A leader in the NWT’s women’s movement says the near-gender parity in territorial politics following this month’s election will bring with it a new way of doing business.
Despite having one of the first female premiers in Canada – Nellie Cournoyea, in 1991 – the NWT has historically had low numbers of female candidates, particularly successful ones.
This changed on October 1 as the NWT went from having the lowest to the highest representation of women among Canada’s provincial and territorial legislatures.
Louise Elder, executive director of the Status of Women Council of the NWT, thinks that will, in turn, change the way the government works and prioritizes issues.
“Our voice will be at the table. And then hopefully from there, we see the dialogue, the approach to working together, and the actual priorities and budget allocation change accordingly,” she said.
Simply being a female politician doesn’t place you into a homogeneous ideological group – all nine newly elected female MLAs differ in their political views. However, a 2008 survey of parliamentarians found women in various nations’ parliaments had shared experiences and concerns “which they tend to prioritize.”
“Women’s concerns are those that have a direct impact on women, and include childcare, equality, domestic violence, equal pay, parental leave, pensions, reproductive rights, abortion, health, work/life balance and other issues which emanate from the private sphere,” the study stated.
As the NWT’s new leaders outlined their priorities at the Legislative Assembly last week, common themes across genders and regions emerged. Climate change, the economy, and settling land claims were priorities voiced by most MLAs.
Additionally, some male MLAs in 2019 championed plans the 2008 study deemed women’s issues. Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson called for universal daycare, as did Yellowknife South MLA Caroline Wawzonek.
The 2008 study suggested women had brought different leadership styles and values to their roles in various parliaments. Female politicians, the study claimed, appeared “more likely to build consensus, are good at multi-tasking, and tend to work harder.”
Elder believes the prominence of women in territorial politics will have important consequences for the NWT’s youth, too.
“The fact that there are nine women in the legislature means that when we look at the legislature, and when our daughters and granddaughters look, they see role models and they see themselves reflected there,” she said.
The Status of Women Council considers itself a longtime player in the quest to help more women gain election. Elders feels October’s election result is the culmination of decades working in partnership with organizations like the Native Women’s Association of the NWT and, more recently, campaign schools and committees.
“The list is really too long to to name, and I would hate to leave anyone out. But this has been a concerted effort across the territory by so many women and we have allies,” she said.
What were challenges in the 1970s and 80s continue to be challenges, Elder said: shifting social attitudes and perceptions, and finding funding.
She called on new MLAs to ensure they appoint the right staff, build a strong support network, and remain open to hearing from their constituents – adding she believes the nine female MLAs have a tough four years ahead.
“One of the unfortunate things is women are often elected when things are at their most challenging and they’re set up to fail,” said Elder. “The expectations are so high and the challenges are so great.”