Seen and Heard: Women in House Event in Ottawa

Claudia Wong

An annual event at Parliament Hill, Women in House provides an opportunity for university students to gain an inside look into the lives of female politicians in the Canadian federal government. The program, which is hosted by many universities across Canada, aims to foster among women a desire for political involvement in and enthusiasm for Canadian politics, while highlighting the successes of women who have broken down gender barriers to enter political life. In early March, the School of Public Policy and Governance sent a delegation of 10 women to represent the University of Toronto alongside 20 undergraduate students on a two-day trip to Ottawa. Delegates toured the Supreme Court of Canada, then met and mingled with female senators and Members of Parliament at a reception hosted by Dr. Carolyn Bennett (MP, St. Paul’s) on the night of their arrival. The following morning, delegates met with their hosts Senators or MPs and spent the day with them, concluding the experience by attending question period.

Overall, the experience was extremely positive for the SPPG women who participated in the program. Many found their host politicians to be inspiring and determined women working in a male-dominated, highly politicized environment. For some, Women in House reaffirmed the decision to study public policy instead of working in the political arena, and for others, the experience opened up the possibility of making change as a politician. 

As we SPPG representatives reflected on our experience on the Hill, two major themes emerged. First, it shocked us to see elected officials behaving in a juvenile and extremely unprofessional manner for over half an hour during question period. We found this behaviour incredibly disrespectful and discouraging—sentiments that have since been echoed by MP Laurie Hawn (Edmonton) in the Canadian press. Mr. Hawn has asserted that question period is not the best place to look for camaraderie among MPs.

The second major theme was our collective disappointment at the obvious gender disparity that continues to exist on Parliament Hill. Many of us were shocked by the “old boys’ club” mentality that still persists. The evening program reception was constantly interrupted by a birthday party attended by mostly male staffers and MPs next door. One male MP walked by during a welcome speech given by MP Kirsty Duncan and asked delegates if this was “show and tell hour,” which clearly indicates the gender divide still implicit in Canadian politics. It became painfully obvious that while other workplaces across Canada are implementing codes of conduct with regards to gender parity both in and out of the workplace, Parliament Hill still hasn’t received the memo.

On the Hill, there was a noticeable lack of female politicians altogether. Although there were plenty of female staffers, they were clearly outnumbered by their male counterparts. One female MP informed delegates that a women’s washroom that was close to the House of Commons did not exist until the late 2000s—and even this change was preceded by years of advocacy from women politicians. During question period we noted that female MPs were heckled much more extensively than their male colleagues, regardless of which political party they belonged to. One female MP was accused of “feigning outrage” during her question, but no similar comments were leveraged at any men. 

In spite of the challenges that they face on a daily basis, the women politicians of Parliament Hill continue to hold strong and fight to make their voices heard in a male-dominated workplace. Many SPPG female students attended a meeting of the All-Party Women’s Caucus, which aims to unite women across party lines. Establishing this extra-political “sisterhood” appears to be the final frontier of Canadian gender politics that would allow female politicians to maintain their ideology, while convening on issues that are of substantive importance to all Canadian women. This may become an increasingly complex challenge, however, as Canada’s population diversifies and women of varying religion, class, and ethnicity search for a political voice.

 Women in House exposed the SPPG delegates to the challenges of being a female politician in the federal government, and on a broader scale, the challenges faced by women in all leadership roles. The event provided an incredibly unique opportunity to engage with the strong and inspiring women who deal with these issues and work through them on a daily basis.

Claudia Wong has been a registered nurse for nearly six years, and is a 2015 Master of Public Policy candidate. She currently works in emergency and intensive care and was a volunteer nurse instructor in Bangladesh. Her policy interests include health policy, public health evaluation and research, and health financing and funding models.

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