Calling more women: Nunavut's 1st woman premier says equal representation a work in progress

Eva Aariak, Nunavut’s first woman premier, encourages women to 'just do it' and run for election.

Eva Aariak says young women need political role models, and that begins with women standing for election

Eva Aariak, Nunavut’s first woman premier, encourages women to “just do it” and run for election. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

"The only thing I can do is try, and see where it takes me."

That's what Eva Aariak told herself when she finally decided she would stand as candidate for MLA in her Iqaluit riding in 2008.

She won that race, and where it took her is well known: she became the territory's first woman premier.

Aariak was elected by her legislative colleagues to the position, and was the only woman to be elected to the Nunavut legislature that year.

In 2008, there were nine women running in nine different constituencies (out of 17 ridings at the time). This year, there are 17 women running in 10 of 22 constituencies.

That's an improvement, but Aariak said more women must step forward.

"I was really hoping there would be many more women in the 2017 election," Aariak said. "There are just not enough yet."

Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, a woman's electoral advocacy group, agrees.

"Obviously, we cannot achieve gender parity in any of our legislatures in Canada unless we have gender balance on the ballot," Peckford said.

Having more women step forward for election is important, not only from a gender balance and equality point of view, but to encourage the next generation of women leaders to step forward as well.

"You can't be what you don't see," Peckford said.

"The fact that these female candidates are stepping forward and the fact that young women are watching … is very, very important to building the confidence of women of the future generation."

Role models needed

"The more women there are in elected positions, the more role models our youth will have," Aariak said.  "It's so easy to say, 'I don't know if I can do it,' without having a role model to look up to."

Mila Kamingoak was one of seventeen women to stand for election in this year's Nunavut's election. The mother of five was acclaimed, and said her role as the next Kugluktuk MLA will mean her spouse Russell Akeeagok will be a support when she travels to Iqaluit to represent Kugluktuk, Nunavut, in the legislative assembly. (Submitted by Mila Kamingoak)

Aariak said many women are ready for the jump into territorial politics.

"At the community level they're the leaders," Aariak said. "At the same time, they are the caregivers in the home. And there are many more women in the workplace at the higher levels as well."

But Aariak said it's women's high level of community involvement that can often, ironically, keep them from representing their communities at the territorial level.

Other obstacles include finding daycare, and dealing with any loss of income associated with taking the time away from work to run a campaign — not to mention the challenges that come with winning, and having to be in Iqaluit on government business.

"Are they willing to let go of their daytime jobs and risk getting into some things they haven't been in before?" she asked.

Aariak said the risk that comes with standing for election is worth it, and the only way to get past apprehension about running is to "just do it."

"Women are very vocal. They can do it," she said. "They are the ones that are making decisions in the home, in the community, just look at ... Facebook. Women are expressing their opinions, their thoughts and their desires in how they would like to see their community run."

Aariak said any young woman with interest in politics could start small by getting involved at the community level.

"I was always involved in the small politics at the community level," she said.

"That's a good way to gain experience with your community, to start at the small scale and work your way up. You get used to it and more confident as you go."

With files from Jane Sponagle