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Women on Ottawa council offer advice to their 20-year-old selves

Equal Voice has launched a campaign to bring more women into federal politics, but in the capital we can barely get them to run for council.

Coun. Diane Deans has been on council for more than 20 years. She's one of four women on council this term.

Emma Jackson/Metro

Coun. Diane Deans has been on council for more than 20 years. She's one of four women on council this term.

Encouraging more women to run for elected office is hardly a fresh idea, but advocacy group Equal Voice had a fresh take on it Wednesday, launching a video of 11 female MPs offering advice to their 20-year-old selves.

With gender parity now in the federal cabinet – it’s 2016, after all – you’d  think we’d be celebrating some real progress toward the widely-accepted target of 30 per cent female representatives. Federally, we’ve made some modest gains and sit at 26 per cent.

But here in the capital, there’s still work to be done. Ottawa elected only four women to the 24-person council in 2014 – a rate of 17 per cent. And we’re actually going backwards: that’s down from 25 per cent in 2010, and 29 per cent in 2006.

Metro spoke to the four women on council about the impact this trend has on policy and participation – and how to fix it.

Diane Deans

Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans was first elected to council in 1994, and has been there ever since. She’s seen her fair share of contentious debates – most recently around the creation of a low-income transit pass – and she’s convinced outcomes would be different if more women had a voice.

“Not every decision, not every day, not every single issue, but there are differences (between men and women) reflected in the conversation, and if you’re not at the table then those differences are bigger,” Deans said. “There are many examples of decisions that are being made here that I think if we were more reflective of the population then they’d go differently.”

But all is not lost. Deans actively encourages young women to get involved, even hosting a workshop at her home to engage women in community work.

She tells them what she would have told her 20-year-old self: “Believe that your decision-making ability is as good as anybody else’s, follow your own best judgement, follow your heart, and don’t be dissuaded by others,” she said.

WATCH: Four councillors give advice to their younger selves

Emma Jackson/Metro

As advocacy group Equal Voice launched a national video this week asking MPs for advice to their 20-year-old selves, Metro Ottawa asked Ottawa council's four women the same question.

Marianne Wilkinson

Kanata North Coun. Marianne Wilkinson was the first woman to run for a seat on the March Township council nearly 50 years ago.

From there she become Kanata’s first mayor, and is now in her 10th year on Ottawa city council.

Wilkinson knows what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s game: she was a young mother of three the first time she was elected in 1969. She faced a lot of criticism for her decision.

While Wilkinson said “people are more open to it now,” she said she hears similar complaints from young women who want to get involved in politics.

“The thing that bothered them the most was the way the media portrays women,” Wilkinson said. She pointed to the ongoing U.S. election, where Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is constantly criticized for her appearance. “They really don’t like the fact that they couldn’t be themselves and be accepted the way a guy could be themselves.”

Wilkinson said the best way to beat those comments is to “do your homework” and get involved early.

“You have to show you’re doing things with your community,” she said. “Do things that make a difference to people.”

Jan Harder

Jan Harder has represented Barrhaven since 1998, but she doesn’t let her minority status on council affect how she gets things done.

“I spent a lot of time in business and I always was the only female buyer, the only female district manager, the only female whatever,” Harder said. “But I’ve always thought of myself as a person doing the best job I can at any job that I do.”

That said, she knows it’s still tough for modern women to manage family and career priorities.

“As much as times have changed… it’s very, very difficult,” she said. “The mother is still the one that carries the load.”

Even Harder, who waited until her youngest daughter was 15 before she ran for office, said she left home as late as she could and rushed home as early as possible to spend time with her family.

It’s not impossible, though – especially for keen young women who have done the groundwork for success.

“Its just encouraging them to think large, encouraging them to believe, and encouraging them to have confidence,” Harder said.

Catherine McKenney

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney is new to council, but not to politics: she was a staffer for two NDP members of Parliament, and worked for councillors Diane Holmes and Alex Munter before getting elected in 2014.

McKenney’s also the first openly gay woman on council.

But when she was 20, “politics was the furthest thing from my mind,” she said. So, she gets it if today’s 20-year-olds aren’t exactly inspired by the lacklustre female representation around Ottawa’s council table.

“You can understand why she might think, ‘How am I going to get there, I don’t see a lot of role models,’” McKenney said.

That’s a concern, she said, since our governments are still discussing the same issues as the very first women’s issues debate in 1984: pay equity, violence against women and daycare.

But McKenney encouraged young women to believe in their ability to make positive change – and to turn that into a political career sooner rather than later.

“I would have told my 20-year-old self to have more confidence, to know that I could do it, and to move ahead more quickly than I did,” McKenney said.

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