellie McClung

Nellie McClung

Full and equal representation of women is still far below the 50 per cent mark in politics. In 100 years, only 51 women have been elected to the Manitoba legislature. Only 315 women have been MPs in the history of Canada. Just 92 female senators. True, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ensured his cabinet was made up of 50 per cent women, but he faced criticism for enforcing that simple right. Progress has been slow, even if it is 2016.

Sharon Carstairs, Manitoba's first female political party leader, laments the slow progress, but she also sees good things in the future. The retired senator thinks the Trudeau cabinet decision to ensure 50/50 representation bodes well for the future and hopes the prime minister pushes the same in the upper chamber as well.

Both Carstairs and Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the first Manitoba MLA to give birth while in office, applaud the prime minister for identifying himself as a feminist. Justin Trudeau has made it clear he is proud of that label, and Wasylycia-Leis says by self-identifying, he can foster an understanding of what feminism really is.

"It's really about basic equality," says Wasylycia-Leis.

There are still several systemic issues that are barriers for women wanting to run for politics. The halls of power do not accommodate women who have young children. There is no maternity leave. There are still issues concerning caring for children while working as a politician. There is no available daycare, particularly for the evening responsibilities.

Carstairs points out the House of Commons still has sessions on Fridays, making it hard for women who represent ridings in B.C. or Manitoba to get home in time to be with their families.

It's certainly not baby-friendly. For example, in 2012, a New Democrat MP Sana Hassainia (Verchères-La Patriote) was asked to leave the House of Commons because she brought her son into the House rather than miss an important vote on the long-gun registry. The Speaker apologized afterward for the confusion.

The Manitoba legislature is also still a very white environment, as are most places of power. Flor Marcelino is the first woman of colour to be elected and the first woman of colour appointed to cabinet. She is currently the minister of multiculturalism and literacy. Marcelino says the lack of persons of colour means Manitobans miss out, "Because we bring diversity, excitement and a different energy to decision-making."

Despite the fact we're marking this as the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in Canada, not all women were included in the franchise. Indigenous women didn't get the vote provincially until 1952, and federally until 1960.

NDP MLA Amanda Lathlin (The Pas) points out: "We were the last group of people to be granted that right in Canada."

She says it's "an honour to serve as the MLA for The Pas constituency. It is especially an honour to serve as the first First Nations woman in the Manitoba legislature. I am privileged to bring a perspective to my role as the MLA, as my own personal life draws many parallels with my fellow northerners.

"I am optimistic working towards improving women's lives through tools of empowerment such as education, training, jobs and child care can mean a brighter future for our province and country."

The first woman to run for political leadership in Manitoba -- Muriel Smith, who ran for the NDP top job against Howard Pawley in 1979 -- also wondered how McClung would view the major social changes that have occurred in Canada. Smith points to the fact she was born into a Conservative family and married a Liberal. Her ideological transition to embracing NDP principles came about only after spending time with grassroots feminists in the 1970s.

Smith says much of what she was able to learn about women's issues came through this collaboration, and she believes McClung would have had a change of heart in terms of her controversial stance on eugenics if she, too, had the opportunity to this modern exposure.

On Wednesday, as I was preparing this column, word came Jennifer Howard, the NDP MLA for Fort Rouge, will not be seeking re-election. It's a stunning loss for the NDP and for Manitoba. Howard was the first out lesbian, the first disabled woman, the first female house leader. Her perspective will now be lost.

As Marcelino puts it: "The more diversity you have in the legislature, the more you can represent all aspects of daily life." Women provide a different tone, a different approach, a different mindset.

So what would McClung say? I think she, too, would be impressed and amazed. But I also think she would be just a bit impatient.

McClung once said: "I am a believer in women, in their ability to do things and in their influence and power. Women set the standards for the world, and it is for us, women in Canada, to set the standards high."

We aren't there yet.

Shannon Sampert is the perspectives and politics editor.

shannon.sampert@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @paulysigh