Plebiscite on gender parity is a world first
Either way, the result of vote will influence the course of Nunavut’s future political culture
Nunavut residents head to the polls May 26 to decide if they want an equal number of men and women governing Canada’s newest territory.
If the answer is yes, future voters in each riding will cast two ballotsone from a list of male candidates and one from a list of females candidates, creating the first legislated gender-equal government in the world.
The proposal, introduced two years ago by the Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC), was intended to ensure balanced representation of men and women at the highest political level.
Although women make up just over half the population of Nunavut they have been systematically under-represented in politics. As cited in the NIC’s Footprints 2 report, women across Canada face a number of barriers to their participation in politics, including sex-stereotyping, the difficulty of juggling career and family responsibilities, negative attitudes within political parties and the fact the men just tend to have better political connections.
The gender-parity option was thought to have widespread support until ten MLAs representing Nunavut ridings in the NWT legislature refused to endorse it at a leaders’ meeting in Cambridge Bay last February. Led by Manitok Thompson, the territorial minister responsible for the status of women, the MLAs said they wouldn’t support the proposal without the consent of a majority of Nunavut residents.
The question also holds significant personal meaning for one of Nunavut’s few prominent female political leaders.
“I don’t believe that it is right to put me as a woman in a position where for the rest of my political career, I will only be able to run against women,” Thompson said.
Other Nunavut residents have since voiced their own concerns about the gender-parity proposal.
With the plebiscite now just ten days away, proponents of gender parity are doing all they can to convince people to vote Yes. This weekend, they begin a Nunavut-wide tour that will take their message to eight communities in five days.
NIC chief commissioner John Amagoalik, who’s fought since the 1970s to create the new territory, is one of the proposal’s strongest supporters.
“I think everyone agrees that men and women see the world differently,” Amagoalik said. “They have a different process at arriving at decisions. I think this will result in a wider view when things are considered at the Nunavut legislative assembly.
“I think in today’s system, there’s a lack of communication between the two sexes. There’s lack of understanding and, in many instances, a lack of respect.”
Thompson’s opposition to the proposal notwithstanding, women’s groups in the North favor a gender-equal legislative assembly.
Women’s groups say Yes
Martha Flaherty, president of the Inuit women’s association Pauktuutit, believes gender parity in the new legislature would help women overcome the “old boys’ club” mentality that has traditionally kept them out of positions of power in the territorial government.
“Inuit have been fighting for democracy for a long timefor human rights, Inuit rights, aboriginal rights. And yet our government is still practising discrimination against women,” Flaherty said.
The NWT legislative assembly in Yellowknife has the worst record in the country when it comes to female representation. Just two of 24 seats in the legislature, or eight per cent, are held by women. Thompson is currently the only woman in the NWT cabinet.
Rita Arey, president of the NWT Status of Women Council, thinks having more women in the legislative assembly would go a long way toward righting the political inequalities northern women face. Besides, she said, gender parity reflects what has always been part of traditional Inuit culture.
“Women’s opinions were respected and sought out because they provided balance and harmony in decisions affecting the well-being of the community as a whole. We must regain this balance.”
Mary Simon, Canadian polar ambassador, says gender parity in the Nunavut legislature is necessary to correct the inequalitites between Inuit men and women caused by contact with outside cultures.
“Men and women in traditional times were always equal, neither could survive without the work performed by the other,” Simon said.
Nunavut voters will be asked to say yes or no to the following question: Should the first Nunavut legislative assembly have equal numbers of men and women MLAs, with one man and one woman elected to represent each electoral district?
The results of the plebiscite aren’t binding. Even if the proposal is supported by a majority of Nunavut voters, it would still need the federal cabinet’s approval.