At the end of 2020, Canada quietly reached a milestone: our first-ever gender-equal house of Parliament, the Senate.
Sen. Frances Lankin noted in December that there were 47 women and 47 men in the Senate.
But given the Senate’s institutional structure, the high number of women legislators generally allows for a strong representation of women’s interests in the upper house — which is why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should make strides to return it to gender parity with his next Senate appointments.
In December 2020, Canada was tied with Australia for the second-highest percentage of women legislators in the upper house (with the Caribbean’s Antigua and Barbuda taking the top spot).
In 2019, women made up only 24 per cent of legislators globally. Recently, the Canadian House of Commons reached 100 women MPs for the first time, amounting to 30 per cent female representation.
Prime ministers have long used Senate appointments to make up for the lack of diversity in the House of Commons. The Senate was initially created, in fact, to protect the interests of minority regions. More recently, though, it’s become a chamber where the interests of marginalized groups are protected.
Senators generally speak up for marginalized groups by introducing legislation that protects their interests, and by scrutinizing and amending government legislation. That certainly isn’t always the case — Beyak retired from the Senate earlier this year amid a controversy over her remarks about Indigenous people and residential schools. But it was other senators, including Murray Sinclair and Mary Jane McCallum, who pushed for the departure of the Stephen Harper appointee.
Since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was introduced in 1982, Canadians have come to see themselves as belonging to groups that stretch across provincial borders. We tend to identify with each other based on our gender, ethnicity and language, and there have been growing calls for our politicians to better represent us in that regard.
The significance of women in the Senate
But why should we care about the gender of our legislators? Don’t we need people best equipped to do the job?
In 1995, political theorist Anne Phillips wrote about “the politics of presence.” She maintains that there is a difference in the lived experiences of men and women, and the representation provided by individuals is influenced by their experiences.
In studies of representation, diversity is increasingly seen as beneficial for the policy-making process. Women senators bring unique viewpoints to the table that will shape legislation and policy in Canada. Gender cannot be the only reason a woman is chosen, but being a woman should not be a barrier due to outdated masculine selection criteria.
Researchers continue to investigate whether women legislators truly represent and look out for women in politics. There is mounting evidence suggesting that the representation of women’s interests is not only about the number of women in a legislature, but also about the presence of legislators who will work to represent women’s policy preferences.
Men can certainly represent women’s interests, but empirical evidence shows that they usually don’t take up women’s causes on their own initiative. However, research has shown that male legislators’ advocacy of women’s issues increases as the number of women in legislatures grows.
That means that as more women join the Canadian Senate, there will be more opportunities for them to work together as well as collaborating with like-minded male colleagues to advance women’s interests.
Senators have defied government wishes
There’s also hope that senators are in a better position to represent women’s interests than elected legislators in the House of Commons. Evidence from around the world supports the theory that party discipline hinders the promotion and representation of women’s interests.
But party discipline is relatively weak in the Canadian Senate. Senators are appointed, and they don’t have to toe the party line to ensure re-election.
More than half of Canadian senators don’t belong to a national party caucus. That means that in most cases, senators are not subject to party discipline at all. Therefore, they have the freedom to act for other groups seeking representation, including women, and in a non-partisan manner.
We’ve already seen examples of senators thwarting the government’s wishes to protect women’s interests. Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government’s Bill C-43 advanced anti-choice abortion policy in Canada. Famously, the bill died in the Senate after a tie vote in 1991, when multiple Progressive Conservative senators, including three women, voted against the bill.
More recently, in 2017, senators pushed to eliminate sex discrimination in the Indian Act, amending Bill S-3 to do so. While the initial amendment was rejected by the government, senators’ efforts led it to reconsider its policy and ultimately include their changes.
There is already some evidence of heightened feminist activity in the Canadian Senate as the number of women senators rises. Through interviews with senators in 2019, I unearthed a network of feminist legislators forming among newly appointed women senators.
Given the important role played by women senators, it’s imperative that gender parity in the Senate is restored. Trudeau’s next Senate appointments will be ones to watch. It will be increasingly important to look for indicators that our senators are representing otherwise marginalized groups.
PhD Candidate, Political Studies, Queen’s University, Ontario
Elizabeth McCallion does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.