Women comprise slightly more than half of Canada’s population, but only about 25% of Parliament—despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet. The next federal election will take place on October 21, 2019, and there is *literally* no time like the present to get involved and push for parity.
“We would never expect a minority of men to represent all men in Canada,” says Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, an organization focused on electing more women in all branches of government. Conversely, “we shouldn’t expect a small group of women to represent the diversity of life experience and values that more women would bring to the table.” (Underrepresentation in Canadian politics is even more acute for women of colour.)
Unsurprisingly, more women in government has significant real-world benefits. Research suggests that female leadership improves political decision-making processes, reduces partisan combativeness and often brings the issues of gender equality, childcare and pensions—among others—to the table.
You can’t have more women in power or its associated benefits if there aren’t enough women running, though. Only around 30 percent of the candidates in all five parties in the last federal election were female, says Peckford.
When women run in higher numbers, however, they are elected in record numbers. Forty-four percent of candidates in Ontario’s 2018 general election were women, which resulted in a record-setting 49 female Ontario MPPs this year.
Improving numbers of women in power across all branches of government comes down to a few factors, one of which may be simply demystifying political institutions and access.
So, how do you get involved in politics as we gear up to the 2019 federal election? From grassroots organizers to former leadership candidates, we asked 12 millennial women in Canadian politics how they did it.
Tiffany Ford; 36; Toronto
CV highlights: Toronto District School Board Trustee; current Ward 7 candidate in Toronto’s municipal election
Ford’s political passion is fueled by a love for Toronto’s Jane and Finch community. The Toronto native grew up watching her neighbourhood be unfairly characterized in the media and neglected by city council, and she knew its residents deserved better. “I felt stigmatized and marginalized and wanted to change the narrative,” she says. After graduating from York University, she started a marketing and communications company. Eight years later, she chose to bring her considerable skills and entrepreneurial approach to improving her local school district. And so, in 2014, with no real support or significant funding, she ran for Toronto District School Board trustee. “I won by a landslide,” says Ford. Once elected, she looked to the kids in her region to tell her what they needed. Resoundingly, they wanted a solid investment in their education. Ford went to the TDSB and won an increase in funding for area schools, which increased to $40 million from $14 million during her tenure. Now, she’s set her sights on representing the needs and concerns of Jane and Finch at City Hall. Don’t be afraid to be the person who says enough and seeks to make a positive impact, she advises. “Just go for it,” she says. “If it’s your passion, you have to try. You never know, you may be the person who brings change.”
Amanda Kingsley Malo; 31; Sudbury, Ont.
CV highlights: Kindergarten teacher; founder of PoliticsNow, a non-profit that supports women in politics in Northern Ontario
In 2015, Kingsley Malo was scrolling Facebook when she saw a Liberal Party ad. It was for an online course that trained people to work on political campaigns. Curious, she signed up and found she had a knack for campaigning, soon showing off her skills at the office of her local MP, Marc Serré. Then, Donald Trump became president of the United States. “I cried all day [after Clinton’s loss] and then I got mad and I started thinking about all the women that get passed over for jobs in favour of men. I am not the kind of person to wallow, so I decided to do something.” In March 2017, she co-founded Politics Now, a non-profit that supports and encourages women to run for office at all levels of government—and helps them manage their campaigns. So far, the organization has supported 20 female candidates in Northern Ontario.
Esmahan Razavi; 30; Calgary
CV highlights: Co-founder of Ask Her, a non-profit that supports women running for office in Calgary; former municipal candidate
Three years ago, Razavi went to a Liberal Party event in Calgary. “I had become a bit cynical about politics, and thought, What does it matter if I get involved?” She didn’t intend to do anything other than listen, but on the way out she signed up for email updates from the party. A few days later, she received an email from a female organizer and they made a coffee date to chat in person. “I told her about how I’d like to see more women elected to office,” Razavi says. Together, they decided to create an initiative which partnered female candidates in the city with small support teams for things like door knocking and community outreach. The experience was revelatory. “I had this abstract notion about wanting more women to get elected, but I realized that if you want to see women get elected, you actually have to get out there with them,” she says. In 2016, she went even further and helped co-found Ask Her, a non-profit that supports women running for municipal office in Calgary. In 2017, Razavi put her money where her mouth is and ran for a council seat in her municipal election. She lost, but she’s got no regrets. “I learned so much and I got to meet so many people.”
