Libby Davies made history last week when she entered the House of Commons as the first female NDP House Leader.

Davies is known for her striking political passion on issues such as housing, poverty, drug addiction, youth, post-secondary education, multiculturalism and urban affairs. As a Member of Parliament for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside since 1997 and an active member of the New Politics Initiative, she has consistently brought issues of social justice to the House of Commons. Now her call will be even louder.

Davies has already attacked the Liberal’s for their weak attempt at solving homelessness, and she’s threatened to lead weapon’s inspectors into Bush’s back yard.And as the new House Leader, she is paving the way to Parliament just that little bit farther for women, who are still building inroads into a system that’s historically — and presently — dominated by men.

rabble interviewer Leisha Grebinski spoke with Davies after her first week on the job.

Leisha Grebinski: What was your reaction to your appointment as House Leader?

Libby Davies: I was a bit surprised, but also excited and challenged by the idea. What is interesting to me is that I think it is part of a bigger issue for women striking into very traditional, male political areas. The House is very much a part of this historical, traditional, male domain.

If you look at the way question period is conducted, it is very theatrical, very aggressive. It’s about staring down the other person and trying to trip them up and embarrass them. It all comes out of this tradition of how you engage in politics. That’s not how I have developed my political skills. In some ways it is a challenge for me to figure out how it all works, But, at the same time, I plan on doing it with a sense of my own integrity by not just becoming one of them.

Grebinski: What does the House Leader do?

Davies: The House Leader, for our party or any party, manages the political work of your caucus in the House. So your job is to oversee what’s coming down, what your response is and who’s doing what. Another part of it is working with the other House Leaders. You do end up negotiating because the government is trying to do what their agenda is in terms of legislation that is coming forward or procedural things, and the oppositions doesn’t often agree. But in order to make the House work, it does require a lot of working together, negotiating and coming to agreements on things.

It’s also about the functioning of the House and how to ensure that there are NDP voices being heard and not being shut out. I’m just learning and, for me, it is a very different kind of political work because I think a lot of people know me as someone who is very much grassroots-based and my politics really come from community campaigns and issues that I deal with in my riding and across the country. And that will continue, but now I will also be overseeing the political work of the NDP in parliament.

Grebinski: Why do you think you are only the second woman in Parliament to ever hold that position?

Davies: Because Parliament is an archaic institution that is very based in traditional politics, there are rules and regulations that have been hanging around for a hundred years or more. Historically, because parliament has always been a male domain, dominated by men and how they do their politics, it’s been much more difficult for women to get into those positions.

In terms of the overall membership of the House, there are 301 Members of Parliament and only about twenty-one per cent are women. Even the number of women generally in Parliament and the House of Commons is low from all parties.

Grebinski: How did you feel about the only female candidate in the NDP leadership race, Bev Meslo, getting the fewest number of the votes?

Davies: I think people voted on the basis of who they thought would be the best leader. I know that there was a huge debate about how we needed more women running for party executive positions, for example — and there was only one woman running in the race. People have expressed that to me and I think it is a general debate within the NDP. We’ve had a woman leader, the last two have been women, and we’ve always led the way there, and there was one woman candidate in the race, but I really feel that people voted on the basis of who they thought would be the best leader.

Grebinski: Looking back, do you wish that you would have thrown your hat into the leadership race?

Davies: I supported Jack [Layton] and I feel very good about it, and it has been a pleasure to work for him since he has been elected. I find that he is a guy who actually does listen. He made a decision to run, and there was some discussion about me running and I decided not to. I have wholeheartedly supported Jack and I am totally excited about the outcome and that he won on the first ballot.

Grebinski: What approach do you plan on taking in the House, especially considering that Jack Layton currently doesn’t have a seat?

Davies: It’s very easy to get caught up in this little world of Parliament. But for a lot of Canadians, it doesn’t really strike a chord with them and a lot of them feel fairly isolated from what takes place in Parliament. I am someone who likes to work with people around issues and campaigns. I don’t like to be in a little isolated world here in Ottawa. To me the politics is out there.

In this role of House Leader, I hope it doesn’t take away from that and it is something that I will have to watch very carefully. So, I think having a leader who is helping to organize on issues and speaking to people and working with people and social movements is a very wonderful thing. Part of my job is to be someone he can work with in the House. So, I am really glad that Jack is out there, talking to people, and helping to rebuild the NDP and doing more outreach to the broader, political community. And I will be doing that too, but I will also be doing that in the House.