Women in Politics: Canada’s Failure To Elect Female Executives
Despite being a world leader in areas such as Human Development Index, LGBTQ+ safety, and female safety, Canada lags behind other nations in the realm of gender representation in politics. With Canadian women currently constituting only 30 per cent of elected House of Commons seats, the Canadian parliamentary gender equity ranks a meagre 61st globally, notably behind nations such as Kazakhstan and Tunisia. The issue of female representation in the federal legislature, however, is pale in comparison to a larger political gender equity problem: the lack of Canadian women in elected executive positions. As of 2022, 8 of Canada’s 10 provinces are led by male premiers, as well as 2 out of 3 of Canada’s territories. While Canada has a representation equity issue at various levels of government, none compare to the lack of Canadian women in elected executive positions.
The Status of Women in Canada’s Legislatures
Though the status of female representation in Canadian elected legislative positions lags behind global leaders, it is nonetheless comparable with other similar nations. In the 2021 federal elections, Canada elected its most gender diverse group of MPs to the House of Commons, electing 103 female MPs out of 338. While this 30.5 percentage of elected women in the House of Commons ranks it 61st globally, it is comparable to nations such as the United Kingdom and United States, who have 35 per cent and 27 per cent rates of women elected to their lower chamber of national legislatures, respectively.
Moving from the federal to the provincial level, we can see that women are better represented in their provincial and territorial legislatures than in the House of Commons. Across Canada, women currently constitute 35 per cent of elected positions in their provincial and territorial legislatures, notably higher than the 31 per cent of American female state legislators. This rate varies across Canada’s different provinces and territories, with over half of the seats in the Northwest Territories’ legislative assembly being held by women, while Newfound and Labrador’s provincial legislature is only 22 per cent women. Rates have increased every consecutive election, as demonstrated by the 2022 Quebec provincial elections producing a record high 46 per cent female elected legislator rate. The achievement of near gender equality in Canada’s second largest province, whose rate of female representation in the provincial legislature has nearly doubled over the past 20 years, serves as an encouraging sign for the future of women in Canadian legislative politics.
The Status of Canadian Women in Executive Positions
Though Canada has made progress in female representation at both the federal and provincial or territorial legislative levels, the status of gender representation in elected executive positions across Canada still represents an area of major concern. At the federal level, Canada has only ever known one female prime minister: Kim Campbell. Campbell became prime minister in 1993 after winning the Conservative Party leadership race following then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s retirement announcement. Campbell served as Canada’s first and only female prime minister in 1993 for less than 6 months before losing her post following that fall’s federal election. Canada, thus, is yet to elect a female prime minister in a federal election. This is largely related to the lack of female representation in party leadership, with only the Green Party having a woman as leader in the 2021 federal elections. The Liberal Party of Canada, the nation’s most successful party at the federal level, for example, has never been led by a woman, despite women delivering them key victories such as their 2015 majority government.
Similarly to their situation in legislative positions, Canadian women have fared better at their provincial and territorial levels in obtaining executive positions. Canada’s provinces and territories have been led by 14 women, including three currently. Among the three current female provincial premiers, two of them, Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson and Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane, were elected in their provincial or territorial election. The third, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, won her seat as a result of the Conservative Party leadership race following former Premier Jason Kenney’s resignation. This situation, similar to that of Kim Campbell, highlights an important phenomenon in Canadian politics— the disparity in Canadian women between elected and unelected positions.
One area which further exemplifies this gap between gender representation among elected versus unelected positions is Canadian women’s exemplary status in the field of diplomacy. Canadian diplomats are appointed based on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, an important power granted to the leader of the victorious party in federal elections. These diplomatic appointments have been a brightspot for gender diversity. Canada ranks second globally in terms of percentage of female ambassadors to foreign countries, with over 46 per cent of Canadian ambassadorship positions currently represented by women.
A similar situation of gender equity among appointed positions is visible in the current Prime Ministerial Cabinet. Throughout Prime Minister Trudeau’s tenure, his cabinet’s female representation rate has hovered around 50 per cent, with the current rate slightly below that. Critical positions such as Minister of Finance, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of National Defense are all currently occupied by women.
The Bottom Line
Canada’s political gender representation gap has a clear diagnosis. Canadian women are well represented in critical appointed positions. Despite the relatively underwhelming rank globally for parliamentary gender representation, Canadian women have made significant inroads at both the federal and provincial or territorial levels in their legislative representation. Yet, the largest issue lies with Canada’s elected executive positions, in which women are severely underrepresented. Political actors seeking to achieve gender representation equity in the Canadian government, then, should focus primarily not on appointed Cabinet positions or on motivating more female candidates to run for legislative office. The current Liberal government, for example, has explicitly asserted gender equity in Cabinet positions as a campaign promise. Furthermore, there have been concerted efforts from Canadian political parties across the board to elect more female politicians, with 43 per cent of candidates in the 2021 federal election being women. Though these efforts are vital and should continue, there should be more mobilization towards uplifting Canadian women to the highest levels of elected executive office across the country.
Edited by Jihan Dahanayaka.
Featured image, “Swearing-in Day Trudeau Cabinet.jpg” courtesy of Environment and Climate Change Canada on Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.