Power of one young woman’s voice rocked the world last week

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When Malala Yousafzai received her honorary citizenship, the diminutive speaker did not mince words. She even dared to use the ‘f’ word, calling on all Canadians to become feminists.


Published first in The Hill Times on April 17, 2017.

OTTAWA—The power of one young woman’s voice rocked the world last week.

When Malala Yousafzai received her honorary citizenship, the diminutive speaker did not mince words. She even dared to use the “f” word, calling on all Canadians to become feminists.

Her delivery was gentle, but the content was carefully crafted to make the ultimate point. And it did.

She underscored that if all girls around the world went to school for 12 years, low and middle income countries could add $92-billion to their economies.

She also made the link between education and peace. “When a country gives all its children secondary education, they cut their risk of war in half.”

Yousafzai also had gentle digs for Canada and the United States. She emphasized that “the world needs leadership based on serving humanity, not based on how many weapons you have.” That contradicted the decision by American President Donald Trump to cut foreign aid and increase the military budget by 10 per cent increase.

Canada, while praised for the prime minister’s decision to invoke cabinet parity, did not escape comment for promises not kept.

The country has endorsed sustainable development goals which set our percentage of support for international aid at 0.7 per cent. But last year, funding contributions dropped as a percentage of our gross domestic product. Malala acknowledged that politicians make some promises that cannot be kept, but warned “this is one you must honour.”

She called on the prime minister to make 12-year education of girls a top priority during his 2018 tenure at the helm of the G7. She also linked education to the world security agenda, insisting that “extremism grows alongside inequality – in places where people feel they have no opportunity, no voice and no hope.”

Malala’s speech evoked an emotional response from parliamentarians on all sides of the chamber. Minister responsible for the Status of Women, Maryam Monsef, a refugee herself, said she had goose bumps during most of the presentation.

Justin Trudeau will, no doubt, build on the Malala message to put the issue of educational equality squarely on the G-7 agenda.

Malala also waded into domestic politics by inferring that the current imbalance in parliamentary parity between men and women needs to change.

She encouraged young women to raise their voices and suggested that “the next time I visit, I hope to see more of you filling these seats in Parliament.”

That wish was reminiscent of another meeting of Canadian women just one week before Malala’s visit.

A non-partisan group of New Brunswick women leaders organized a conference entitled “Women for 50 per cent,” engaging more than 400 delegates in an election planning process in Fredericton.

Every single leader of every party showed up as well, promising they would increase the number of women running under their banners in the next provincial election called for Sept. 24, 2018.

In the case of Premier Brian Gallant, he promised to go one step further. The Premier has personally taken on the responsibility for the status of women in the province, and has introduced specific measures to tackle the paucity of women in parliament.

At present, the New Brunswick legislature has only 16 per cent women, which is one of the worst records in the country.

The premier has vowed to change that, and is exploring all options, including the introduction of financial changes to elections legislation designed to encourage political parties to nominate more women.

Election expenses that are normally subsidized will be topped up by 50 per cent in the ridings where a woman candidate is running.

The top-up is a first in Canadian election law, and will no doubt be copied by other provinces. National non-partisan Equal Voice is currently reviewing all methods, including legislative, of pursuing equality in politics.

At the conference, the premier vowed to do everything in his power to increase women candidates for the Liberal party, and the leaders of all other parties vowed to do likewise.

The 12 women who launched “Women for 50 per cent,” headed by business woman Roxanne Fairweather and former deputy premier Aldea Landry, have been nicknamed the Mothers of Confederation.

Their impetus has prompted all political parties to unanimously support equality objectives. The legislature will vote soon on the financial roadmap to make that happen.

Malala thrilled Parliament and the country with her passionate message of inclusion.

Mothers of Confederation have already taken up the equality challenge in New Brunswick. Let’s hope the rest of the country follows suit.

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