Montreal·Analysis

1 in 4 women in Quebec's National Assembly aren't seeking re-election. What happened?

After a historic election for women politicians in Quebec in 2018, some worry the 2022 provincial elections could be a step back – and wonder whether the lack of a change in the culture of politics could be to blame. 

For women leaving Quebec politics, is quitting an act of self-preservation?

Catherine Dorion celebrates her win in the Taschereau riding in Quebec City in 2018. (Alice Chiche/Radio-Canada)

The night she was elected in October 2018, Catherine Dorion ran up onto the stage in Quebec City and briefly stared at the crowd, shaking her fists in the air and laughing with tears in her eyes. 

"I'm not the one who won in Taschereau, we did. It's everyone who is here and it's everyone in Taschereau!" she said in her victory speech. 

She wore a black tuque and a cropped pink t-shirt with three white flamingos on it. The campaign signs intentionally placed inside the venue were grafittied, including one that featured a defaced portrait of Dorion.

Throughout her four years as a member of Quebec's National Assembly for the democratic-socialist Québec Solidaire, Dorion often spoke about wanting to be close to her constituents, who live in Quebec City's La Cité-Limoilou borough.

In the legislature's Salon bleu full of suits and crew cuts, Dorion's roughly chopped strawberry blond hair stood out. Even the way she speaks, with a kind of unvarnished gregariousness, is different from the other politicians in the room.

Her clothes (in no particular order: a hoodie, Doc Martens boots, a short skirt, a graphic tee) stoked controversy and sparked debates about dress codes. She defended them, saying she wanted the National Assembly to be a more inclusive place.

The 2018 provincial election that saw Dorion elected was one which a record number of Quebec women made their way to the National Assembly. They represented 52 of the province's 125 seats. Since then, thanks to byelections, there are three more women occupying those seats, for a total of 55, about 44 per cent.

But already, 16 of them have announced they will not be running again in this year's provincial elections. Five of the women leaving hold seats for the governing party, Coalition Avenir Québec, seven for the Official Opposition Quebec Liberal Party, two for the Parti Québécois, one for Québec Solidaire and one for the Conservative Party of Quebec.

Just Friday, Paule Robitaille, the Liberal MNA for Bourassa-Sauvé in Montreal, said she would be leaving, too, after just one term.

In all, one in four women elected in the National Assembly will leave public office this year. The number of men who have announced their departure pales in comparison at seven out of 70, with four departing from the Liberal Party, one from the CAQ, one from the PQ and one from the Conservatives. 

After that historic 2018 provincial election for women politicians, some worry the 2022 Quebec provincial election could be a step back — and they wonder whether the lack of change in the culture of politics could be to blame.

"For us, for women, it's constant: there are always setbacks," said Esther Lapointe, the director of Groupe Femmes, Politique et Démocratie. "Look at what is happening the United States," she added, referring to the potential overturning of Roe v. Wadethe landmark 1973 decision legalizing abortion.

A gathering by the Groupe femmes, politique et démocratie in 2018. (Submitted by Esther Lapointe/Radio-Canada Archives)

Lapointe's group is a nonpartisan organization that has, every year since 2016, proposed a parity bill at the National Assembly that would ensure 40 to 60 per cent of party candidates be women. The group was inspired by Quebec suffragettes who requested the right of women to vote every year for 14 years until it was achieved in 1940.

"It would help prevent setbacks and women could feel more legitimate in running for office," Lapointe said of a parity law.

Gender bias in 2018 election coverage

The way Catherine Dorion revealed she would be leaving public office was vintage Dorion: a video of herself posted to Facebook reading a letter to her riding as fellow Q.S. MNA Sol Zanetti strummed a guitar next to her.

The video also featured a clip of the late Gérald Godin, the Quebec poet and politician. Toward the end, the camera pans to a stack of printed articles with headlines about her in French: "Catherine Dorion has no class," "End the Dorionmania," "How old is Catherine Dorion?" "The Dorion show," "Dorion caricatures politics." 

In interviews afterward, Dorion, who is 39, explained she wanted to dedicate herself to art and advocate for political causes through creative work.

"All these four years I spent in the National Assembly were like a really, really interesting experience and all the things I lived there, I would never have chosen not to live them," she told CBC Daybreak host Sean Henry

"But what I wanted to do there, I think I've done it." 

In the first half of her mandate, when the sensational headlines about the ways she stood out piled on, "it was really hard for me to just stay standing," Dorion said.

Catherine Dorion printed a pile of Quebecor media headlines about her and showed them in the video announcing her departure. (Catherine Dorion/Facebook)

Melanee Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Calgary whose research focuses on gender-based political inequality, says women in politics are more likely than their male counterparts to encounter a type of animosity that goes beyond partisanship, whether through violent threats on social media or repeated criticism about who they are rather than what they do. 

