To run and seek office is an act of courage. I was brave enough to do it in high school at Winston Churchill Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, where I ran to be vice president of my student council. I was 16. As a relatively new student at my school, it was a bold move, but one that I threw myself into with the support of a team of close friends who formed my campaign team.
We made hand-drawn signs with the slogan “Who is Mitzie Hunter?” I then set out to tell my classmates who I was and why I wanted to represent them. I wanted to bring our community together. As an immigrant from Jamaica, and proud resident of Scarborough, it was important to me that people in our community feel connected. After a passionate speech to the entire student body, I won my first election.
With the support of teachers like Joanne Ashby, I was proud to have made my mark. Ashby was an energetic, fearless teacher who really went above and beyond her responsibilities to empower us students and to champion our causes. She was an incredibly important mentor for me at 16, and there would be others at 26, at 36 and at where I am today. My mentors believed in me, inspired me and supported me personally and professionally. The late civic leader David Pecaut inspired me to commit to public service. So did Bell Canada executive Virginia Dybenko, former federal minister of state Jean Augustine, Speaker of the Ontario Legislature Alvin Curling, commissioner of Markham Brenda Librecz, and Toronto Mayor John Tory.
Years later, it was Dybenko who began to tell me I was well-suited to provincial politics. She was a vice president; I was a regional director at Bell.
You can lead from behind and you can lead from beside. But sometimes you have to lead from out front.
I had started at Bell in its call centre to support myself while I was a student at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. I quickly worked my way up to a management position, and excelling at Bell gave me the opportunity to become president of SMART Toronto, where I worked on tech-driven economic development. Our team met with ministers of the day to get their support for the beginning stages of the now-established MaRS Discovery District, and to set up an Ontario digital media fund.
Working with the government in a collaborative way made me realize that being at the table often makes the biggest difference. You can lead from behind and you can lead from beside. But sometimes you have to lead from out front.
So, six years ago, I put my name forward to run for office.
I contested a seat in Scarborough and became the MPP for Scarborough-Guildwood in the Ontario Legislature. With the support of so many, I have run and won in three elections in the past five years – one by-election and two general provincial elections.
Running for elected office and putting your name on the line is a commitment that demands courage. Yet in at least one crucial aspect of our representation, we are collectively lacking. There aren’t enough women in politics.
Why is this the case?
Being an elected representative is a demanding, all-consuming job, and the challenges are amplified for women in office and as candidates. But having more women involved in politics leads to more informed transformational policymaking. It is the job of elected representatives – those in power – to engage in bold change-making to shift cultural norms, and ensure that the door is opened to the diverse populations we claim to represent.
Women need to be key players in policymaking for any government that wants to make effective, lasting change towards equality that benefits the whole population.
Policy changes enshrined in equality are not just beneficial for women. For example, equal parental leave in workplaces means that both men and women are able to share childcare responsibilities, and it means that men are able to spend more time at home with their families. Equal opportunity policymaking means that there are more options for each and everyone in society.
What makes the process so demanding? Anyone who signs up to run for elected office is implicitly giving permission to the media to scrutinize every move. This often leads people to believe that they have a right to say whatever they want about candidates, true or not, and often behind the anonymity of social media.
The campaign trail is relentless and unforgiving. Candidates go door-to-door in their communities almost every night to be able to meet people and receive meaningful feedback on what they can do to serve constituents. They attend events during the day and on weekends, wishing all the while that they could be in many places at once. But putting my name, ideas and vision on the line in the name of service to others has been unequivocally worth it.
It is well known that the critiques of women candidates go beyond their policy and implementation ideas to trivial details like the clothes they are wearing, hairstyles and whether or not they are married or have children. Media coverage of political candidates has shown again and again that the policy ideas and personalities of male candidates are often analyzed more substantively than those of their female counterparts. Female elected representatives and candidates are more prone to harassment before and after being elected.
There are so many reasons why it is important to have more women in politics. Good policymaking comes from a diverse, representative body with people who are experts with experience in an array of issues. In Ontario, we are fortunate enough to have the most gender-diverse provincial legislature, with 39.5 percent of elected representatives being female. Of course, we still have a ways to go. Policymakers cannot guarantee the making of well-rounded decisions that help everyone if these decisions do not come out of groups just as diverse as the population they have been elected to represent.
When marginalized groups hold seats at the decision-making table, different discussions arise. Right now, City of Toronto councillors are working together to tackle period poverty, which is experienced disproportionately by the poorest of the poor. If not for strong female representation on this council, it is unlikely that the issue, which affects thousands of people, would have been addressed by such a powerful entity as the city. Women in politics effect meaningful change.
Funding should not be an obstacle for change-makers who want to enter elections, and this is especially true if we want a body of representatives just as diverse as the individuals we are representing.
Cultural norms shift when those in power take bold action towards equality. Whether this means inclusiveness under party mandates or ensuring that funding will be earmarked for gender-balancing initiatives, it is up to those who have been elected to prioritize power redistribution, and to prioritize moving closer and closer to equal representation at each election. The Ontario Liberal Party’s Women’s Liberal Commission established the Margaret Campbell Fund to provide funding to first-time female candidates. I was pleasantly surprised when I was presented with a cheque from the fund during my first campaign in 2013, when I became the MPP for Scarborough-Guildwood in a by-election.
It should be possible for anyone who believes they can make a difference to step into the spaces where that change can happen. Funding should not be an obstacle for change-makers who want to enter elections, and this is especially true if we want a body of representatives just as diverse as the individuals we are representing.
I was proud and honoured to be the first person of colour to be appointed Minister of Education in Ontario. In 2017, I had the opportunity to implement Ontario’s Education Equity Action Plan, created to improve education outcomes for students of all backgrounds. Women bring a different lens to politics and policy.
This is why women-in-leadership programs are so incredibly important. To inspire the next generation of leaders, we need to make it known that it is possible to come from an array of intersectional identities, and have your voice heard on policies that affect each and every person.
We should be encouraging women to get involved at any and all levels of democratic institutions. Student leadership opportunities – in student governments, for example – provide invaluable experience with operating budgets, exercising fiduciary duty and voting as part of a board. It is more important than ever for us to encourage youth participation in all forms of government.
It is one thing to see more women in political roles, and another to see women in high-ranking positions of political power. We have gender parity in our federal cabinet in 2019, but Canada has never elected a woman prime minister. Women party leaders are able to effectively ensure that the principles of equality build a party’s mandate. The first step is electing women, and the next step is ensuring that they have positions that allow them to contribute to and shape policy direction.
Our time is now. Perhaps as never before we find ourselves at a crossroads where strong, diverse and aspirational women’s voices are needed to ensure that our society moves forward – not backward. As Maya Angelou once famously said: “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
It’s time we stand together, make our voices heard and ensure our representation and our society are rooted in the equality we deserve.
This article is part of the Changing the way we talk about women in politics special feature.
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