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Electoral Reform Committee must hear from women this fall

By Nancy Peckford, Grace Lore      

It heard this summer from nearly five times as many men as women.

PCO official Isabelle Mondou and Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef were among the 20 per cent of female witnesses at the Electoral Reform Committee this summer. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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In 2016, the days of parliamentary committee meetings dominated by often well-meaning but largely male experts and organizations that often speak for only half of the population should be long gone. This should be especially true for the special committee convened by Parliament this past June to consider the fundamental question of viable alternatives to Canada’s current first-past-the-post electoral system.

But, not surprisingly, despite Canada’s laudable aspirations for gender equality, they don’t stand a chance of translating into gender-equitable policies without concerted effort and clear intentions.

Despite having a mandate to evaluate the inclusivity and accessibility of Canada’s electoral system, the House Special Committee on Electoral Reform this summer heard from nearly five times as many men as women. Of the 62 witnesses who appeared before the committee this summer, just 13 were women. That’s a mere 20 per cent. In almost half of all meetings, fully 100 per cent of the witnesses were men. At one point, the committee convened seven meetings in a row without hearing from a single female witness.

Nonetheless, some of the most provocative testimony this summer came from this pool of 13 women. Melanee Thomas of the University of Calgary told the committee that “the suggestion that Canadian women, Canadians who are not white, and indigenous Canadians need major institutional reform to achieve representation in anything close to fair numbers is completely indefensible.”

This is because informal barriers to political engagement prove to be far more pernicious than any one electoral system. Jane Hilderman, executive director of Samara, cautioned that, while we can learn from other countries, each system has its trade-offs, partisan advantage is hard to predict, and that no system eliminates the need for Canadians to think strategically about their vote.

Given the fact that Canada’s first-past-the-post system has been woefully imperfect in terms of the electoral outcomes it has shaped for women who remain severely under-represented, the committee—going forward—must be much more thoughtful about whom precisely they hear from.

Moreover, with Canada ranked a dismal 64th internationally for women’s representation in national parliaments, it is essential that the committee’s review and decision-making process for electoral reform recognize and consider the effects on women’s representation in all parts of the federal political system, including democratic engagement.

In a submission to the committee authored by political scientist Grace Lore on behalf of Equal Voice, we have recommended a number of measures.

First, the federal nomination process—not just the voting system—should be fully evaluated during this process to address issues of transparency, cost, and predictability. It remains a key barrier and gateway for women’s electoral participation.

Second, the pervasive issue of retaining talented women to serve in an often-toxic political culture also needs to be addressed.

Finally, when evaluating electoral systems, it is imperative to consider not just the outcomes for descriptive representation (in other words, the number of women elected), but also the consequences for women’s capacity to substantively address issues that disproportionately affect women.

Equal Voice’s submission also contains an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the three categories of electoral reform systems being considered by the committee: majority/plurality systems, mixed systems, and proportional systems.

If anyone doubts women’s interest in the issue, a full house for two quickly convened consultations on women and electoral reform, co-convened in Toronto last week by Equal Voice and YWCA Canada, proved otherwise. During these sessions, women and men both told Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef that they want a system that is more inclusive of women—both as candidates on the ballot and, ultimately, in the House.

No doubt, none of this is lost on Minister Monsef. As a younger minister and the first Afghan-born woman to serve in Parliament, she embodies some of the best of what Canada’s democracy has to offer. She is acutely aware of the impact of a Parliament that isn’t fully inclusive or representative of the population.

As the all-party committee begins its cross-country consultations with Canadians, Equal Voice is encouraging women in all of their diversity to come to the table. This includes political scientists, women’s organizations, former candidates, and elected officials, as well as younger women who aspire to participate in federal politics.

Seeking out and listening to these women will provide MPs with the chance to better understand the significant limitations and enormous opportunities for women within each of the electoral systems under consideration, including our current one.

When the all-party committee issues its final report by Dec. 1, its findings and recommendations must fully consider the effects of changes to the political process writ large on women’s participation in politics. In 2016, anything less is unacceptable.

Nancy Peckford is the executive director of Equal Voice, a national, multi-partisan organization dedicated to increasing women’s participation in politics. Grace Lore is Equal Voice’s senior researcher.

