A grassroots movement is vowing to bring gender parity to the floor of the New Brunswick Legislature by preparing and supporting female candidates well ahead of the 2018 provincial election.
The group, Women for 50%, officially launched Wednesday morning at Saint John's Union Club, where women were excluded as members until 1939 and discouraged from attending some social events until recently.
"I've hope that's not lost on anyone," said Women for 50% founder Roxanne Fairweather. "Years ago, we had to come in through the back door."
Organizers said their head start will drive their success getting women to run for the legislature.
They're organizing an instructional and networking conference Feb. 13 at the Richard J. Currie Center in Fredericton, some 17 months before New Brunswickers go to the polls on Sept. 24, 2018.
Former provincial cabinet minister Aldéa Landry said she's worked on many campaigns and the late-hour panic to round up women doesn't work for anyone.
"'Oh my God! We don't have enough women running! So call women! Try to recruit them! " she said, characterizing the last-minute rush.
"So women don't know what they're getting into. It's like throwing them to the wolves."
The aim of next month's conference is to demystify the political process and teach potential female candidates how to network.
They'll also be introduced to mentors, including some of the 12 founding members of Women for 50%.
'My gut tells me this time it's going to go.' - Erminie Cohen, senator
That list includes political veterans such as former NDP leader Elizabeth Weir, former cabinet ministers Madeleine Dubé and Mary Schryer, as well as Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold and defeated Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Monica Barley.
"My gut tells me this time it's going to go," former senator Erminie Cohen said when asked if she thinks this plan will work when so many others have failed.
Today women make up 16 per cent of the New Brunswick Legislature, which is down from the peak of 18 per cent in 1999.
New Brunswick has also lost ground against other provinces.
Robyn Tingley, 42, one of the younger founders of the new group, said its message will be clear to all parties — that not fielding women will be unacceptable.
"We're applying a lot of pressure," she said.
Former Rothesay Liberal candidate Victoria Clarke said it's a good idea to teach women what to expect and how to build a team.
"It's a vulnerable thing to run," she said.
- N.B. election sees 8 female MLAs elected in 49 ridings
- New group aims for more women in N.B. politics
- Women candidates a minority for Tories, Liberals
- Leaders' debate: Women in politics
She remembered feeling discouraged by people who told her politicians aren't liked.
"Why would you want to go to being hated overnight?" she recalls being asked.
"That off-putting to anyone, but especially women."
Money a challenge
Clarke said money is also a challenge.
She had to take a three-month unpaid leave from work to run in 2010, at a time when she was the primary earner for her family.
She was defeated by Conservative candidate Margaret Ann Blaney.
When Blaney resigned her seat in 2012, Clarke said she didn't have the means to run in the byelection to fill the seat.
"Eighteen months later, I didn't personally have the financial capability to run again.
"And I'm disappointed about that."
Premier welcomes effort
Premier Brian Gallant, who is also the minister responsible for women's equality, was not at the non-partisan launch.
He did tell CBC News that he congratulated the group on its effort.
"This is a very important thing to have more women in positions of influence," he said.
'This is a very important thing to have more women in positions of influence.' - Brian Gallant, premier
In his role as leader of the Liberal arty, Gallant said he could not commit to a quota of female candidates ahead of the next election.
"But I can tell you we'll do everything we can to try encourage more women to run in the nominations and become more candidates.
"The real goal is to have a lot more women ... who ultimately become MLAs."
Sheila Copps featured
The Feb. 13 conference is being sponsored by businessman Richard Currie so attendance is free.
The group hopes to bring in women from all corners of the province. Child care will be provided.
And the guest speaker is former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps.
"I think we're going to see the younger generation come out at the event," said Beth Lyons, executive director at the New Brunswick Women's Council.
"This seems to be well-branded on social media already, so I think that's where we're going to see some momentum generating with younger women."