A Woman’s Place is in the House

Kayla Ishkanian and Priscilla Mak

Now in the program’s fifth year, the University of Toronto Women in House program brings young women from undergraduate and graduate programs across the university to Parliament Hill. The program was co-founded at the University of Toronto in 2013 by Tina Park, Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. This non-partisan and bilingual program aims to promote greater female representation in government leadership through shadowing members of Parliament or senators for a full day on the Hill. We were both fortunate enough to be matched up together with Green Party Leader Elizabeth May!

Priscilla Mak with MP Elizabeth May
Kayla Ishkanian with MP Elizabeth May

On September 25 and 26, 2017, U of T’s School of Public Policy and Governance (SPPG) sent a delegation of 10 women to Ottawa to learn from their parliamentary hosts and other political staff. On the first day, after a question and answer session with Justice Andromache Karakatsanis at the Supreme Court of Canada, delegates were invited to a networking reception at the Metropolitain Brasserie in downtown Ottawa. This was a beneficial experience for SPPG delegates, offering the unique opportunity to speak in small groups with Cabinet ministers, MPs, and their staff. Due to the large size of the cohort (100 women in total from various University of Toronto programs), male MPs and Senators participated in the event as well, which in itself reflects the lack of female representation in both chambers. With powerful opening remarks from participating MPs such as the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, the Honourable Maryam Monsef, and the Honourable Bardish Chagger, each speaker reminded us to think about why we were participating in the program and reiterated that no goal or dream is out of reach.

While spending the following day shadowing our hosts, we gained a greater understanding and appreciation of the incredible hard work that each MP puts in. Having the opportunity to shadow MP Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, was no exception. Highlights of the day included joining in on meetings with interest groups, attending Question Period, and attending a late-afternoon press event where Prime Minister Trudeau announced the appointment of Canada’s new Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer. We realized just how much female representation is lacking in the federal government early in the day when MP May took us to the Opposition Lounge to wait while she presented a speech in the House. Walking into the Opposition Lounge felt like walking into a 1920s speakeasy, minus the cigar smoke and scotch. It was almost entirely male. It was a sobering moment to see in real life how, despite the shadowing programs or “Day of the Girl” celebrations the federal government throws, there is still a lack of women in federal politics, especially a lack of women of colour

The rest of the day was not overshadowed by our time in the Opposition Lounge. Ms. May could not have been a better host, enthusiastically taking us around Parliament Hill, in and out of meetings, and introducing us to everyone along the way. We could really tell that Ms. May was genuine in every interaction she had that day, knowing everyone’s name, where they were from, and in most cases a fun personal anecdote about the person that she could recall top of mind. Despite her very early mornings and long days, she was always friendly and seemed genuinely excited about each meeting or government order that she had to attend to throughout the day.

There were three main aspects about government that we learned about from our shadowing experience that had not come up in our classes. First, given that Ms. May is the only sitting member of her party, all responsibilities come down on her. For example, she has to be in the legislature for almost all debates, hearings, and question periods since she is the sole elected representative for her party. Considering that she has had a seat since 2011, her commitment is all that more admirable. Second, since the Green Party does not have official party status (12 seats are needed to gain that status), the Green Party does not have access to the research budget that the other parties do. This means the party relies heavily on graduate and undergraduate volunteers to do much of their research for them. Finally, the party does not have an official seat on parliamentary committees to debate legislation in between readings. To us, this highlighted the favouritism the Canadian political system affords to large parties versus small parties. Without any access to the resources allocated to those parties with official party status, it is that much more difficult for a small party like the Green Party to have its views heard.

In reflecting about our experience, it became clear over the course of the day that MPs bring openness and genuine enthusiasm to their work, making them very relatable to both the average Canadian and policy wonk alike. Learning directly from Ms. May herself, we noted that female representation in government, especially at the federal level, is still lacking. At one point, she even mentioned to us that the women’s washroom was a late addition to one wing of the Hill! “Small victories,” she said.

Our time on the Hill taught us about the important jobs female politicians have: representing their constituents, serving the public and the country, and being role models to young women like us. This trip, while quite short, inspired all delegates to aspire to make the political domain an increasingly diverse space and one day see ourselves in House.

Kayla and Priscilla in Parliament

Kayla Ishkanian was born and raised in Burnaby, British Columbia and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and History from McGill University. As a stand-up comedy enthusiast, Kayla can be found either watching a comedy show or writing jokes, as well as spending her student loans at Sephora.

Priscilla Mak is a 2018 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. Prior to her graduate studies, she received a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Toronto and worked in the not-for-profit sector and the Ontario Public Service. An advocate of civic engagement, Priscilla sits on the Mississauga Public Library Board and is an active member of the CivicAction Emerging Leaders Network. Her policy interests include municipal governance and tackling food insecurity.