Gabrielle Gallant; 32; Toronto
CV highlights: Former advisor for former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne; currently a lobbyist
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to work in politics,” says Gallant, who once wrote a piece about Stockwell Day for her high school newspaper. In university, she volunteered for her local MP and MPP, and after university got an internship with (now-retired) MPP Donna Cansfield at Queen’s Park. She then spent much of her 20s working in media relations and issues management at various provincial ministries. Watching former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne and other female politicians—from Angela Merkel to Nancy Pelosi—continue to be subject to so much “gender-based criticism” is a constant reminder of how far women still have to travel. “There’s so much more work that needs to be done to dismantle those prejudices and biases.” She’s encouraged by the #MeToo movement and the Women’s March as necessary steps towards addressing obstacles to female power, however. “I think we are in a moment now where the scale is tipping a little bit, and women are more emboldened to take up space. I really believe adding more women changes politics,” Gallant says. To further that goal, she’s happy to play mentor: “I’ll have coffee with any young woman who wants to have coffee with me.”
Angela Zhu; 26; Toronto
CV highlights: Former campaign manager for NDP MPP Suze Morrison; currently a law school student
Zhu’s career in politics was inspired by the late federal NDP leader Jack Layton. “I was a big fan, and the first time I voted was in the 2011 federal election where he swept the nation.” When she moved to Toronto from BC to attend university, the then 19-year-old vowed to meet him. She never got that chance—Layton passed away in August 2011—but she joined the campus NDP club and reached out to her local riding association, where she began volunteering for events and campaigns. Since then, Zhu has worked on more than eight political campaigns; most recently she ran Suze Morrison’s campaign in Ontario’s general election. (Morrison won.) Zhu’s advice to young women who want to put their idealism into action? Start with Google. “Most riding associations have social media pages and going to an event is a good idea. You don’t have to get involved you can sit in the back and just listen.”
Amanda Galbraith; 35; Toronto
CV highlights: Former director of communications for Toronto mayor John Tory, currently a principal at a public affairs company
While studying journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, a friend who was volunteering on Stephen Harper’s first campaign asked Galbraith to help out. “I started phone banking for the campaign on Friday nights from six to nine at night,” she says. She kept a foot in the door by volunteering on campaigns and events throughout university, and when she graduated from journalism school in 2006, she chose to take a job in the the newly-elected PMO’s office as a special assistant rather than pursue journalism. She worked in several different roles in the federal government over the years, and her most recent political gig was as director of communications for Toronto mayor John Tory. “There’s not enough of us,” she says, regarding women in politics. “We provide a good counterpoint, it shouldn’t be a room full of boys—and historically it has been.”
Andrea Ernesaks; 29; Toronto
CV highlights: Former director of media relations and senior press secretary for former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne; currently a senior public affairs consultant
Ernesaks’s passion for public service comes from her mother, Anne, who worked for the City of Ottawa when she was growing up. A single parent, Anne often brought her daughter to work and wasn’t shy about putting childcare on the table as a workplace concern—literally. (During one meeting, Ernesaks says her mother put her on the table and said, “let’s talk childcare.”) Years later, as a political science student at Western University in London, Ont., Ernesaks grew interested in the inner workings of local politics. “I was curious about what staffers did and how MPPs interacted in the community, so I reached out to Deb Matthews, my local MPP, and began volunteering.” After graduating in 2012, she got an internship with the Ontario Legislative Assembly, and worked her way through the ranks, eventually landing as former Premier Kathleen Wynne’s press secretary. “We are in a very cool time where we are seeing so many more women getting involved and in leadership roles,” she says. But she believes engagement is personal, too. “There’s a perspective that politics has to be partisan. I don’t subscribe to that, I think it’s about issues and how you engage with issues. So, if you don’t like what you’re seeing in the discourse around refugees, volunteer with an organization that’s helping refugees.”
Rowa Mohamed; 24; London, Ont.