The Hill Times


Committee witnesses this summer


Maryam Monsef, minister of democratic institutions

Isabelle Mondou, assistant secretary to the cabinet and counsel to the clerk of the Privy Council

Maryantonett Flumian, president, Institute on Governance

Nathalie Des Rosiers, dean, faculty of law, civil law, Ottawa University

Nicole Goodman, director, Centre for e-Democracy, assistant professor, Munk School of Global Affairs

Pippa Norris, professor, University of Sydney, McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Harvard, director of the Electoral Integrity Project

Yasmin Dawood, associate law professor and Canada Research Chair in Democracy, Constitutionalism, and Electoral Law, University of Toronto

Katelynn Northam, electoral reform campaigner, Leadnow.ca

Melanee Thomas, assistant professor of political science, University of Calgary

Mary Pitcaithly, Electoral Commission convenor, Electoral Management Board for Scotland

Jane Hilderman, executive director, Samara

Dara Lithwick, analyst, Library of Parliament

Erin Virgint, analyst, Library of Parliament


Marc Mayrand, chief electoral officer

Stéphane Perrault, deputy chief electoral officer, regulatory affairs

Michel Roussel, deputy chief electoral officer, electoral events

Jean-Pierre Kingsley, chief electoral officer, 1990-2007

Kenneth Carty, professor emeritus, University of British Columbia

Brian Tanguay, professor, political science, Wilfrid Laurier University

Nelson Wiseman, director, Canadian studies program, and political science professor, University of Toronto

Michael Gallagher, professor of comparative politics, Trinity College Dublin

Michael Marsh, emeritus professor, Trinity College Dublin

Patrice Dutil, professor, Ryerson University

Peter Russell, professor emeritus of political science, University of Toronto

Robert Peden, chief electoral officer, New Zealand Electoral Commission

Tom Rogers, electoral commissioner, Australian Electoral Commission

André Blais, political science professor, Université de Montréal

Alex Himelfarb, clerk of the Privy Council, 2002-2006

Henry Milner, senior researcher, chair in electoral studies, Université de Montréal

Leslie Seidle, research director, Canada’s changing federal community, Institute for Research on Public Policy

Hugo Cyr, political science and law faculty dean, Université du Québec à Montréal

Larry LeDuc, professor emeritus, University of Toronto

Dennis Pilon, associate professor of political science, York University

Jonathan Rose, associate professor of policital studies, Queen’s University

Benoît Pelletier, law professor, University of Ottawa

Arend Lijphart, research professor emeritus of political science, University of California, San Diego

Christian Dufour, political scientist, analyst, and writer

Harold Jansen, political science professor, University of Lethbridge

Barry Cooper, professor, University of Calgary

Emmett Macfarlane, assistant professor, University of Waterloo

Thomas S. Axworthy, public policy chair, Massey College, University of Toronto

Matthew P. Harrington, law professor, Université de Montréal

Ed Broadbent, chair and founder, Broadbent Institute

Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, Quebec democratic reform minister (2002-2003)

Jean-Sébastien Dufresne, president, Mouvement Démocratie Nouvelle

Peter John Loewen, director, School of Public Policy and Governance, and associate professor of political science, University of Toronto

Eric Maskin, Adams University Professor of economics, Harvard University

Louis Massicotte, political science professor, Laval University

Joachim Behnke, political science professor, Zeppelin University, Germany

Friedrich Pukelsheim, professor, Institut für Mathematik, Universität Augsburg, Germany

Andy O’Neill, Electoral Commission head, Electoral Management Board for Scotland

Darrell Bricker, CEO, IPSOS Public Affairs

Gordon F. Gibson

Richard Johnston, political science professor, University of British Columbia

Taylor Gunn, president, Civix

Dominic Vézina, strategic adviser, Institut du Nouveau Monde

Graham Fox, president and CEO, Institute for Research on Public Policy

David McLaughlin

Craig Scott, professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University

Marcus Pistor, senior director, economics, resources and international affairs division, Library of Parliament

Ian McDonald, principal clerk, committees and legislative services directorate, House of Commons

Eric Janse, clerk assistant, committees and legislative services directorate, House of Commons

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