Awaiting the watershed: women in Canada's parliament.

Author:Godwin, Matthew K.

The Canadian House of Commons in 2009 included sixty-nine female Members of Parliament, (roughly 22% of the seats). Canada is ranked next to Mauritania in 48th place for the number of women in its national assembly in a InterParliamentary Union study. Some countries have proven that states can raise the number of female legislators virtually overnight. This process of rapidly increasing female representation in only one election has been described as a "watershed". This paper will discuss the possibility of implementing viable policies to create a gender watershed in Canada. It discusses the philosophical and ethical questions related to women's representation, explores various determinants of women's election to office as put forward in the literature, and finally argues that if certain conditions hold a gender watershed is possible in Canada.


A watershed will almost certainly come in the form of a gender quota, which still raises ethical issues in Canada. For this reason, it is necessary to explore the issue of women's representation more broadly going back to the writings of one of the most influential thinkers about parliamentary government.

The Ethics and Philosophy of Representation

Writing in the second half of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill was a reformist who argued forcefully in his Subjection of Women for women to possess full and equal rights, and that it was their subjection to men that robbed the Britain of his day from growing into a more enlightened society. However, it is his treatise, Considerations on Representative Government, that better makes the argument that a truly democratic system must reflect the society and the electors that comprise it. Firstly, he accepts the Burkian argument that democratic systems must evolve slowly, but he adds that they must also change to be legitimate. He suggests that a legitimate government must be supported by the people symbolically, not simply through the act of voting. Truly representative governments must involve a conglomeration of all the best and most persuasive ideas. Finally, Mill argues that the interests of citizens may only be effectively represented if those citizens are represented in Parliament themselves.

Similar to arguments by Thomas Paine, Mill suggests that governments are the product of social circumstances at the time of the election. Those who win, and form government, do so because authority is vested in them by the electors and neither politicians nor philosophers, as he puts it, can alter this decision. However, he supplements this statement by offering that once this power is conferred through the granting of authority, alterations to the system may take place. Government, furthermore, is a creation of people, and thus it may be changed by people. It should never be a stagnant, moribund entity that can never be changed by the will of those who form it.

Mill argues that there are three pillars that support a government and the system by which it is formed. The first pillar is acceptance. People must accept the government and the authority that it represents if it is to be considered legitimate. A more modern concept that follows from Mill's belief that acceptance is fundamental to a strong government, is the concept of symbolic representation. For women to show support for a government or system, there is an argument that they must be represented effectively and equitably. Support for a government is contingent upon how many women are represented. In order to ensure that women support the system that elects their government, there must be a significant presence of female representatives.

Feminist scholars have often argued that women bring a unique perspective to public policy that is different from that that can be brought by a man. Pelletier and Tremblay's research suggests that having more female representatives infuses public policy with a perspective that enhances policy legitimacy because the legislative body is more representative of society as a whole. (1) Mill would concur with this perspective. He argues that the congruence of perspectives and ideas from all areas of society are essential to a democratic institution and that,

The first element of good government, therefore, being the virtue and intelligence of the human beings composing the community, the most important form of excellence which any government can possess is to promote the virtue and intelligence of the government themselves." Without an adequate representation of women in Parliament the full measure of society cannot be said to be reflected in public policy. (2)

Mill borrows from the ideas of David Hume, and calls into question the ability of Members of Parliament to make decisions for members of the populace who are poorly represented among their ranks. Mill uses the example of working-class labourers. On issues such as strikes, the Members will almost always side with the masters in the strike, rather than the workers, as labourers are poorly represented in the Parliament. It is the Members' inability to identify with underrepresented individuals that degrades Parliament's ability to empathize and thusly create public policies which are reflective of society. This concept of professional distance can also be applied to the issue of women in Parliament. In an assembly where so few women are represented, there is the possibility that Parliament will not be able to empathize effectively and make decisions with their best interests in mind.

Mill would argue that gender quotas are necessary because more women will make Parliament and its policies more legitimate. Canadians should not be afraid to change their system, as the absence of women is detrimental to public policy.

Socioeconomic, Political and Electoral Obstacles to Female Representation

Many scholars suggest there continues to be major barriers facing women who seek elected office. These can be grouped into three general areas: socio-economic determinants, political determinants and electoral determinants.

The most obvious socio-economic determinant is the role of women as the primary caregiver and child...

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