The bat­tle for equal­ity

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The odds of a male can­di­date for elected of­fice be­ing asked about his hair­style, age, weight or mar­i­tal sta­tus are re­mote. Not so for women. Such per­sonal and bla­tantly sex­ist ques­tions are far too com­mon; and it’s one of the rea­sons why it’s dif­fi­cult to at­tract women as can­di­dates.

Pol­i­tics has cer­tainly been an up­hill fight for women, de­spite ac­count­ing for more than 50 per cent of the na­tion’s pop­u­la­tion.

Su­san Holt, a Lib­eral can­di­date in Fred­er­ic­ton in the cur­rent New Brunswick pro­vin­cial elec­tion, summed it up nicely. “I think the po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, gen­er­ally speak­ing, is unattrac­tive. It’s full of in­sults, neg­a­tiv­ity, con­fronta­tion…” The po­lit­i­cal game is not one many women want to play.

To their credit, the four main par­ties in the N.B. elec­tion made a con­certed ef­fort to at­tract and nom­i­nate more women, set­ting a goal of 50 per cent fe­male can­di­dates. They agreed that the low num­ber of women in the last N.B. leg­is­la­ture was em­bar­rass­ing — 7 of 49, or a mere 14 per cent.

Two N.B. par­ties were ac­tu­ally suc­cess­ful — the NDP and Greens — at reach­ing or sur­pass­ing the 50 per cent tar­get. Un­for­tu­nately, nei­ther party has a re­al­is­tic chance to win power and the odds are high that few of those can­di­dates will win her seat in the Sept. 24 elec­tion. But one never knows who might pull off an up­set. Just look at the 2011 Or­ange Wave in Que­bec when Jack Lay­ton’s NDP swept across the prov­ince to col­lect 58 seats in the fed­eral elec­tion, help­ing him be­come the Of­fi­cial Op­po­si­tion. Many of those Que­bec seats were won by women.

Credit should also go to the New Brunswick Lib­er­als who ap­proached 40 per cent women can­di­dates — the high­est level ever reached by the party — and the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives who hit al­most 30 per cent.

Lib­eral Pre­mier Brian Gal­lant says his party got to 50 per cent in rid­ings with­out in­cum­bent can­di­dates but it will take time to get to that tar­get over­all.

Other At­lantic Prov­inces are well-ad­vised to fol­low New Brunswick’s lead. In the cur­rent New­found­land and Labrador House of Assem­bly, 10 of 40 mem­bers are women (25 per cent); in P.E.I., five of 27 MLAs are women (20 per cent); while Nova Sco­tia showed an im­prove­ment in last year’s elec­tion when 17 of 51 women were elected (33 per cent). They are alarm­ing sta­tis­tics.

De­spite the N.S. im­prove­ment, Joanne Bernard, the min­is­ter for the sta­tus of women — who lost her seat — had some sober­ing part­ing com­ments.

She won’t miss the chal­lenges as a fe­male politi­cian, in­clud­ing, “ev­ery­thing from misog­yny and ho­mo­pho­bia and fat sham­ing… bul­ly­ing… the death threats and the stress that it caused on my fam­ily.”

Over­all in New Brunswick, 93 of 241 can­di­dates in the 49 rid­ings are women, or 38.5 per cent. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how many women win seats Sept. 24 and if this new emphasis on gen­der equal­ity ac­tu­ally pays div­i­dends.

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