Few women are running for office in Winnipeg — and only one is trying to knock off an incumbent

As a first-time council candidate who's trying to knock off a 12-year veteran of city hall, Natalie Smith has a tough task ahead of her over the next seven weeks in Winnipeg's Mynarski ward. She's also the only woman attempting to unseat a council incumbent.

Mynarski's Natalie Smith has the distinction of being the only woman trying to unseat a sitting councillor

Mynarski candidate Natalie Smith is the only woman running for a city council seat in Winnipeg this fall who is not already a member of city council. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

As a first-time council candidate who's trying to knock off a 12-year veteran of city hall, Natalie Smith has a tough task ahead of her over the next seven weeks in Winnipeg's Mynarski ward.

She's also the only woman attempting to unseat a council incumbent.

There are only six women running for city council seats among 35 candidates overall — and Smith is the only one who who can call herself a challenger. The other five women running already have the title of councillor in front of their names.

Smith is in a race with three-term Coun. Ross Eadie, his former assistant Aaron McDowell and Steve Snyder, the founding chair of the Seven Oaks Residents' Association. She surmises the increasing abuse of elected officials, both online and in person, is keeping women out of politics.

"As the follow-up to COVID, I think we're all a lot more online and I think we're seeing a lot more people being a lot more vocal about what they don't like, and there's a lot of influence out there that is very misogynist," the first-time council contender said the backyard of her home in the St. John's neighbourhood of the North End.

Smith, who works as the office operations manager for a consulting firm, also figures the pandemic has placed even more of an economic burden on women, particularly single mothers.

"A lot of times it's women who are doing the bulk of the domestic work in their homes and so they're already pretty wiped, so I can totally understand why especially young mothers wouldn't have that opportunity."

Brandon University professor Kelly Saunders, who teaches politics and gender studies, said Smith's analysis is bang on.

"Add all that together and yeah, there's a lot of barriers that go into why women don't run more than than they do," she said in a telephone interview from Vancouver.

"It's disappointing because we know women continue to be underrepresented at all levels of government and across all political stripes in this country, whether we're talking federal levels or whether we're talking municipal politics."

Men more reluctant, too

It's not just women who are more reluctant to take on council incumbents. With only two weeks left before the deadline passes to run for council in this election, four wards are heading toward acclamation.

As of Tuesday morning, nobody has stepped forward to challenge Jeff Browaty in North Kildonan, Markus Chambers in St. Norbert-Seine River, Sherri Rollins in Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry and Devi Sharma in Old Kildonan.

North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty prepared to put up signs over the long weekend, even though no one has registered to run against him. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Browaty, who was first elected in 2006 and is the longest-serving member of city council, said he is nonetheless preparing to campaign under the assumption some challengers will step forward.

"It's a little surprising at this point, this far into the election that, there's four of us still without opponents. I don't take that to mean that everybody's happy with everything I've ever done. I know that's not the case," Browaty said on Friday, as he assembled election signs in the sunroom of his home in Springfield North.

Browaty said it's a Labour Day weekend tradition to prepare lawn signs, prepare emails to constituents and get volunteers ready to campaign. He said if no one registers to runs against him by the Sept. 20 deadline, he'll still go knock on doors, albeit "maybe not absolutely every day."

He too agrees politicians have become subject to more abuse, although he has only had to call the police three times over the course of his 16 years on council.

"You do have to have a bit of a thick skin," he said. "I mean people seem to be getting a little bit braver behind the keyboard and saying things that are rather personal."

Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood council candidate Evan Duncan finished second in his ward in 2014, losing to Marty Morantz by 469 votes. This is the fourth consecutive election where there is no incumbent in Winnipeg's westernmost ward. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The power of incumbency also appears to be scaring away potential candidates, as name recognition factors heavily into council races.

Eight of 35 council candidates are running this year in the only wards with wide-open races: St. James and Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood, where both of the outgoing councillors — Scott Gillingham and Kevin Klein — have chosen to run for mayor.

Due to a quirk of circumstance, Charleswood is heading into its fourth consecutive wide-open race. The ward had no incumbents for the past three elections due to the death of 27-year councillor Bill Clement, one-term councillor Paula Havixbeck's decision to run for mayor and a jump by her successor, Marty Morantz, into the House of Commons, where he now serves as a Conservative MP.

Evan Duncan, who came within 469 votes of winning the ward in 2014 and is taking a second crack this year, said the ward deserves a long-term commitment after the transience of the previous 12 years.

"It's very important that people who are running in these wards are from these wards and understand these wards," he said in the backyard of his home in Elmhurst, the neighbourhood west of Assiniboine Forest.

He's running against CJOB talk-show host Hal Anderson and real-estate agent Brad Gross in the race to succeed Klein.

Duncan said he is just as concerned about the dearth of women running this year, across the city.

When you add mayoral candidates into the mix, there are only nine women among the 49 people running for municipal office in Winnipeg. That's a gender ratio of 18 per cent women and 82 per cent men.

"I would like to see more female representation out there," Duncan said. "My household has four females, and I want to do whatever I can to build up [women] to make sure that my three daughters can be as successful as any man out there or more successful than any man out there."

Fewer women running for office in Winnipeg

5 months ago
Duration 2:24
Summer holidays are over and election signs are back on lawns and boulevards. But very few of these signs this year are for women running for office.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.


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