When Melanie Mark delivered her maiden speech in the legislature as the new NDP MLA for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant, she spoke about some of the pioneers in B.C. political history.
She mentioned that Frank Calder was the first MLA of aboriginal descent and that Rosemary Brown was the first black female MLA. Mark also referred to Moe Sihota as the first MLA of South Asian descent, Jenny Kwan as the first of Chinese origin, Mable Elmore as the first of Philippine ancestry, and Jane Shin as the first Korean Canadian in the legislature.
Mark is of Nisga’a, Gitksan, Cree, Ojibwa, French, and Scottish heritage. Her late grandmother and mentor, Thelma Mark, attended St. Michael’s Residential School; the new MLA described that period as “the darkest days of her life”.
“In fact, my maternal grandparents couldn’t vote until they were 30 and 32 years old,” Mark said. “We have come a long way, given that indigenous communities were on the verge of extinction.”
In a bygone era, all the MLAs in the B.C. legislature were white males. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Mark said she was motivated to run for office because there’s “not enough balance in the legislature”.
“I want to level the playing field by way of public policy,” she stated. “There’s lots of areas that I’m interested in and that I’m passionate about, but I’m going to do so under a human-rights framework. People have a right to safety. People have a right to housing. People have a right to access justice.”
Mark won the seat in a February 2 byelection, the same day that another female NDP candidate, Jodie Wickens, was elected in Coquitlam–Burke Mountain. It’s yet another reflection of a growing number of women in local, provincial, and federal politics.
Nowadays, the elected premiers of the three largest anglophone provinces, including B.C., are female. Fifty percent of federal cabinet ministers and more than 40 percent of provincial cabinet ministers are female. Half of Vancouver city councillors are women. Four of Vancouver’s six members of Parliament are women. In all, 45 percent of the city’s elected politicians at all levels are female.
So as we approach International Women’s Day on Tuesday (March 8), does this mean that women have finally achieved that elusive “equal voice”, which has been advocated for years by an organization of the same name?
The longest-serving female MP in Parliament, Liberal Hedy Fry, acknowledged to the Straight by phone that the situation has improved dramatically since she was first elected in Vancouver Centre in 1993. She praised that era’s prime minister, Jean Chrétien, for ensuring that women would run in winnable ridings and that 25 percent of his cabinet would be female.
Fry also credited female MPs elected in the 1990s for lowering financial barriers for women seeking nominations. This came from imposing a spending limit under the Election Act. And she lauded her current boss, Justin Trudeau, for mandating equal representation in cabinet.
“It takes about 33 percent to gain critical mass,” she said. “In our Parliament, we’ve reached that critical mass and we’ve reached a critical mass in cabinet.”
However, Fry maintained that women in politics are still judged by a “completely different yardstick”. According to her, women have to excel or else they’ll pay a high political price.
She also emphasized that although many women tend to work by consensus, she didn’t want to stereotype people by their gender. “I don’t want to say that all women are good or all women are perfect,” Fry said. “This is not true.…A lot of women, in order to become accepted, play by the old rules—and don’t get inside and change the rules.”
Vancouver Green school trustee Janet Fraser told the Straight by phone that she grew up in Britain when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.
According to Fraser, the Iron Lady didn’t do politics any differently than the men of her era. And the Vancouver trustee stated that she’s “not aware” of being treated any differently than male politicians would have been.
However, Fraser acknowledged that she’s “following in the footsteps of many pioneering women politicians who did face gender discrimination”. She noted that there’s a plaque celebrating the opening of an old elementary school in her area that identifies female trustees by their husbands’ first names.
“It always reminds me that…there’s been a lot of work to get to where we are now,” Fraser said.
Another local politician, NPA councillor Elizabeth Ball, told the Straight by phone that she still sees barriers for women who want to enter politics. For example, she said that neophyte female politicians encounter more difficulty when trying to raise money for their campaigns.
“Men don’t give to women, and women don’t give to women, by and large,” Ball said. “They give to male candidates, and so that is very difficult. So when you’re faced with a very small budget, you have to be extremely clever and careful so that you can get your message out to as many people as possible. And that requires more work.”
Ball also said it takes more time for women’s opinions to be valued at the same level as those of men, whether it’s in politics or on boards of directors. “I’ve noticed this, when I have served with all-women’s groups, that there’s much more opportunity, faster, to be able to be part of a group and affect a group and have your thoughts valued,” she stated.
In the Super Tuesday (March 1) U.S. primaries, Hillary Clinton extended her lead over Senator Bernie Sanders, making her the likely Democratic Party nominee for president. Ball argued that the former U.S. secretary of state isn’t judged by the same standards as her male counterparts.
“I mean, the things that people hold against Hillary Clinton are astounding to me when you compare them with the other candidates who can say any kind of awful thing about every other person in the world,” Ball said. “And yet, somehow, that doesn’t matter.”
Several female politicians interviewed by the Straight, including Ball, said there are more demands on women than men to appear fashionable and to look smart. Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer said that journalists still talk about politicians’ hair and clothes more than necessary. She pointed out that when it concerns Mayor Gregor Robertson, however, “it doesn’t diminish the way people think about him.”
Reimer received a tremendous response from women after posting an article on Facebook about things all females face at work. One universal reality was that women are interrupted more often. The article also stated that people take women’s ideas, either forgetting where they originated or “actively stealing them”. The article’s third point, Reimer noted, was that women are more likely to be subjected to patronizing explanations in the workplace.
“I always find it funny,” she said. “We’re all reading the same Internet…we’re getting information from the same places, so why do you think women need a slower, more patient explanation of something?”
One of the younger elected women in Vancouver, NPA park commissioner Erin Shum, told the Straight by phone that because she has a youthful appearance, she has to work “extra hard” to offset people’s perceptions.
“I do have a lot of experience, from owning my own small business to working with children with special needs with the school district as an educational support worker for children with autism,” Shum said.
Fry, the dean of Vancouver’s political women, emphasized that the situation is far worse for female candidates in other countries. “I am very involved in gender issues in the Americas,” she said, “and women politicians are being killed. They’re being murdered. So women who want to go into politics in some parts of the world are taking their lives into their own hands to do so.”
Many of the women interviewed for this article cited important mentors, sometimes their parents and sometimes their kids. Mark said that she has been inspired by her grandmother, her mother, and two powerhouse women of aboriginal descent: Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the provincial representative for children and youth, and Cindy Blackstock, a Gitksan woman who spearheaded a Supreme Court of Canada victory on behalf of 150,000 indigenous children in Canada.
Mark also finds inspiration in her two daughters, 12-year-old Maya and five-year-old Makayla.
“They’re a big, big motivator,” she acknowledged. “They definitely give me the strength that I need when I feel like I’m tired and I’m feeling discouraged. We’ve just got to keep pushing so that their future looks brighter.”