Parliament Hill will be overrun by women this week

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This time, 338 young women will be taking seats in the House of Commons. Daughters of the Vote, a major national gathering spearheaded by the multi-partisan Equal Voice, will be debating key issues facing Canada in the next 150 years.


First published in The Hill Times on Monday, March 6, 2017.

OTTAWA—This week, Parliament Hill will be overrun by women. Normally, that is not so unusual, as the majority of political and bureaucratic support staffers are women.

But this time, 338 young women will be taking seats in the House of Commons.

Daughters of the Vote, a major national gathering spearheaded by the multi-partisan Equal Voice, will be debating key issues facing Canada in the next 150 years.

Future leaders include 70 indigenous representatives, and women from as far away as the Arctic Circle. Twenty-five speakers will make 90-second statements in the Chamber, on issues ranging from equality for girls and women to humans rights, to immigrant, refugee and resettlement issues.
Daughters of the Vote is a celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, and the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in Canada.

It took 50 years for Canadian women to actually secure the right to vote. One hundred years later, we are still far from achieving equality in the House of Commons.

The appointed Senate is much closer, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made it a point to seek equality while changing the way Senators are nominated.

In our highest elected Chamber, the country still has a long way to go.

This week, Canadians will get a chance to see exactly what a Chamber of women would look like.

Kicking off the parliamentary session will be Canada’s only female prime minister, Kim Campbell. She occupied the office in 1993 after being chosen by her party to replace Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

More than 50 current Members of Parliament have signalled their intention to participate in the four-day gathering. All opposition leaders plan to be there and the organizers are hopeful the prime minister will attend.

The meeting is a culmination of political gatherings that have taken place across the country, in 12 of 14 provincial and territorial legislatures, over the past number of months.

Every provincial legislature hosted Daughters of the Vote delegates in the lead-up to this national event. In many instances, Daughters of the Vote were received by premiers in their respective provinces.

What makes the initiative so amazing is that the majority of those attending had never set foot in a parliamentary setting until they applied in an open call to be part of the EV 100th anniversary celebration of suffragettes.
And the initiative almost did not happen.

Equal Voice executive director Nancy Peckford and her team started reflecting more than two years ago on the best way to honour the 100th anniversary of real democracy for Canadian women.

EV brainstormed with federal and provincial Members of Parliament, local chapters, and members of the EV advisory board including multiple former women parliamentarians.

The idea of a Hill gathering was attractive, but involved a huge financial commitment for a largely voluntary organization.

Provincial Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod wanted a big celebration, and she tipped Peckford off to a last-minute 150th birthday call for proposals launched by the Conservative government in June of 2015.

It was so quick that the application for government funding was completed just before a midnight deadline and Peckford conceived the name of the project, Daughters of the Vote, on the back of serviette at a local fast food restaurant in Kemptville, Ont.

The application was subsequently approved by the new Liberal government,
But the ambitious national gathering could not have been possible without major support from sources other than government. The main costs of transporting 338 delegates to Ottawa were absorbed by generous contributions from VIA Rail and Air Canada.

The Canadian Teachers Federation generously supported the initiative with 35 facilitators for the four-day round of meetings and events.

The Toronto-Dominion Bank, Unifor and the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions provided additional funding for the events.

The good news is that this compelling four-day celebration of women’s right to vote is just a beginning.

Equal Voice is planning to work with these young leaders, to keep them engaged and encourage them to run for the real Parliament. EV plans to build upon their wide-ranging group of active local chapters across the country. The future will include the development of a series of regional policy networks designed to assist women in their quest for political equality.

That includes support and information on being a candidate and encouragement and advice for engagement behind the scenes as political organizers and fundraisers.

We can only hope it won’t be another 100 years before the celebration of the right to vote includes real gender equality in Parliament.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era Cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.