Proportional representation not a cure-all for underrepresentation of women in Parliament

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Something amazing happened during the July 7 meeting of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform: the committee briefly waded into a discussion about how to address the underrepresentation of women and visible minorities in the House of Commons.

"Only 13 per cent of members elected in the last election are from visible minority groups. That percentage represents just half of the visible minorities that are part of Canadian society," NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice told the all-party committee.

"In Canada's Parliament, only 26 per cent of MPs are women, putting Canada in 49th place, behind Kazakhstan, South Sudan, and Tunisia. That's not much to be proud of," Boulerice continued.

As the committee wades deeper into alternatives to replace Canada's current first-past-the-post system, many argue that switching to some form of proportional representation will prove the effective path towards gender parity in Parliament.

But electoral reform isn't the cure all, especially for women of colour. Denise Siele, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Operations at Equal Voice, told rabble in a telephone interview that before Canadians can elect more women of colour candidates, more women of colour need to have access to political institutions and actually want to run.

"Equal Voice's focus continues to be on getting more women on the ballot. Whether under the current system or [under] potential change in system, we will continue to focus on that," Siele said.

Side effects may include more diversity

Trudeau vowed that the 2015 election would be the last federal election held under the current first-past-the-post system, which elects only one MP per riding.

Katelynn Northam, LeadNow's Campaign Lead on Electoral Reform, told rabble in a telephone interview that first-past-the-post is a "system where many people's votes are wasted depending on where you live in the country."

In the 2011 federal election, nearly 7 million voters did not elect an MP to the House of Commons.

The Liberals, Greens, and New Democrats all endorse some form of proportional representation to replace first-past-the-post.

Electoral reform "need[s] to start with fairness, and proportional representation is really based on fairness," said Northam.

Proportional representation comes in different shapes and sizes, but Northam explained that the basic principle is that "the percentage of votes equals the percentage of seats, [which] ensures that we don't have false majorities, [and] wasted votes."

"But [proportional representation] has lots of other great side effects, like allowing for more diversity in the House of Commons and [also] kind of forces the parties to work together to make things happen," said Northam.

Of the top 20 countries in the world closest to gender parity, 19 use some form of proportional representation.

Drude Dahlerup, a professor of political science at Stockholm University, concludes that countries with proportional representation tend to elect more women to parliament than single-member district systems.

Proportional representation systems elect several MPs per district, which encourages parties to put forth candidate lists with diverse candidate profiles.

Dahlerup is clear that electoral systems like first-past-the-post are the biggest obstacle to gender parity, however, her research also acknowledges that political culture and histories of oppression and discrimination are important factors in women's representation in politics.

Education, access prevent women of colour from running for office

While electoral reform might nudge Parliament towards gender parity, it won't necessarily increase the proportion of women of colour in the House of Commons.

"Women across the country access and relate to our political institutions in very different ways," explained Siele. "Speaking as a woman of colour, the faces that are in those parliaments quite frankly do not reflect or look like our own experiences. In some ways the issues that tend to be put forward aren't necessarily issues that would resonate with potential women of colour," Siele told rabble.

Just 13.6 per cent of the MPs elected to the House of Commons in the last election are visible minorities, while visible minorities comprise 19 per cent of Canada's population according to Stats Can.

Visible minority women made up approximately nine per cent of Canada's population in 2011 compared to four per cent of MPs in 2015. And just three Indigenous women sit in the House of Commons, though this is a record high for Canada.

While proportional representation might make it easier for women to win seats in the House of Commons, Siele argues that many communities historically left out of formal politics do not see politics as an "effective avenue for change" and therefore do not run for elected office.

Siele said that asking women who work towards social change at the grassroots and community levels to invest faith in a political system "that they're not necessarily familiar with, in some cases not comfortable with [is] a bit of a stretch."

Equal Voice "tries to normalize our political institutions for women across the country," said Siele, "which means giving opportunities for women from various backgrounds to engage with our political leaders, in some cases to even physically be in the space to understand the political process."

For Equal Voice, political education is key to increasing representation of racialized and Indigenous women in the House of Commons.

"Even just essential, basic knowledge of our parliamentary system will get people a little bit more comfortable," Siele told rabble. From there, women will "perhaps consider politics, and particularly elected office, as a viable option as they think about the contributions they want to make to their communities."

The Special Committee on Electoral Reform is well under way with its task of evaluating alternative voting systems to replace Canada's current first-past-the-post system.

But the work won't stop after the Committee submits a report or votes for a different electoral system.

Canada needs to strive for more accessible political institutions and shift political culture towards inclusion before "fair" becomes an accurate descriptor.


Interested in contributing to this series on proportional representation? Send us a pitch to [email protected] with the title "Proportional representation series"

Part 1: Proportional representation is not 'too complicated' -- the fix is in

Part 2: Activists gear up for 'historic opportunity' to usher in proportional representation

Part 3: Proportional representation for Canada: A primer

Part 4: Nation-to-nation recognition, not electoral reform, key to increasing Indigenous voter turnout

Part 5: 'Canadian democracy will be healthier': Elizabeth May on electoral reform

Sophia Reuss is a Montreal-based writer, editor, and is a recent graduate of McGill University. She's interested in how online media and journalism facilitate public accessibility and conversation. Sophia also writes and edits for the Alternatives International Journal.

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