Female political participation is still a new concept in Canada. But a new national program hopes to change that.
Experiences will pair girls and women with female politicians at all levels of government across Canada. The idea is to encourage a mentor-mentee relationship between participants.
“Our mentors can have a cup of coffee with the mentees and that may be just the boost that young woman needs to make a presentation in her class” said Courtney Bragg, the Atlantic Canada co-ordinator, at the national program’s first launch in the Nova Scotia legislature. “Or in 10 years, because of that boost … and that mentorship, that young woman may be elected as prime minister of Canada.”
The free program is a product of Equal Voice, a multi-partisan and non-profit organization that encourages more female participation in Canadian politics.
Francoise Gagnon, senior program director of Experiences, says she hopes to recruit about 6,000 women and young girls as mentees.
The program is also still recruiting mentors. So far, Halifax MP Megan Leslie, Minister of Health Maureen MacDonald, Liberal MLA Kelly Regan and Minister of Immigration Ramona Jennex have signed up for the program in Nova Scotia.
Dalhousie University student Anita Neumann was the only young woman in the group of nearly 20 people at the launch. Aside from her introductory political science class, Neumann says she knows little about the political scene.
“I’m trying to learn more about (politics) and become involved,” she says. She’s still unsure whether she’ll register for Experiences, but attended the event for more information.
She doesn’t follow politics, she adds, but hopes the program can change that.
Louise Carbert, Dal political science professor and chair of Equal Voice for Nova Scotia, says politics is a boring topic for most young people.
“Political parties have to do something to make political life more appealing,” she says. “They have to broaden their pool where they’re seeking to recruit candidates.”
“I think events like this are really important in keeping up that sort of conviction that everybody’s at the table. Everybody has to contribute to keeping the democratic process alive,” says Carbert.
It’s important that the legislature reflects the general population, she adds.
That means getting more women involved. Out of 52 members, the province elected 12 women last June, equalling 23 per cent of the legislature. It’s a historical high, but still far from representing the province’s population. Women and girls make up 52 per cent of the population, according to a Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women report.
It’s been a slow road. Canadian women won the right to vote in 1918, but Nova Scotia didn’t elect a female MLA until 1960.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the obstacles women face in politics, Carbert adds.
“I think that (the challenge) is just to actually envision ourselves doing it,” says Liberal MLA Diana Whalen. “When I talk to other women in politics, they often think that … they’re not ready, even when they’re the most accomplished women and they have so much to offer.”
Whalen has been involved in politics for nearly nine years, including three in city council. She didn’t face many barriers, but says getting involved requires a certain level of confidence.
The program receives its $1.5 million in funding from the Canadian Advisory Council of the Status of Women, Merck Frosst and TD Bank Financial Group.
The speakers at the event included representatives from the latter two organizations, Leo Van Dijk and Hazel Campbell, respectively, and Denise Peterson-Rafuse, Nova Scotia’s minister responsible for the Advisory Council of the Status of Women.