Friday May 08, 2015

More women and openly gay leaders in Canadian politics: Are barriers coming down?

Listen 11:30

With Rachel Notley's win in Alberta this week, Canada's now has 3 female premiers. Her NDP caucus is also the most-female in Canadian history. Meanwhile, Wade MacLauchlan, elected Premier of PEI this week, is now Canada's second openly-gay provincial leader.

Have gender and sexual orientation turned into non-issues in political campaigns? Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, PEI Premier Wade MacLauchlan and former Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith weigh in on that question.

Nearly half of Rachel Notley's NDP caucus in Alberta is female. How big of a deal is this? 

Danielle Smith: I think it's unprecedented. This is very much in line with the NDP ethic in trying to bring equality in men and women into their caucus. So I think that Rachel did a tremendous job of attempting to recruit at least an equal number of candidates. She also has a very young caucus. There's going to be a lot of young women who have to come up the learning curve.

Danielle Smith in Red Deer

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith in a 2014 file photo. (CBC)

So Premier Wynne, in your caucus it's about 35% women. Why is it so difficult to achieve what just happened in Alberta? 

Premier Kathleen Wynne: My experience is that often what has happened with parties is women have been run in ridings that are not winnable. And so there may be lots of women on the ballots, but not necessarily in winnable ridings and I'm not saying that that was the case in Alberta. I think that there was a very intentional push on the part of the NDP to have a high percentage of women. That's the only way to make it happen because there are still barriers. Women will say to me that they don't know if they have access to people with enough money and my response to that is always that you start with a small circle of people who trust you and who believe in you and they start giving you money and that circle grows. So I've always encouraged women not to get caught in that. But the other question young women ask me about a lot is "How do you make time for family, how do you balance all of those things?" and I think we have to demonstrate that it's possible to have a political life and have a family. 

Let's talk about another perceived barrier, the barrier of sexual orientation. Premier Wade MacLauchlan, this week you became Canada's second openly gay Premier after Kathleen Wynne. Your sexual orientation did not come up very much during your campaign. Was that part of your strategy? 

Premier Wade MacLauchlan: It wasn't my strategy, but it was my assumption that people would take me for who I am and they know me well. Prince Edward Island is a small province, I have other things to bring to the table and I would say that as people work their way through the list of why they might or might not vote for me as premier, my sexuality didn't enter into it whatsoever. In fact my partner did some door-to-door campaigning and I think it may have been some of the polls where we did best. 

So you were out knocking on doors, but did anyone ever say to you that they wouldn't or couldn't vote for you or your party because you're gay?

WM: Not at all, not even once. It's amazing how society has moved on, on this issue.

KW: In my my election last June I was so proud of the people of Ontario because it didn't come up. Jane and I were on the campaign trail for the whole 40 plus days, we were everywhere in the province and it didn't come up. Now, it doesn't always come up to your face, but in most of my campaigns I've known about a whisper campaign, I've known that there's homophobia lurking, but it really didn't feel like that. I think what people were looking for were real practical solutions to the problems that are confronting them and I think that's what people are looking for in Alberta too.

DS: As you must know, in Alberta that this is been a very fierce public battle for the last three years. I had a candidate back in 2012 make incredibly intolerant statements against gays in the election and that really has, I think, driven a lot of the public dialogue and discussion and a lot of the legislative changes that happened Alberta in the last three years. I think Alberta may now be at the forefront of having protective equality legislation. We passed 30 pieces of legislation that took out language that was gender specific. We changed the Vital Statistics Act to make it easier for transgender individuals get their identification changed, and we also just recently passed legislation that allows for students to establish GSA's [gay-straight alliances] in any school if they choose to do so. In some ways, the fact that we had such a negative experience in 2012 prompted a very necessary discussion. 

Premier Kathleen Wynne

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, in a March 2015 file photo. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

While you were the leader Wildrose Party, you tried to put sexual orientation into the party's non-discrimination policy and that effort was met with resistance. How much did that have to do with your decision to leave the party and cross the floor? 

DS: It made the party that I was leading unwinnable in the two major centres in Calgary and Edmonton. I was doing my level best to try to bring forward some of these policies to get us to catch up to where the public was. I failed at that, but I think that the conservative movement in Alberta is going to have to come to terms with these moral issues that nobody is interested in fighting anymore. 

When you were in the party, was there ever a conversation at the party level that somebody might have suggested to that it might be better if you were not out as a politician, that you remain in the closet? 

WM: No, in fact to the extent that there were conversations that there was only one way to go with that, and that's to be out. You're only causing trouble in a political sense to be trying to hold anything back.

KW:  In 2012, when I was first getting ready to run provincially, I was running where I lived basically, in a north part of the city, a kind of middle-class, urban area. There were people in the party who said "You can't win there, you need to go downtown, you need to be in a more diverse community. You're not going to be able to to win because you're a lesbian." And I just said "I'm not going to do that. I'm going to stay where I am and I'm going to work really really hard. And I knocked on every 45,000 doors in that riding and that's how people got to know me.  I talked with the Muslim community, the Somali community, and Filipino community -  I had a diverse Toronto community and got elected, and then as people got to know me it became less and less of an issue and I think that's why you see reversals like what's happening in Alberta; as people get to know more of us who are out and more of us who are in public life it becomes less and less of an issue.

But it's still an issue on which your opponents can see perceive you as vulnerable. As you know M.P.P. Monty McNaughton recently said that you are especially disqualified from implementing Ontario's new sex-ed curriculum, and you said that his comments were homophobic. So is sexual orientation still used against politicians who are out of the closet? 

KW: People still try, but I'm not sure that it doesn't do them more damage in the long run. Obviously there are people who still say and do hurtful things. But our responsibility as politicians is to, in my opinion, stay focused on why people elected us. 

Premier Wade MacLauchlan


All three of you have been or still are leaders on the provincial level. Why don't you think we're seeing these kinds of breakthroughs at the federal level? 

WM: Well I think we probably have, if you map it out over time. But there's a long way to go and I think it really is going to take more of a dedicated effort by the parties and party leaders to recruit candidates and to be sure that they're running in districts where they're going to be elected.

DS: It begins at the local level and then filters up to the provincial level and eventually you start electing more individuals at the at the federal level that are going to be able to be champions. We've actually had a breakthrough in this election, we've got three openly gay MLAs for I think the first time in our political history. I know I will feel a lot more comfortable when these issues get debated knowing that there's somebody representing the community who can actually add their voice to the table. I think that will lead to better debate and better decisions.

KW: But I think we have to be aware of trends. When I became the premier of Ontario in 2013, when I won the leadership, there were then six women who were Premiers in the country and then we went down to two. We've got three again now, so we just have to pay attention to encouraging people from all backgrounds, from all sexual orientations, from all walks of life to get involved in politics. But I don't think we can just make assumptions that that will happen without us really paying attention.

Do you foresee a day when we have an openly gay prime minister?

KW: Oh I think it's entirely within our reach, absolutely. But as I say, we have to pay attention to the voices who would want to block that, and be intentional as we include people in political life.