June 11, 2015 5:47 pm

Groups press political parties for first women’s issues leaders’ debate in 30 years

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left to right, NDP Leader Jack Layton, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe exchange handshakes as they arrive to the English language federal election debate in Ottawa Ont., on Tuesday, April 12, 2011.

Adrian Wyle/The Canadian Press

More than 130 organizations are hoping to hold a nationally televised federal leaders’ debate focused on women’s issues, but only two parties have committed to taking part.

The NDP and Green Party say their leaders Tom Mulcair and Elizabeth May will participate while organizers have yet to receive a response from either the Conservative Party or the Liberals.

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The groups have banded together under the campaign Up for Debate, which has collected about 40,000 signatures on various petitions.

While the debate format is up for negotiation, Oxfam’s executive director Julie Delahanty said it would likely focus on violence against women — including missing and murdered indigenous women, childcare, women in the economy and women in leadership roles.

“We want to make sure that voters when they go to the polls, that they’ve heard from the leaders on these issues [and] how they’ll support women’s rights issues in Canada,” Delahanty said.

Ann Decter, director of policy and outreach at YWCA, said women’s issues are in the media now more than ever and warrant national conversation.

“People have a hard time taking it in, but women are the majority of the population,” Decter said. “Issues do impact women differently.”

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The last leaders debate the focused solely on women’s issues took place more than 30 years ago, in 1984.

In the last federal election, half a million more women than men voted; but, according to Delahanty, women’s issues got very few mentions in the televised leaders debates during the 2011 campaign.

“It was an incredibly small number,” Delahanty said. “It’s still not enough a part of the consciousness of the parties, in the sense that we want them to be really focusing on it and telling women what they’re doing rather than hoping it comes out in the debate because it hasn’t really in the past.”

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Organizers first asked parties to participate back in the fall.

The NDP’s Megan Leslie said the debate is a priority for her party’s leader.

“It’s disappointing that Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Harper have, so far, said they won’t participate,” Leslie said. “For women specifically, the positive impact accessible and affordable childcare would have on the economic independence of women and the need to address the problem of gender based violence, in particular missing and murdered indigenous women, are examples of important issues that deserve substantive debate.”

Green Party leader Elizabeth May said a debate focusing on women’s issues is long overdue, but could be overshadowed by the controversy surrounding leaders debates in this election.

The Conservatives announced in May they would buck the traditional debate format and instead assess proposals from individual media organizations, taking part in up to five debates.

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“They’ve already committed to four debates, I don’t think the fifth will be one on women’s issues,” May said. “The Conservatives have created an absolute freefor all dog’s breakfast…all debates are caught up in the same web.”

But Conservative Party spokesperson Cory Hann sees it differently.

“We committed to up to five debates – a record in modern political history,” he said. “We’ve announced four of them so far, and we will announce a French debate as our fifth in due course.”

Jeremy Broadhurst, the Liberal Party’s national director, said leader Justin Trudeau hasn’t declined any debates.

“But for now, our focus remains on meeting as many Canadians as possible across the country,” he said in an email. “The Liberal Party of Canada remains fully committed to promoting full and substantive equality for all women, and creating a strong, inclusive society for all.”

Organizers, though, are still hopeful the holdout parties will decide to participate; cautioning if they don’t, it will send a clear message to women.

“That either they’re afraid to talk about what Canada looks like for women or they’re not taking us seriously – both of which we’re very unhappy about,” Decter said.

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