Add Women, Change Politics

by Hiba Siddiqui

Every year, the Women In House Program at the University of Toronto provides a platform for female students across a range of undergraduate and graduate programs to share the daily lives of parliamentarians. It is an innovative way to promote greater female representation in government and to encourage young females to pursue positions of leadership. The program is co-founded and co-managed by Dr. Tina J. Park and the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Minster for Crown-Indigenous Relations. Since its inception in 2013, the number of participants in the Women In House program has grown from 20 to 86 in 2018.

Continuing with tradition, the program organized a special tour of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on Oct 15th, during which students were able to observe a mock trial and have an intimate Q&A session with Justice Rosalie Abella. Each student was also given the opportunity to shadow a Member of Parliament or Senator for a full day at Parliament Hill on Oct 16th, gaining political insights throughout the day.

I was among 11 Master of Public Policy students from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy who participated in this program. It was an exceptional opportunity for MPP students to not only witness the policy-making process in action, but also to commemorate the legacies of countless female politicians, and the barriers they have overcome.

Our first day in Ottawa at the Supreme Court of Canada was deeply inspiring. Justice Abella’s words of wisdom and experiences demonstrated how far women have come in the fields of law and in government, but also highlighted how much work still needs to be done in Canadian society at large. At the time that Justice Abella was attending law school, she was one of only five female students. In fact, during her time searching for articling positions, no one wanted to hire her or any woman. Despite this hostile environment, she was able to overcome gender barriers through determination and perseverance. Conversations with established female leaders like Justice Abella are an important way for the next generation of women in leadership to develop and attain their professional goals. It also fosters open conversations and provides insights on navigating through our individual career paths.

On the second day, I had the opportunity to shadow Ruby Sahota, Member of Parliament for Brampton-North. Before entering politics, Mrs. Sahota worked as a lawyer, practicing in the areas of criminal law, civil litigation, and dispute resolution, in both the public and private sector. We discussed the demands of political life and the challenges faced by female politicians. As a mother, Ms. Sahota has to balance family life with professional life which can entail long work days and trips back home to Brampton on weekends. Her advice to work/life balance is to embrace work/life integration and to request for greater work hour flexibility.

My day of shadowing consisted of two standing committee meetings (Procedure and House Affairs), a stakeholder engagement meeting with the Canadian Building Trades Union, a personal tour of Parliament Hill, and Question Period. During the committee meeting for Procedure and House Affairs, members went through the clause-by-clause of Bill C-76, also known as the Elections Modernization Act.  I was surprised to see how relaxed the atmosphere was during the meeting despite its formal rules and procedures.  Additionally, the level of productivity and the speed with which the committee made decisions to adopt or defeat motions was impressive.

Although I have observed question period a few times both at the provincial and federal level, it was my first time observing on Parliament Hill with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in attendance. I always find Question Period to be an interesting 45 minutes as our elected politicians take on very different personas than the ones they wear behind closed doors, on committees, or when meeting with stakeholders. It was fascinating to watch the different party dynamics mesh together to address diverse and complex current issues.

Overall, my experience participating in the Women In House Program was fast-paced but incredibly rewarding and insightful. The firsthand experience of witnessing politicians’ daily work enhanced my understanding of the inner workings of the House of Commons and the Canadian government. The opportunity to learn from the experiences of incredible female leaders among other great politicians was unforgettable. My biggest takeaway is that the best and most accomplished leaders are devoted to what they do, and that devotion is what makes the biggest difference. Moreover, the more diverse and representative the government is, the more effective it will be in responding to the needs of Canadians.

Hiba Siddiqui is a 2019 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from University of Toronto. Her policy interests include urban and social policy. In her free time, you can find Hiba in museums or photographing intricacies of the city.