CV highlights: Current Ward 12 candidate in London’s municipal election
Two years ago, Rowa Mohamed was fed up about a range of local issues, including carding and police brutality. “I was so angry all the time,” she says. Making her frustration worse was the fact the community organizer didn’t see anyone in a position of power advocating for the people disproportionately affected by these experiences. Fortunately, she had support in the form of two female mentors: Toronto MPP Suze Morrison and Mojdeh Cox, a labour and human rights advocate. They told her to channel her anger and “think about the areas where you can make the most change or benefit.” She realized that municipal politics was a place where she could do the most good, and so early this year, the 24-year-old decided to run for a council seat. Her agenda: to bring the concerns of immigrants, youth, and working-class Londoners to the fore. “Most of my team is young women of colour and young women in my community who I’ve done work with over the years,” says Mohamed, who came to Canada from Sudan with her parents when she was three. “A lot have grown up in social housing or in working class families and a lot are first or second-generation immigrants. They don’t often see this as possible for them and I want them to know, it is absolutely possible for us.” She’s grateful to the “amazing women” who’ve encouraged and supported her and she’s keen on setting an example to others. “You can do this. There isn’t an age limit and you shouldn’t be intimated by the institution or the literally old white men who run it all the time. You have a place there.”
Jess Spindler; 32; Ottawa
CV highlights: Former MPP candidate; currently Director of Legal Affairs and Party Services for the Liberal Party in Ottawa
“If you make your interest known, you’ll have limitless opportunities,” says Spindler, who began volunteering in her local MPP’s office during her undergrad days at the University of Guelph. She continued volunteering during law school, too, and was later hired to manage several campaigns. This year, Spindler decided to take the leap and run as an MPP in her Toronto riding during the general election. It wasn’t an easy decision, and she thinks her gender may have factored into her initial hesitation. “When you look at the literature on the gender gap in politics you see that women feel less qualified to run for office,” she says. “But why did I think I need a CV a mile long to put myself forward? Men don’t seem to have that problem.”
Michal Hay; 34; Toronto
CV highlights: former national campaign manager for federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh; founder of Progress Toronto, a non-profit that advocates for progressive policies
Hay’s political career evolved from activism. In high school, her experience with sexual assault led her to raise awareness about violence against women in her school and community; in university, as student union president, she protested against tuition and housing increases. “I saw that the path to systemic change was through political power and law—changing the rules and changing who is in power,” she says about her political awakening. Hay joined the NDP at 23 and started volunteering on campaigns. In 2017, she was appointed national campaign director of Jagmeet Singh’s successful leadership campaign. Her heart, however, lies at the local level. “No other level of government is as close people and their daily lives as local government.” That thinking compelled her to found Progress Toronto, a non-profit that advocates for progressive policies, in 2018. “We’re focused on changing power at City Hall in Toronto and at the school board.” Part of that change is fighting for greater representation for women. “Many political spaces are still spaces for white men. You can see this in who is elected, and I see it in some of the organizing spaces I’m in.” Though she’s often the only woman at the table, she’s undeterred. “I am here and I am not going anywhere.”
Stevie O’Brien; 34; Toronto
CV highlights: Chief of Staff for MP Bill Blair, Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction
O’Brien got hooked on politics during her last year of law school at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., when she volunteered on a nomination campaign. She went on to practice commercial litigation at a Bay Street law firm for a few years after graduation, but when a former law classmate who worked at Queen’s Park for the Minister of Natural Resources asked her to join his office to help with the 2014 general election, she jumped at the chance. “It was supposed to be a short-term basis, but I absolutely loved the energy of a minister’s office and the feeling of being part of a team,” she says. O’Brien never went back to commercial litigation. “What I love about working in politics is that whether you agree with someone’s opinion or not, everyone is trying to make their community or province or country a better place.” Her advice to young women looking for a way into political life? “Put up your hand and volunteer, either through a riding association, local campaign or a leadership race. No campaign is too small if you believe in the candidate or cause.”
Tausha Michaud; 33; Toronto
CV highlights: Former chief of staff for Conservative MP Erin O’Toole; currently working as a public affairs manager
Michaud was a teenager during in the mid-’90s and her interest in politics was sparked by Ontario Premier Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution. A family friend who worked for a Tory MPP invited Michaud to Queen’s Park, which only added fuel to the fire. “I remember it being a very exciting day,” she says. Michaud then began volunteering on campaigns for Conservative candidates in her region and after university, those volunteer gigs led to various jobs, from executive assistant to MPP Rob Milligan to chief of staff for MP Erin O’Toole. Though she’s now working in public affairs, Michaud plans to work on O’Toole’s re-election campaign in the upcoming 2019 federal election, and still sits on the board of her riding association. “It really is just a matter of just getting involved locally, contacting your local riding association, or MPP’s office and saying, ‘I want to get involved.’”
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