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Conventions serve to inspire and celebrate change, leverage women’s engagement

By Nancy Peckford      

For women watching from the sidelines, now more than ever may be the time to get involved.

Mira Ahmad, second from right, seated with Liberal party president Anna Gainey, left, and leader Justin Trudeau, was named president of the Young Liberals at the party's Winnipeg convention on the weekend. Photograph courtesy of Adam Scotti
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WINNIPEG—At the risk of invoking the overused motherhood-and-apple-pie analogy, it was clear from both the Liberal and Conservative conventions this past weekend that the amplification of women’s voices within each party is changing the tenor and the conversation for both. While it played out somewhat differently for each, the elevation of women’s voices infused both conventions with additional energy and dynamism.

Whether by accident or design, the enhanced visibility of elected and backroom women—who have always been integral to the success of both parties—is creating new possibilities for grassroots members and prospective female candidates. Given that the federal Conservatives only saw 17 women elected this past fall (out of the 98 MPs serving in the official opposition), and the Liberals 50 women from a total of 184 MPs, the shift is both welcome and required.

At the Liberal Party convention, the reverberations from Trudeau’s appointment of a gender-equal cabinet were evident everywhere. Due to the healthy number of women serving in cabinet, nearly every plenary and informal caucus featured leading women who were tapped for their insight and expertise. Ministers Catherine McKenna, Carolyn Bennett, Bardish Chagger, Jane Philpott, and Kirsty Duncan, among several others, were drivers of key conversations that took place in the main convention hall and beyond.

Notably, the younger women in cabinet were as sought after as their more seasoned (female and male) colleagues. At the Judy LaMarsh fundraiser on Friday evening (which raises money in support of women candidates), both ministers Mélanie Joly and Maryam Monsef spoke candidly of their (multiple) experiences as candidates. Both had run as longer-shot candidates for mayor in (respectively) Montreal and Peterborough, Ont.

While neither won these races, their experiences proved crucial in building the profile, confidence, and conviction to run in last fall’s federal election. At a woman-and-politics forum the following morning, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne kicked off a fascinating discussion during which the longest-serving female MP, Hedy Fry, reminded everyone of how times have, indeed, changed (though not quickly enough).

But it went beyond the Liberal caucus itself. On the party side, an intense race for president of the National Liberal Women’s Commission also took place, with two very capable candidates vying for the position. Katie Omstead, a former federal candidate from southwestern Ontario, lost to Kara Levis, a lawyer, parent to three, and president of the Alberta Women’s Liberal Commission. Mira Ahmad, another dynamic woman, was acclaimed as president of the Young Liberals.

Meanwhile, at the Conservative Party of Canada Convention three provinces away, a similar dynamic was evident. Interim Leader Rona Ambrose’s opening speech, as was widely reported, made a concerted effort to lay claim to the (progressive) conservative movement’s history as one that has explicitly welcomed groundbreaking women and others from under-represented groups. Setting aside the questionable characterization of the current prime minister, Ambrose’s speech was an invitation to diverse Canadians to come on board, and an important reminder of some of the party’s roots as a socially progressive entity. It was also indicative of Ambrose’s style as a more open and dynamic leader, and her talent as an effective communicator and steward of change.

The successful effort at the Conservative convention to eliminate antiquated references to marriage as an exclusively heterosexual union is another demonstration of emerging (if imperfect) politics of inclusion among Conservatives. This effort was also apparent in the campaign, though unsuccessful, by younger CPC members to establish a bona fide and recognized Conservative youth association.

A poignant reminder of the need for more inclusive politics was also strongly underscored by a Muslim-identified female delegate who expressed in no uncertain terms her significant dissatisfaction with the Conservative campaign tactics used regarding the niqab during the last federal campaign.

It is clear from this past weekend’s convention that many party delegates are eager to move beyond the recent electoral campaign which, as respected pollster Bruce Anderson noted, antagonized Canadians who didn’t see themselves as part of the blue tent and served to alienate some who were squarely in it. In tandem with Interim Leader Ambrose, MPs Michelle Rempel, Lisa Raitt, Michael Chong, and Tony Clement, among many others, are steering the party in a renewed direction. While the need for change may be in part driven by the imperative for electoral success, there is no doubt that an influential number of Conservatives are welcoming it with open arms. Many other members are clearly also energized by it.

Of course, party conventions are a time of hope, renewal, and showing your bench strength. The success of both this past weekend doesn’t mean that there isn’t progress to be made, or setbacks yet to come. Dissension about the newly adopted Liberal party constitution may aggravate certain tensions within the party. The outcome of the outstanding CPC leadership race will clearly determine the degree to which the new party can build on some of its impressive roots and fully embrace inclusiveness as a broader principle. Nonetheless, for women watching from the sidelines, now more than ever may be the time to get involved. And with less than 26 per cent women in the House, Equal Voice dearly hopes they do.

Nancy Peckford is executive director of Equal Voice, which is dedicated to electing more women in Canada.

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