"It is deliberately designed to keep them from doing their job.… and it is motivated by sexism," Thomas said in an interview. "It's designed to torment them and to suck up mental energy, and make it harder."

In the last provincial election, though there were nearly as many female candidates as male candidates, a study published last summer in the Canadian Journal of Political Science found Quebec news media mentioned the women 12 times less often than men. 

'I need to exist outside of politics'

Parti Québécois MNA Véronique Hivon appeared on Radio-Canada's Tout le monde en parle after she announced she would not be running again this year. (Karine Dufour/Radio-Canada)

Days after Dorion's video, Véronique Hivon, a mainstay in Quebec provincial politics for more than a decade, also announced her exit. 

With three other women MNAs from different parties, Hivon helped create Quebec's new court specialized in sexual violence and domestic violence in just under four years. 

She also helped draft Quebec's legislation on medical aid in dying and led a highly-praised commission on end-of-life care called "dying with dignity." 

"I need to exist outside of politics," Hivon, 52, said at the news conference she held to announce her departure after 14 years as the MNA for Joliette, a riding in the Lanaudière region north of Montreal.

"You know, politics isn't a normal life," she said, adding that she's looking for "freedom and normality" in stepping down.

Thomas is wary of seeing every departure of a female politician as them being "pushed out" because of the hostility directed at them. Doing so would be denying them "agency and strategic decision-making." Plus, not all politicians plan on spending their entire working lives in politics, she said. 

"My first question is, what other things do they have going on? What are the things they would rather do?"

Melanee Thomas is an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary. (David Bell/CBC)

In 2019, when Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée said he would step down after the party's dismal election results, Hivon announced she wouldn't join the leadership race, citing family reasons. 

Hivon may have sidestepped a tricky mandate. Though she was seen as an obvious choice to revitalize the party, women are often only offered party leadership opportunities when their party's in trouble, said Thomas.

The PQ has been polling at 10 per cent of the vote, finding itself fifth among the province's six main parties, below the Quebec Conservative Party, which has enjoyed something of a revival in recent months, at 14 per cent, according to polling aggregator qc125.com.

"When times are good and your party is popular and it looks like you're going to win, this is where parties just don't pick women in that context," Thomas said. 

Putting yourself aside

Dominique Anglade, the first Black person at the helm of a major political party in the province, finds herself in that position as Quebec Liberal Party support has slumped to 18 per cent, while the CAQ has a whopping 42 per cent. 

In an interview with La Presse canadienne last month, the leader of the Official Opposition denounced a culture of double standards in the legislature, calling Premier François Legault "paternalistic."

Quebec Liberal Party leader Dominique Anglade says women have not fared well in the current CAQ cabinet. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Anglade said that though she tries to ignore the differences in the way she is treated, she lives with the notion that women in politics can be no less than perfect, so she's always careful about what she says. 

"That reflex, it limits you in everything you can be, in everything you can say, in the way you express yourself," she said in the interview. "It prevents you from being who you really are."

Anglade also noted Legault pushed three women out of his cabinet, MarieChantal Chassé, Sylvie D'Amours et Marie-Ève Proulx, while other male ministers made several missteps and did not lose their positions. Rumours that Chassé would also not be running again have circulated, although she has not yet made any announcement.

Arash Abizadeh, a political theorist at McGill University, says more politicians may be faced with this internal conflict as a greater plurality of voices are elected. But once inside Canada's rigid political institutions, it's easy to see there's still progress to be made. 

"Part of the problem is that we're operating in a political system that has been developed a couple of hundred years ago. And it's not necessarily the most well-adapted to the current circumstances that we face," Abizadeh said.

Despite setbacks over the past 50 years, women have gone from representing one per cent of National Assembly seats to 44 per cent. 

Lapointe, from the women in politics group, is encouraged by concerted efforts the four main political parties are making to recruit female candidates. The CAQ is the only party of the four not to have committed to supporting a parity law but has told the group it would once again aim for parity in its candidates this year. 

What she wants to see next, though, is for parties to recruit outside of elite circles, and for debates in the National Assembly to be more respectful. 

"We can never take progress for granted," Thomas said.

Effecting change from within or outside

Two of Dorion's main causes before the end of her mandate have been pushing for a tramway in Quebec City, where public transit is an afterthought, and for the reform of the status of artist in the province. 

When she said she would be leaving, Dorion was asked by several interviewers about whether it is better to affect change from the "inside" or from outside of politics. 

"Whether I have more power as an MNA or not, a lot of people in politics can ask themselves that question," Dorion told Radio-Canada's Téléjournal host Patrice Roy. "Having power is not what I'm looking for."

She said she wants to see more people who don't fit politics' rigid mould access its institutions.

"There will be others, who talk loud and dress different," she said, laughing. "I can't stay forever, telling myself I'm the only one."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.

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