Ottawa Citizen

Friday 12 March 1999

Senate pins hopes on gender equality

Members see women as key to credibility

Jack Aubry
The Ottawa Citizen

Senators who are worried about their future have come up with a new plan to save their jobs: Turn the beleaguered Senate into a House of Women.

A chamber of sober non-testosterone thought, if you will. The mother of all legislatures.

Senator Serge Joyal floated the idea during a speech in the Senate marking International Women's Week, saying the chamber's sagging credibility might be shored up if it was viewed as a place for the gender that is under-represented everywhere else in politics.

"Honourable senators, we are all preoccupied with the credibility of this institution in which we work daily. Mind you, if this house becomes the only House of Parliament in Canada where gender parity is reached, many people will think twice before abolishing it," said Mr. Joyal.

"They would say that the Senate is at least a place where equality exists in our land."

There are 31 women and 70 men in the Senate, a higher percentage of females than any other legislative assembly in Canada, provincial or federal.

But achieving gender balance will take time. At the current rate of appointments by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, equality in the Senate won't be reached until 2013.

Mr. Chretien has appointed 31 mostly Liberal senators since taking office in 1993, with 18 of them being women -- the best record ever of a prime minister.

"This is by far the most significant reform to the composition of our house since the retirement age was reduced to 75 in 1965 by Prime Minister Pearson," said Mr. Joyal.

In debate later, Senate Speaker Gildas Molgat bragged that his home province of Manitoba was the first to reach parity in the upper chamber, with three female senators and three males.

Liberal Senator John Bryden suggested that perhaps the prime minister should appoint only women to the Senate.

"That would eventually put us in the position where the Parliament of Canada would have 105 women (senators) plus the 35 (MPs in the House of Commons), which would come much closer to a balance," said Mr. Bryden.

Under his formula, 140 of the 406 seats -- about 35 per cent -- on the Hill would be filled by women.

Mr. Joyal said Mr. Bryden was suggesting a "drastic" reform, pointing out that 58 per cent of Mr. Chretien's appointments had already been women.

"In order to change that pattern, the will of the Prime Minister should be stated clearly, that until parity is reached in this house, women only will be appointed. This is the opportunity the Prime Minister has at hand," said Mr. Joyal.

He said the current rate of appointments would mean it will take 14 years before 53 of the 105 senators are women. "We can see by (Mr. Chretien's) appointments that he has made, that more are going to women. Therefore, we can expect more female appointments. I do not say that in any critical way, shape or form."

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney named 13 female senators while filling 57 vacancies, representing 23 per cent of his appointments, compared to Pierre Trudeau, who gave the nod to 12 women while filling 81 seats in the red chamber-- a rate of 15 per cent.

A new book by University of Ottawa Professor Manon Tremblay says the myth that each election delivers a fresh crop of female politicians is not supported by the numbers.

She points out that in the 1995 Ontario election, the number of female MLAs in the province dropped from 19 to 18. In Quebec, the number has grown by only six per cent, jumping from 21 to 29, in the past 10 years.

Ms. Tremblay says female representation in Canadian legislatures has hit a glass ceiling, stagnating at around 20 to 25 per cent.

When Mr. Joyal told the house that parity would not be reached until 2013 at Mr. Chretien's current rate, Senator Jerahmiel Grafstein interjected wryly, "without the intervention of God."

Mr. Joyal responded that the senators pray to God at the opening of each sitting and sometimes he listens.

"She listens," interjected Senator Sharon Carstairs.

Copyright 1999 Ottawa Citizen