The results of the federal election have produced much scrutiny over the number of women in Canadian Parliament. The Senate is nearing gender parity, with 60 percent of Prime Minister Trudeau’s appointments being women. Gender and politics scholarship has shown that meaningful representation of women’s interests is likely to occur not just because of a critical mass of women, but because of the presence of critical actors. It seems that a group of independent feminist senators have the potential to be critical actors in the representation of Canadian women’s policy interests. Their efforts will be ones to watch in the next Parliament.

The new Parliament will start in the coming weeks, and politicians will descend on Parliament Hill ready to get to work. They certainly haven’t forgotten the near-constitutional crisis at the end of the last Parliament. The Liberal government pushed many pieces of legislation through the House of Commons only to have them stall in the Senate. While some bills were passed, a few significant pieces of legislation died on the Senate’s Order Paper. Amidst the intensity of the last legislative session, a cadre of feminist independent senators worked hard to ensure that the interests of Canadian women were represented. When Parliament starts up again, these senators will surely continue to work together to pursue feminist initiatives in policy-making.

For decades, the Senate has had a better balance of men and women than the House of Commons has. However, we have no studies that show whether the presence of women senators has led to the effective representation of Canadian women’s policy interests.

In recent years, research on women’s representation has shifted focus. Rather than looking just at the number of women in Parliament, researchers are looking at the critical actors who represent women’s interests. We know that increasing the number of women in a legislature is likely to improve the representation of women’s policy interests. However, researchers have found the most important factor is that there are actually people in Parliament who are willing to stand up for women. The group of feminist Canadian senators could be those critical actors.

The new Senate appointment process allows individuals to nominate others or apply directly, and it emphasizes proficiency over partisanship. As a result, many feminists with specific expertise have been appointed as independent senators with free rein to form their own alliances.

Under the new appointment system, a number of Canadian feminist powerhouses have been introduced to Parliament. They bring with them a myriad of experience advocating for women’s interests. Donna Dasko helped found Equal Voice, which is a nonpartisan organization that supports women running for office in Canada. Kim Pate was formerly the director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which advocates for women in the criminal justice system. Another senator who has fought for women’s rights is Marilou McPhedran, who was instrumental in getting section 15 equality rights into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and who helped to found the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund. Mary Coyle has also promoted the rights of women and Indigenous peoples, setting up the First Peoples Fund to provide microfinancing to First Nations and Métis communities in Canada. Before entering politics, Frances Lankin was an active member of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, where she acted as the provincial spokesperson for the Equal Pay Coalition. Rosemary Moodie comes from a career in maternal medicine, where she advocated for the expansion of quality health care to marginalized populations. The specific expertise that these senators bring to Parliament informs their work in the Senate.

There are also senators who have particular experience with advising governments on women’s issues. Wanda Thomas Bernard was the chair of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Nancy Hartling cochaired the New Brunswick Minister’s Working Group on Violence Against Women. Julie Miville-Dechêne was the chair of the Quebec government’s Conseil du statut de la femme. These formidable women represent a few of the feminist senators who, along with many other senators, are working hard to represent women’s interests in the chamber as well.

With this influx of wide-ranging expertise, there have been questions about whether ad hoc Senate caucuses will form on different issues, especially because Liberal senators were removed from the party’s national caucus. Former senator Hugh Segal has been a supporter of that change. With the removal of party discipline, he says, “you could have a caucus on women’s issues, you could have a caucus on defence, you could have a caucus on First Nations issues, you could have regional caucuses.” The efforts of feminist senators seem to be an example of that prediction at work.

In fact, Pate, McPhedran and Coyle allied with NDP MP Christine Moore to found the Canadian Association of Feminist Parliamentarians in late 2018. It already has more than 60 members, and it is working on getting parliamentary approval. The association demonstrates the drive for collaboration and support among Canadian feminist senators.

In an illustration of collaboration between feminist senators, Senator Dasko has worked with her colleagues on oversight of Bill C-78, an Act to Amend the Divorce Act, which she identifies as a bill with vast importance for women: “I took on the responsibility for delving into it. A responsibility on behalf of a small group of senators, feminists as we were, who wanted to make sure that we understood the bill and made changes where we felt necessary.” She recounts a time when the group strategized that she would take the lead. Another senator gave her seat on the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee to Senator Dasko as a replacement, to ensure that she could deliberate and vote on the Divorce Act at the committee stage (since she had studied the bill’s subject matter and its weaknesses). This access to expertise is an example of the benefits of a cooperative feminist group.

Senator Dasko says she finds that “with the ISG senators, there are a lot of women…it really is a quite congenial work environment. I think we try to get along and we get along very well. I think we work very collaboratively.”

Before the Senate reform, senators’ memberships in party caucuses meant that they did a lot of collaborating behind closed doors, in caucus meetings. We cannot know the specifics of what feminist alliances might have been formed there, or the effects that they had. Now, a group of openly feminist senators operates within the context of a more independent Senate. This provides evidence that some members of the Senate are working in the interests of Canadian women.

Photo: Shutterstock/bDamian Lugowski

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Elizabeth McCallion
Elizabeth McCallion est candidate au doctorat à l’université Queen’s. Elle étudie le genre dans la politique canadienne, et plus particulièrement la représentation des femmes au Sénat. Twitter @EMGMcCallion

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