November 16, 2021

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Facing our future (with one arm tied behind our back)

There was a time when it was a novelty for a woman to be mayor of a Canadian municipality. The first woman to hold such a post was Barbara Hanley, elected mayor of Webbwood, Ontario in 1936.

The first woman to be elected mayor of a large Canadian city was the outspoken and controversial Charlotte Whitton, who served as mayor of Ottawa in the 1950s and 1960s. She once said “whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good” (adding “luckily, this is not difficult”).

While it’s no longer a rarity to see women elected as mayors or municipal councillors, it is still uncommon to see equal numbers of women and men serving on any elected body.

And it’s hard to fully understand why this is.

Our recent municipal elections saw a total of 17 women running for mayor or council in St. Paul County, the M.D. of Bonnyville, the towns of St. Paul and Bonnyville, and the City of Cold Lake. Seven of them were elected or acclaimed, including St. Paul mayor Maureen Miller and Bonnyville mayor Elisa Brosseau.

Fifty-seven men ran in those elections, with 28 winning.

In the M.D. of Bonnyville, voters elected an all-male council. I spoke with two of the women who ran unsuccessfully for council, and both say the process is difficult for women. (Both also congratulated the men who won their wards, and wanted it made clear they harbour no “sour grapes” about the outcome of the election).

All four of the women who ran in the M.D. were undoubtedly qualified, and all worked hard on their election campaigns

One of the candidates said she encountered some hostility when door-knocking, including direct comments that women shouldn’t be on council. Most of the negative attitudes came from men, but she was surprised that some came from women. And the women she spoke to were less likely to vote than the men.

Both candidates I spoke with say that towns and cities are progressing more quickly—or at least less slowly—than rural areas.

Bonnyville mayor Elisa Brosseau sees that too. She points out that in Edmonton, for example, more than half of the councillors are women. She says the first step is to encourage more women to run.

“I don't really know what the barrier is,” Brosseau said. “People might be turned off by the job because there are a lot of negative connotations that you have to be up against, negativity in public. But I think overall, the positive side of the job far outweighs the negative side.

“So is it more getting that message out there? I'm not entirely sure, but I think we're in the right direction.”

She also says there are some long-standing prejudices about women in elected office. “There's some historical norms there that maybe people perceive that, when given the opportunity, they would most likely not vote in favour of a woman,” she said.

This is not to say that every council should necessarily have three men and three women. Voters should support the candidate they feel best represents them and their interests. There is nothing inherently wrong with a gender imbalance.

But if all were equal, gender breakdowns of 4-2, 5-1, or even 6-0 would be just as common with women in the majority as they are for men. At present, it’s unimaginable.

Why is it important? Some people insist that men and women have different leadership styles, and this should be reflected on our councils. I’m sure there is some truth to this, but at the same time it’s not fair to generalize. Women can be more conciliatory and open to seeking consensus; on the other hand there are women who can play hardball as well as anybody.

I think it matters for two reasons. First of all, many of the issues that come before a council affect women and men differently.

But the more important consideration is that when we dismiss women as candidates, we dismiss half of our community’s intelligence, talent, skill, creativity, ability, and leadership. We are rejecting some of our very best people, and confronting our future with one arm tied behind our back.

Before the election, St. Paul mayor Maureen Miller said an ideal council would represent the diversity of the community—not just gender or ethnicity, but a diversity of backgrounds and interests. The new St. Paul council does bring a variety of experience to the table. But Miller is the only woman at that table.

The people have spoken, and they have chosen 28 capable men and seven capable women to represent them throughout the five municipalities. Until the day when voters see fit to address that imbalance, Miller says councillors have a responsibility to pay attention to perspectives other than their own.

“If it isn’t represented, it’s the council’s responsibility to garner that information,” she said. “And that’s where the work comes in. If it isn’t at the table, you need to find it.”         

That’s good advice for councillors. It’s also good advice for voters.