Time for N.L. Liberals to take real action on gender equality

Gender parity in cabinet would be a start.

When Justin Trudeau’s Liberals swept the federal election, provincial Liberals broke out in wide-eared grins that many of them carried ’til election day. The clear hope was that the federal Liberals’ breakout win over the NDP would boost momentum for the already surging N.L. Liberals. And the election results did not prove them wrong.

But the influence works both ways. The pressure coming from Ottawa’s firm commitment to gender parity in the federal cabinet has helped to make women’s representation provincially an issue. Not that it wasn’t already: the Status of Women debate which took place as part of the provincial election in November already put women’s issues and equality firmly on the provincial agenda. And last week, premier designate Dwight Ball reaffirmed his commitment to ensuring strong representation for women in the provincial cabinet, perhaps even gender parity.

The question is: will Ball’s Liberals carry through on their own commitment for change?

A promising start

So far, Ball’s performance has been promising. His comments to the media last week kept the goal of provincial gender parity in politics—and cabinet—on the table. It’s not impossible, despite the fact that the PCs’ reduction in electoral districts, coupled with the poor performance by both Liberals and PCs when it came to gender parity in candidacies (both parties fielded 20 percent female candidates, compared to the NDP’s 45 percent), means that women now comprise only 10 out of the 40 seats in the entire legislature, and seven seats in the governing party.

Still, with a projected cabinet of 12 seats, gender parity is possible. The Liberals’ commitment to equality would be strengthened by their drawing on other parties to bolster the ranks of female cabinet ministers. Two of the strongest and most experienced women in the House of Assembly are the two sole NDP MHAs: Gerry Rogers and Lorraine Michael. Either (or both) would make fine cabinet ministers. Their hard-working dedication to strengthening the province’s social fabric, and in particular Gerry Rogers’ work in pioneering all-party initiatives around mental health (demonstrating a clear ability to work across party lines to achieve meaningful change), would lend themselves well to innovating the provincial cabinet.

And there’s precedent for governing parties to draw from outside their ranks when it comes to forming cabinet. The tens of thousands of signatures on petitions recently calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appoint Elizabeth May as Environment Minister indicates the growing public appetite for cross-party collaboration.

Remembrance and action

Another promising sign of the Liberals’ attention to gender equality came from their presence at the December 6 Vigil at Memorial University, as part of the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Premier-designate Ball was in attendance and addressed those present with a commitment on the part of his government to work for change when it comes to women’s equality.

At least one other Liberal MHA (Christopher Mitchelmore) was also in attendance. And during the final round of dedications newly elected Liberal MP Nick Whelan took to the microphone to call on the provincial Liberals to boost their support for the various women-serving community organizations which had spoken (he also, bizarrely, called on those present to act—although many of the women present in the audience have been working tirelessly for change since before he was born. But we’ll assume the sentiment came from the right place).

Elected politicians should be present at events like these, although the combination of politics and remembrance at the December 6 Vigil is a complicated one. On the one hand, the presence of both provincial and federal elected representatives is an important sign of their awareness of the need for change, and of the symbolic commitment of their governments to that change.

On the other hand, the context in which they spoke reflects very profoundly the need for change. Two of the three special guests (singled out on the program) at an event organized around women were men: premier-designate Dwight Ball and Memorial University president Gary Kachanoski. And although the province has had a female premier, Memorial University has never had a female president — something which it is long past time to change. The Dean of Engineering, who also addressed the crowd, is also a man.

In fact, fully two-thirds of Memorial’s senior administration are male. And although parity has been achieved among the university’s academic deans, academic staff still comprise only 38 percent women (and of full professors, only 24 percent are women). Many of the organizations giving dedications were represented by men, despite the strong presence of hard-working women in their ranks. And thanking the male premier and university president (repeatedly) for their presence at the vigil was unnecessary, and inappropriate. Their presence should be expected, not praised.

The result, when Whelan rose to make his own comments, was a dissonant one: a male MP speaking to a male premier (designate) and a male university president, at an event remembering and committing to action on behalf of women. And positive though their presence at the event was, it is only when such positions are no longer dominated by men, and when the men who do hold such positions cease to take up so much space at an event dedicated to women, that we’ll have a sense things may finally actually be changing for the better.

Meanwhile, all of this took place in a city—St. John’s—which continues to draw national scorn and ridicule for having not a single elected woman on its municipal council.

Real change

Status of Women Council Executive Director Jenny Wright, who delivered the keynote speech at the event, offered the most profound wisdom and advice of the night.

“Yes, we must continue to honour. But we must act,” she said. “We must recognize that violence against women takes many forms… We must understand and redress that the lack of childcare, housing pay equity, access to women-centred healthcare, reproductive rights, education and a fair justice system are not only a primary cause of violence against women, they are the very barriers which prevent women from leaving violence.

“To end violence is to first believe women when they tell you they are fighting a silent war in their homes, their streets, at work, and yes, in their schools. It is everywhere and we must open our eyes and see it. Once you have seen it, it cannot be unseen. And, in that moment the work becomes to fight for an equal, fairer and safer society. Together.”

That sums it all up, really. What this province needs is not (only) symbolic presence at a vigil, but concrete action where action counts. St. John’s now ranks in the bottom half of the country’s major municipalities when it comes to women’s equality, and second-to-last in terms of equality in leadership. And if the province’s capital city is doing that badly, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the province either. It’s well past time for serious change.

Ball has made an excellent symbolic start to addressing the long-neglected status of women in this province. By agreeing to a leaders’ debate on the issue during the provincial election; by voicing his acknowledgement and accountability to the issue at that debate (including, among other things, a commitment to increased multi-year funding for the province’s women-serving community and advocacy organizations); by attending the annual December 6 Vigil and reaffirming his government’s commitment to women’s issues at that Vigil, he has started off his tenure on a much-needed tone: sending a message that women’s equality will be ignored no longer.

But the question now is: will he carry through what he’s promised? Will Ball and his government commit to enacting real change on the matter?

A gender parity cabinet, following the lead of Trudeau’s federal Liberals, would be an excellent sign of Ball’s commitment to real change. The time has come when it is no longer enough to say we will work towards a goal, but when we expect to see concrete actions and measures.

Time will tell whether this province has elected a government that takes its commitments seriously and puts its money (and political leadership) where its mouth is (or, was).

But that time is not far off: we will know what sort of government we’ve elected when the cabinet, and its gender composition, is unveiled next week.

Read Jenny Wright’s full address from the December 6 Vigil here.

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