Fort Smith 'daughter of the vote' heads to Parliament Hill

Olivia Villebrun is heading to Ottawa in March for Daughters of the Vote, a conference hosted by Equal Voice Canada to mark 100 years since women first secured the right to vote in Canada.

Olivia Villebrun is N.W.T.'s representative for conference encouraging young women to enter politics

Olivia Villebrun, 23, of Fort Smith has been interested in politics all her life. In March she's off to Ottawa to represent the N.W.T. at a conference being held to engage young women in politics. (submitted by Oliva Villebrun)

Olivia Villebrun's first foray into politics was in Grade 5 when she joined the student government at Fort Smith, N.W.T.'s Joseph Burr Tyrrell Elementary School.

"Our role was basically just to pick the new school playground," she says with a laugh.

Thirteen years later, the "new" playground is still there. And Villebrun, now 23, is still interested in politics and heading to Parliament Hill.

In March she's flying to Ottawa for Daughters of the Vote, a conference hosted by Equal Voice Canada to mark 100 years since women first secured the right to vote in Canada.

The conference, which involves sitting in the halls of Parliament themselves, aims to get young women from across the country interested in politics.

Each federal riding gets to send one representative. That means just one person from the Northwest Territories: Villebrun, who was selected from a field of nearly 20 N.W.T. applicants.  

"I really enjoy doing programs like this. I enjoy meeting other young adults. But particularly this year, I have really gotten into the idea of engaging women more in science," says Villebrun.

She works as a resource management officer for the territorial government's Department of Lands in Fort Smith. 

"I thought this program was really interesting because they're looking to engage young women more into politics, and I think both [involvement in science and politics] are very relatable."

Overcoming stigma

Villebrun outlined challenges young women can face.

"Being shy can be a huge thing. For a lot of women — speaking from experience — we're told to kind of be quiet, be in the background, not to be too noisy.

"When you're going out to be a part of things, you kind of have to break that stigma where you're told to be a certain way."

Villebrun has been doing precisely that, ever since those playground debates.

Throughout high school she sat on student council, and at Aurora College she was the student representative for the School of Arts and Science, and later, the student union's social activities co-ordinator. Last spring, she attended the N.W.T. Association of Communities annual general meeting as a youth ambassador.

"I think it's very important because half of our population are women, and it's important for us to be represented as well in politics," she says.

"There are different issues that can affect women, especially in the Department of Health, where sometimes our opinions are not fully taken into consideration. As well as Education, where some fields are dedicated or perceived more to be masculine, and that can affect funding in different areas as well."

'We need to be at the table'

Villebrun's comments are echoed by Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green — one of only two women in the territory's 19-seat legislative assembly.

'The fact it's male dominated is clear every day,' says Julie Green, MLA for Yellowknife Centre. (CBC)

She's helping organize an N.W.T. version of Daughters of the Vote, happening in Yellowknife next month.

"We need to be at the table and we need to be represented, and nobody can do it for us, we've got to do it ourselves," says Green.

A year into her political career, Green says it can be challenging for women.

"The fact it's male-dominated is clear every day," she says.

"There are times I feel that they marginalize me, as a woman, because I'm not talking about the same things they are, or they perceive that I don't share their interests or whatever.

"Nobody has asked me to play hockey or to play poker, so it's kind of a lonely existence that way," she adds.

The best way to change the pervasive attitude that doesn't see women as political equals is to get more women into politics, she says. 

"I think that role modelling is really important for young women, that they need to see that there are women who are doing the job. That is the way they will be most convinced that they can also do the job."

In February — for the territorial Daughters of the Vote conference — young women from across the territory are coming to Yellowknife to watch Green and Minister Caroline Cochrane in action in the legislative assembly. The group, aged 18 to 23, will get to meet with the territory's current and former female leaders, as well as practise skills like public speaking.

"This is a big ship to turn around, in terms of attitudes towards women, and we're not being helped at all by what's happening in the United States, with such an openly misogynist man as the president-elect. But I think if anything that may have a backlash in interesting more women in politics. Or at least I hope it will," says Green.