Recent events in Moncton point to a problem deeper than targeted vandalism. Almost two weeks ago, someone littered a neighborhood with posters that lampooned the NB Minister of Finance and her just-nominated female political colleague. Both were depicted as female puppets controlled by and dependent on male leadership. Public outcry was swift with political colleagues denouncing the act and the articulate Minister confidently defending herself and the Premier. The dust on the issue settled quickly with the situation publicly considered an isolated incident.
My experience as political candidate, however, suggests differently. Politics and the political culture of New Brunswick remain a tightly controlled Old Boys Club, an environment where women are rare, and remain devalued or dismissed as secondary players. One of the hallmarks of a democracy is that it reflects the diversity and interests of its citizens. On this measure New Brunswick continues to fail.
New Brunswick was the 7th province to grant women the right to vote and the 9th to grant women the right to run for provincial office. Brenda Robertson in 1967 was the first woman elected as MLA and in 1970 became the first female Cabinet Minister. Our integration of women in politics still has us in last place compared with other provinces. Only 16% of New Brunswick’s elected MLAs are women, a rate that has not improved for almost 20 years.
This reality extends beyond the doors of the Chamber and into the offices of the leaders where senior political staffers remain predominantly male. Journalists in the press gallery remain predominantly male. The top civil service and lobbyist positions remain predominately male.
While gender representation is better in Canadian federal politics, still only 26% of our elected MPs are women. It is believed that 30 to 33% representation is needed to begin to change a Political agenda and culture. Studies show that with better gender representation, economies strengthen and governance improves.
Tabitha Southey in her recent MacLean’s opinion piece describes the federal political climate as one where women are “routinely condemned as too ugly to be seen or too pretty to be taken seriously." She refers to the experience of federal Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, after she called out Rebel Media for repeatedly referring to her as ‘Climate Barbie’.
Southey went on to say some critics then described her as ‘undignified’, suggesting “'if she wants to be a minister, she has to have thicker skin,' thicker skin is the thing women are expected to grow at the same time they’re being told to lighten up." The same level of fortitude Southey suggests is not demanded of men, who are mostly ‘reacting’, not ‘over reacting’ to an affront to their dignity.
Monique Bégin, the highly respected former MP, in her recent speech to MPs and Senators focused on male political power and described toxic masculinity in politics. She states she is no longer interested in seeing the glass ceiling shattered. Rather, she says it’s the ‘roots of patriarchy’ that need to be addressed. She says it is the sexual abuse, and systemic harassment that limits women’s true access to power, and as such she calls for a transformational shift in the way we do politics. She calls for a political environment that is safe and respectful for both women and men.
NB Green Party Leader David Coon when speaking in the Legislature this past week concerning the postering incident in Moncton, stressed the important role all MLAs have to become ‘a part of the solution’. Indeed, when members undermine one another, pounce on one another’s perceived weakness, and act to win at one another’s expense, we are all worse for it. These behaviors alienate the very people MLAs are elected to represent. Indeed, we are long overdue for a transformational collaborative shift in the way we do politics.
Recently I have had women speak with me expressing interest in serving their community by running for political office. While they express concern about the financial cost and potential impact on their family, their primary concern is the nasty, destructive behavior they see currently practiced in political circles. The smart, highly skilled tenacious leaders that they are, they still question if their effort is better spent in social activist or other community career development work, rather than investing in political life. Without transformational change in our political culture we will never experience the full benefit of these women as political leaders.
Marilyn Merritt-Gray is a nurse and lifelong advocate for women’s health and rural services. She is the Green Party Candidate for Gagetown-Petticodiac.