If there was one message that came strongly out of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, it is that feminists worldwide need to start putting forth concrete and implementable alternatives to the current neo-liberal globalization model. While we have analyzed the economic policies and critiqued them from every angle, the time has come to push the agenda forward and demand that feminist economic policies be given serious consideration. We were reminded that for this to actually happen, any and all feminist economic agendas MUST be accompanied by a feminist political agenda. This was sweet music to my ears, and to those of my colleague, Nancy Peckford.
Nancy and I attended the conference to host a poster session, and as members of a panel dealing with women’s political engagement and strategies for the future. Bringing Nancy’s experiences of the World March of Women lobby, and my fly-on-the-wall perspective of the limits to the power of the Liberal Women’s Caucus, we spoke to attendees about the absence of genuine democracy in Canada as long as women MP’s continue to stagnate at 20 per cent, and as long as the voices of feminist Canadians continue to be ignored both outside and within the walls of Parliament Hill.
From both Nancy’s and my perspectives, and in the face of advancements in India, Argentina, and South Africa, to name a few, Canada is not a model of democracy when it comes to the inclusion of women’s voices, and those of other traditionally marginalized groups. With quotas of representation for either sex at 40 per cent-60 per cent in Argentina nationally and provincially, and a 33 per cent minimum quota for women in India locally, we are dismayed by the Canadian government’s failure to uphold the section 15 equality guarantees of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. On the contrary, Canada maintains an electoral system that is highly risk-averse, and the gatekeepers of Parliament, political parties, scare easily at merely the perception that one does not fit within the established « norm » for candidates. This is unacceptable in light of our Constitution’s clarity on the use of affirmative action to offset the traditional old boy’s networks that informally advance the candidacy of white men. Moreover, the insincere appeals from the Right for a system based on « merit », and « qualified candidates » leaves me laughing, after having witnessed firsthand the prowess and « quality » of the abundance of mediocre white male suits on Parliament Hill. Fellow panellist Veena Shayya, founder of Women’s Political Watch in India, insisted that feminists must not apologize for supporting minimum targets, as they are not a « helping hand » to weak female candidates, but rather a right, in order to establish a level playing field and crash the system of informal affirmative action, or mentoring, that currently advances many an inexperienced male.
As the result of a desire to provide impetus and information for Canadian women’s organizations to mobilize toward truly representative democracy, NAWL will be hosting the Roundtable on Women and Politics in spring of 2003. At this consultation, we aim to discuss the many barriers to women’s political participation and access to decision-making positions. We aim to generate concrete alternatives, such as providing access to childcare services at polling stations, setting limits to campaign spending, incorporating elements of proportionality into the electoral system, and using minimum targets to ensure the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups.
We will need to mobilize all of our allies, academics, activists, current and past Parliamentarians, and like-minded organizations into a concrete political agenda for positive change that will help restore the semblance of representative democracy in Canada. With the support of feminists in progressive developing and developed countries around the world, reinventing globalization will slowly seep into the realm of the possible, but ultimately, it must begin at home.
Jackie Steele is the coordinator of the National Roundtable on Women and Politics.