The following commentary was first published by the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal on March 8, 2017.
A hundred years ago, New Brunswick women couldn’t vote. No, this is not going to be about how women today are lucky and better off, or even thankful.
In 1917, women, who had been agitating for several decades already for the right to vote in New Brunswick, had their hopes up. They thought 1917 would be the year, given their war effort and that women from five other provinces had gained it. When a suffrage bill was proposed, women “flocked in such numbers to the Halls of Legislation that they had the Hall itself and the members went to the gallery”, according to the minutes of the Women’s Enfranchisement Association of the times.
But that bill was defeated like others before it, due to indifference and political gamesmanship. Women’s suffrage was a chip in a play between parties. Some would say a political tradition to this day. But on that day in 1917, in a Legislature corridor, women mobbed – terrorized, according to some – some elected members. The 1917 “fiasco” got the political class to see the writing on the wall and New Brunswick women eventually won the vote in 1919. Though women elsewhere usually obtained the right to run for elected office at the same time as the right to vote, in New Brunswick it was another 15 years before that was granted (the idea of women in the House having caused such jocularity when it was suggested).
New Brunswick cannot claim that it has shown a particular appreciation of women or women’s rights in our history. Not that we are significantly worse than other regions, but we’ve managed to make sure we are no better.
These days, we have had the lowest proportion in Canada of elected female members to the provincial legislature for years, though recently Prince Edward Island took over that category. Not because we improved, but because their rate worsened. Our Legislature is now 84 percent male. It has been as low as 82 percent. It goes up and down from tragic to marginally less pathetic. Who deserves 84 percent of the seats when they are 49 percent of the population? If you think the Legislature has so many males because of the merit principle, go sit in on the goings on at the Legislature.
Women’s low representation is not seen as a problem since there have been no attempts to change it, other than the incantations heard from the political parties before every election: “We really, really want more women.”
Here’s the thing: political parties are gatekeepers, and they receive significant public funding. They have a responsibility to act and for decades now, plenty of examples from around the world of what works. But the government has the main responsibility to act.
In 2003, when the New Brunswick government created the Commission on Legislative Democracy “to strengthen and modernize New Brunswick’s democratic institutions”, its mandate did not include women’s quasi-absence from our Legislature. However, the Commission’s final report, which has been lauded nationally, included a good discussion of the problem and of the levers that must be worked to increase women’s representation and improve democracy.
The Commission gave New Brunswick a plan that could have had us reach 35 percent female MLAs by now. The annual allowance that government gives to political parties would have been increased by $1 per vote for any party where males were no more than two-thirds of candidates. The Commission also recommended that government assist groups to encourage women to get into politics.
New Brunswick is a great place to live. New Brunswickers are kind, plain folks. If only we did our politics more responsibly. That goes for everywhere these days.
(In March 2000, I wrote this text for publication in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal. Thought about it today when someone asked how I was going to celebrate this damn day. I would today change somewhat the list of what it would take to make me celebrate it, but heh, blast from the past)
If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention
Every year around March 8, International Women’s Day, during the many years I was with the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, some reporter would call to ask, “Why do we need a special day as International Women’s Day?”
“To celebrate…,” I would answer. “To honour…blah,blah … like Labour Day and Mothers’ Day.” (Actually, he was thinking, “Didn’t we do this last year?” and I was thinking, “Couldn’t you think of anything better since last year? If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”)
But seriously, if I were Queen of the World, I would abolish March 8, International Women’s Day. On March 9, I would increase the minimum wage to the minimum needed to live at poverty line. (Fill in the blank: “I believe people who work full-time at minimum wage should be paid less than poverty level because…”) .
I would make schools into community centres with non-profit day care centres, senior centres and youth clubs, which would pretty much end the use of malls as hang outs.
I would revamp the criminal justice system: sentences for crimes against persons would be as severe as those for crimes against property.
I would rewrite the electoral laws. Anyone wanting to run as a candidate would have to file proof of having sat in a hospital waiting room with a sick child or relative, and a video of them giving the same speech to parents, entrepreneurs, men, women, corporations, unions.
After having served their elected term, politicians would have to either serve time as a social assistance recipient, or as a seasonal part-time split-shift black-hole worker, or actually “spend more time with their family”.
I would require all teenage girls who say, “I’m not a feminist” to write an essay, “Why I believe it’s okay that women earn two-thirds of every dollar men earn” or alternatively, “ I think my future partner should take my name because…”
I would legislate that secretaries should be paid more than janitors, day care workers should be paid more than zookeepers and no one in any corporation or government should earn more than double that of their lowest paid worker.
I would organize a raffle to help pay the tax bill of professional sports (did I mention what would happen to their tax bill?). The raffle prizes would be:
First prize: You get time with loved ones – the rarest commodity.
Second prize: You get to follow a politician or a corporation president of your choice as they try to live on minimum wage for a month – Okay, a week: a month would be cruel.
Third prize: Receive the average wage gap between women and men – yes, you could live on it.
I would have a curfew a few times a month: only women over the age of 65 would be allowed out – do you know how often women that age see the stars and feel free to roam the night?
Employers who fired women because they were pregnant would have to pay child support.
If I were Queen, food banks would be abolished. An emergency committee would be struck – not to deal with the poor, for whom economic and social programs would provide – but to deal with those for whom paying taxes didn’t fulfil their need to be benefactors.
I would end affirmative action programs for men: they would have access to 50 percent of government appointments and elected positions. (You know the drill. In 250 words or less, “Why I believe men should have more than half of the appointments…”)
Then I would rest. That’s when I would celebrate Women’s Day.
This commentary was first published in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal October 6, 2014.
Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party to fix the problem that the party is mostly men. Good men but hey, there’s stuff you haven’t lived, and this is not a same-sex democracy. And frankly, some of you are there because you are men.
Now is the time to change things, early in a new government term. The tradition is to wait until just a couple of months before a provincial election, and reporters ask you whether there will be more women running for your party, and you say, we really, really want more women. Then, it’s too late. And you can’t say that anymore. You’ve been saying that since 1935, when New Brunswick women were first allowed to run as candidates. It’s old. Psychiatrists have a word for people who do the same thing over and over and expect different results.
This is not a same-sex democracy, so your party needs women. Fortunately, there are a lot of good women. Many of them are looking at you, not impressed. And fortunately, it is possible for parties to become more diversified – all the other provinces are doing better than New Brunswick, as are most countries.
Political parties are gatekeepers to the Legislature, plus they receive significant public funding, so they have a responsibility to act, and we have a responsibility to demand it.
However, it’s not just a party problem. The government has the main responsibility to act, especially since the New Brunswick legislature is spectacularly lacking in diversity. Before last month’s election, about 90% of the seats were occupied by men. Now it’s 84%. In the past, it’s been as low as 82% male. It goes up and down like that, from tragic to marginally less pathetic.
The government has a responsibility to enhance democracy. I mean, who deserves 84 percent of the seats when they are 49 percent of the population? If you think our Legislature has so many males because candidates are chosen on merit and women don’t make the grade, then let me doubt that your female ancestors are proud of you, and that you really value democracy. And I’ll bet you’ve never sat in on the goings on at the Legislature. Lire la suite