November 3, 2015 3:35 pm
Updated: November 3, 2015 7:47 pm

Gender parity in cabinet proves controversial concept

WATCH: When Justin Trudeau unveils his cabinet on Wednesday, it's expected to be historic. He's promised that, for the first time, half the ministers will be women. Vassy Kapelos looks at what that means and whether it matters.

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Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau made plenty of promises during the federal election campaign, but one in particular is proving controversial in the lead-up to the swearing-in of his cabinet on Wednesday.

The pledge to appoint an equal number of men and women to the federal cabinet has been decried by some as unfair. Several of the country’s top political columnists have penned critiques of Trudeau’s plan, arguing that ministers should be appointed based on merit, not gender.

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“You may be of the view that this is a sort of cosmic payback, an evening of the scales for past discrimination against female MPs,” wrote The National Post‘s Andrew Coyne. “The problem is that the country has to be governed in the here and now. So far as we are putting representationalism before ability, we are also asking the country’s interests to take a back seat.”

That argument didn’t convince former cabinet minister and deputy prime-minister Sheila Copps.

“If that’s the case, then why do we need to have certain representation from east and west?” she asked.

“People would be absolutely shocked if we had a cabinet that was strictly from one province, and the same thing holds true for gender.”

Copps said it’s no surprise that the Liberal promise has generated controversy given the attitudes of “the old guard” in Ottawa, but she is confident that Trudeau will keep his word. In addition to ensuring that cabinet reflects the fact that half of Canadians are women, Copps said, the move may inspire more women to enter the political arena.

At the end of Stephen Harper’s tenure, only 12 of 39 cabinet ministers were women.

Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, predicted that there will be no deterioration in the caliber of cabinet talent under Trudeau.

“The women who will be put in these posts are eminently qualified,” Peckford said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of talent. We’re looking at former Crown prosecutors, UN diplomats, provincial cabinet ministers, executive businesswomen, professors, doctors.”

Peckford said that the equal male/female split could also lead to a shift in “the kinds of conversations around that cabinet table,” and that there may also be a “subtle” shift in policy outcomes.

Under premiers Kathleen Wynne, Rachel Notley and Pauline Marois, for instance, provincial governments have prioritized revisions to sex education, pension program reform (which can affect women more acutely), the implementation of affordable child-care programs, funding for shelter networks and housing for women fleeing violence, and better compensation for early-education providers.

“You will get a focus on issues that historically have’t gotten the same attention,” Peckford said of the federal cabinet.

What Trudeau is signalling to all women — not just the ones in his caucus — she added, is that “your skills, talent and expertise will be fully leveraged.”

An informal survey of pedestrians on Ottawa’s Sparks St. suggested that at least some Ottawans feel that merit should trump gender parity.

“I’m just afraid that they might be putting someone in who doesn’t have the credentials, just to meet (Trudeau’s) promise,”  said one man.

But another said he felt that gender parity is a step in the right direction. A young woman who spoke to a reporter while walking with a group of friends said the push-back is eerily reminiscent of the reaction to increased hiring of minorities.

“I mean, a bunch of people said that about black people, too,” she said.

“People were saying that ‘you’re just going to choose black people now because they’re black. And they can’t do the job.’ But that’s the point; trying to prove that they can do the job.”

Gender parity achieved in cabinets around the world

  • Chilean president Michelle Bachelet’s cabinet in 2006
  • Spanish PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s cabinet in 2004 and 2008
  • French president Francois Hollande’s cabinet in 2012
  • Scotland’s SNP cabinet currently has gender parity

Milestones for women in Canadian federal politics

1919 — Most Canadian women over age 21 get the right to vote in federal elections. It would be four more decades before First Nations women would be granted the same right.

1921 — Agnes Macphail is elected in the Ontario riding of Southeast Grey, making her the first woman MP in the House of Commons.

1957 — Ellen Fairclough becomes the first woman cabinet minister, appointed by prime minister John Diefenbaker.

1984 — Jeanne Sauvé, a former Liberal cabinet minister who had served as the first woman Speaker of the House of Commons is appointed Governor-General, the first woman to hold the post.

1989 — Audrey McLaughlin is elected leader of the New Democratic Party, the first woman to head a major federal political party.

1993 — Kim Campbell becomes Canada’s first woman prime minister, replacing Brian Mulroney, but her tenure lasts only a few months until the Progressive Conservatives are defeated in the November election.

Source: Equal Voice

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