Three men and one woman sat on a panel on Tuesday night in Fort Smith to address the lack of women in the legislative assembly.
The special committee is touring the territory to discuss barriers women face to running in territorial elections, and what incentives could be introduced to encourage them to do so.
The roundtable community discussion was led by MLA Julie Green, who was joined by Louis Sebert, Tom Beaulieu, and Michael Nadli, and approximately 15 community members, more than half of whom were female.
Public meetings are also scheduled in Hay River on January 9, Fort Providence on January 10, Dettah on January 16, Yellowknife on January 17, and Fort Simpson on January 23.
The committee expects to report on results from the consultations this spring.
Its goal is to recommend initiatives that will increase representation of women in the legislature to 20 percent by 2023 (four seats) and 30 percent by 2027 (six seats).
Right now, only two MLAs – or 10 percent – are women.
‘Temporary special measures’
At the event, MLAs shared a discussion paper published last spring on so-called “temporary special measures” to increase the number of women in the legislative assembly.
After noting the NWT ranks last among all Canadian legislatures in terms of representation of women, the paper offers three possible guaranteed representation models: five guaranteed seats for women, 20 percent representation of women, and 30 percent representation of women.
The “five guaranteed seats” model, which became a focus of conversation in Fort Smith, is based on the Samoan model.
In Samoa, an island nation in the South Pacific, the constitution was amended to allow additional seats for women to be added if fewer than five women were elected.
“It would appear that the implementation of the measure itself provided a catalyst to discuss and debate the value of women in public life and encourage more [women] to let their names stand,” summarized the discussion paper.
“If you’re going to add five seats and you want to increase representation of women, open [the seats] up territory-wide,” responded Dennis Bevington, who served three terms as the NWT’s New Democrat member of parliament and nearly 10 years as the town’s mayor.
Others quickly pointed out that if women were competing for an additional five seats representing the whole territory, their campaign costs and travel time – often cited as barriers – would increase.
Additionally, some worried that larger centres would be disproportionately represented as those candidates would have easier access to a larger voter base.
Others were concerned that a guaranteed-seat system would erode the democratic process.
“I think everyone needs to win on their own merit,” said Linda Martin.
Anna Kikoak echoed, “I’d hate to take away the power of the vote.”
Brenda Gauthier suggested guaranteeing five seats would reduce the confidence of the women who win them in the assembly: “I don’t think it’s going to do any favours.”
But Francois Paulette pulled out a “Working Toward a Common Future” publication, from 1992, which he said envisioned equal representation.
“Give the five seats to the women? Why not? I would recommend that,” he said.
Chris Westwell, a town councillor, proposed the idea of term limits, saying it would be “a way to ensure new blood gets injected into the system.”
The longer people are in power, he explained, the easier it becomes for them to hold on to their position – and the harder it is for new people to break in.
“Incumbency is such an obstacle, to the point where it becomes an obstacle to democracy.”
When MLA Green pressed him for a term-limit length, Westwell suggested three terms.
The job description
Nearly all who spoke agreed women’s confidence is a major barrier – and a barrier that could be partially addressed through clarifying MLAs’ roles and responsibilities, time commitments, and supports available to them.
“The biggest thing is having people see themselves in this role,” said Green.
“For a lot of women, they don’t believe they have the qualifications, the support, the team … They don’t have the confidence.”
Fort Smith Mayor Lynn Napier-Buckley said she has noticed men will apply for jobs even if they aren’t qualified, while women want to be overqualified before they throw their name in.
“Having all of that information would … give them more confidence to say, ‘Yes, this is absolutely something I can do,'” she said.
Community member Denise Yuhas was more blunt: “You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to stand up there [in the legislative assembly] and speak your mind. It looks a lot more complicated than it is.
“When you see them on TV, everyone looks like they know exactly what they’re doing, but they don’t.”
Both MLAs and community members brought up campaign schools, which provide training to women interested in running for municipal or territorial government, as valuable opportunities.
Some felt those experiences needed to start sooner, when women are young and still in school.
‘Leaps and bounds’
Many of the barriers brought up revolved around how women remain the primary caregivers for their families and, as a result, need to be supported so they can care for both their families and their constituents.
The costs of campaigning and childcare, and meeting schedules which are not sensitive to family needs, were targeted as easy places to start making changes.
As Green explained, it would be simpler to change rules than it would be to change legislation to add guaranteed seats.
In general, the community agreed, the political process needs to be accessible and there needs to be more conversation about women in politics if their participation is to be destigmatized.
“I think if we get more women in legislative assembly, the territory will move in leaps and bounds because women are hard workers,” said Jeannie Marie-Jewell, a former Thebacha MLA and first female Speaker in the NWT.
“It’s an uphill battle but it’s not that it can’t be done.”
Bevington, who served at the federal level when 40 percent of the elected body was made up of women, said it made a “huge difference.”
“Decisions took into account a greater variety of points of view,” he said.
“It will help and it will make us stronger.”