The pale, male and stale politics of Canada
Illustration Credit: Holly Woodhead

Canada is described as diverse and multicultural, known for being welcoming and accepting, ranking nineteenth for gender equality. Why doesn’t their politics reflect this?

Just how bad is it?

It’s bad. With politics and business being dominated by white men, the industries are often described as pale, male, and stale. Systematic obstacles are preventing ethnic minorities from getting into politics. The statistics are disappointing. The lack of diverse representation in Canada’s politics is failing its people. The federal election in 2019 saw 71% male parliamentarians elected. MP Karen McCrimmon strives for a “politics where everybody feels like they can participate”, wanting to break down that barrier of the stereotypically male-dominated workplace. 

Figure 1 created by Caitlin Grigg-Williams 

Some might argue, since 2017, Jagmeet Singh became the first Indo-Canadian to lead a major federal party in Canada, so there is diversity in politics. There are two answers to this. Firstly, if one non-minority is elected, do you think that has completely solved to lack of diversity? Secondly, just because there is a small increase in diversity, do you think that women and ethnic minorities have equal parliamentary speeches? What you’ll find is that they are seldom able to express their voice as much as their white male counterparts.

One place to identify where Canada is going wrong is the way in which parties put forward their candidates. The Charter of Rights and Freedom (a part of Canada’s Constitution that protects citizens’ rights to be treated equally under the law) states that “every citizen has the right to vote … and to be qualified for membership (to be an MP)”. Subsequently, this means any Canadian citizen over 18 and a qualified elector is eligible to become a candidate.

Although that sounds a step in the right direction, this was not always the case and so, for the majority of the time, the Parliament of Canada has been governed by white men. This is because the Constitution Act 1867 stated that candidates had to be male, British (as Canada was then part of the British Empire), aged 21, and a property owner. This was until 1919, when women were finally given the right to stand as an election candidate. It wasn’t until in 1948 that the candidacy was open to people of Asian origin, and 1955 that rid the disenfranchisement of religious groups to vote and become candidates.

The next hurdle to jump to become a parliamentarian is being nominated by others rather than self-nomination. This may be part of the problem with MP Peggy Nash stating “women are waiting for someone to ask them (to enter politics)”, admitting that she waited to be asked to enter politics.

Out of the 1,850 respondents that the Abacus Data Survey asked, only 15% of women said they would be inclined to run for a position in parliament. Men were comparably higher at 28%. If a candidate has to ask others to nominate when many women would rather wait to be asked, this could be a small contributing factor as to why women are underrepresented in Canadian politics. I say small as it’s not a lack of female confidence that’s stopped political equality but a protrusive barrier of white men trying to be knocked down.

Canadian Parliament has been loaded with sexist attitudes with the former deputy leader of the Conservative Party, Peter MacKay, telling Alexa McDonough, former NDP leader to “stick to your knitting” in as late as 2006. The familiarity of an ‘old boys’ networks’ has permeated Canada’s politics. The percentage of women in parliament has been sluggishly increasing from 0.4% in 1921 to only 29% in 2019 despite the likes of Kellie Leitch, former Canadian MP, striving for women to “champion” each other to be successful in and out of politics.

When women do leap over the hurdles and become a candidate, they become marginalized, decreasing their zeal to continue in politics if they are being treated unreasonably. In Sylvia Bashevkin’s Women, Power and Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada’s Unfinished Democracy, it was highlighted that “there’s a certain stream of gender stereotyping that still colors our discussions of public leadership that often tends to trivialize the contributions of women by paying particular attention to things like their appearance … rather than positions on policy”. The unnecessary scrutiny of women for their looks more than their policies is unfathomable. Why should it matter what outfits women MPs are wearing? We never seem to criticize the suit or trousers a male MP is wearing, so why would we do the same with female MPs? Their outfits don’t change their politics.

Figure 2 created by Caitlin Grigg-Williams 

An argument that is often raised is, if the people decide who they elect. If we had quotas for women and ethnic minorities, is it a real democracy? Political scientist Melanee Thomas found there to be “no evidence that voters discriminate against women candidates”. Instead, she found “considerable evidence that party (nomination committees) were more likely to discriminate against women candidates”. The root of a lack of representation lies with the nomination committees.

It’s not just at a federal level but within individual parties too. Out of the three main political parties, Canada’s New Democrats (NDP) are closest (though still far) to achieving equality with 37.5% of the 24 seats being held by women. They are then followed by the Liberals with 33% of 156 seats and lastly by the Conservatives having 18% of their 122 seats taken up by women.

Shockingly, it was only in 2017 that Jagmeet Singh became the first ethnic minority leader of a federal political party. Where more than one-third of the population are visible minorities (a term defined in the Federal Employment Equity Act 1986 as persons other than Aboriginal people who are non-Caucasian in race and non-European in origin) it’s a disappointing fact. It gets worse. Canada’s first Black MP, Lincoln Alexander, was only elected in 1968. 

In 2020, Jagmeet Singh even had to temporarily leave the House of Commons after confronting the systematic racism in the police. There is clear underrepresentation and a lack of ambition for change by the rest of parliament. There are only 51 visible minorities despite a record number running. Furthermore, only 12% of Liberal leadership have been won by people of colour since 1990. If that’s not enough to make you desire change, the Conservatives haven’t elected any over this period.

With strong support for multiculturalism in Canada, they should have strong inclusivity of visible minorities within the political sphere. Yet there remains a barrier of white men who loathe replacing incumbents (someone who already holds a position in office). Parties are reluctant to lose their incumbents in favour of a nominated newcomer. Consequently, there is less opportunity for women and visible minorities.

Data collected from 2007 surprisingly shows that the Conservatives are more likely to mention ethnic related issues during their parliamentary interventions. Although, there’s room for criticism. There is a large difference between visible minorities mentioning ethnic related issues and non-minority Conservatives being 32.7% and 6.7% respectively. These statistics imply the Conservative party is marginalizing visible minority MPs, by tasking them uniquely to deal with ethnic issues that the party itself views as less important. To break this barrier or identify whether this is purposeful, interviews with these MPs should be carried out to clarify their motivations.

With statistics explicitly highlighting an underrepresentation of women and ethnic minorities, Canada’s failure to be inclusive and reflective of Canada’s diverse culture, change is needed. Prime Minister Trudeau’s publicizing his gender-equal cabinet saw a record number of 537 women desiring to run as a candidate. Perhaps if parliament gave a greater voice and more credit to non-minority candidates and MPs, it would send a message to ambitious women, girls, and other visible minorities that it’s possible to have a career in politics.