In this latest edition of MV Spotlight, vice president Andrea Donlan reflects on the importance of substantive, rather than symbolic, representation in Election 44 and after.
Research underscores that diversity in politics results in tangible gains for democracy: stronger responses to citizen needs, enhanced partisan cooperation, and greater attention to policymaking that emphasizes quality of life for families and vulnerable populations.
With diversity, inclusion, and demand for action on racism, reconciliation, and representation at an all-time high, federal parties are constructing narratives that demonstrate their commitment to meaningful change. Parties have also put forward diverse candidates in record numbers.
The question is, does better representation on ballots translate into more diverse candidates being elected?
Election 44 looks more diverse than ever.
Sincere or just symbolic?
While political parties say they want to address equity and inclusion – and tout high numbers of diverse candidates – the fact of the matter is that women, visible minorities, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ and people with visible/invisible disabilities continue to be significantly underrepresented in Canadian politics. Despite making up more than 50% of the general population, only 29% of MPs are women today. While 27% of Canadians identify as a visible minority, only 8% of current MPs are people of colour. And Indigenous women candidates face tremendous odds with only 1 in 8 getting elected in comparison to 1 in 3 white men.
So if demand for diversity is present and candidates are increasingly diverse, what’s going on here? Well, there are two big reasons why diverse candidates still aren’t getting elected:
“We are pleased to see how many women and gender-diverse people are running in this federal election,” said Eleanor Fast, Equal Voice’s Executive Director. “What remains to be seen is if this will translate into electing more women and gender-diverse people on September 20. Factors such as if these candidates are running in winnable ridings and the unique types of barriers that women and gender-diverse people face on the campaign trail are among those that will determine the gender breakdown of our next Parliament.”
The “sacrificial lamb” factor:
Yes, there are more diverse candidates. But it’s often a PR tactic to boost numbers – with women even used as props and strategically placed in the centre of a shot to tell a better story. The unfortunate reality is that females and visible minorities are far more likely to be nominated in an unwinnable riding than a white male is. According to University of Calgary’s Melanee Thomas, this isn’t about voters, either. For example, when it comes to women, “The evidence is very clear that when women are candidates in places where they can win, they win.” The bottom line is that men are more likely to be nominated in party strongholds.
The funding factor:
Women receive less money from their party and riding associations to fund their campaign. On average, across all parties, women received $35,838 in campaign funds compared to $40,162 for men in the 2019 federal election. The gap is even starker amongst visible minorities and people with disabilities.
Substantive Change is Urgently Required
To move from symbolic to substantive representation, political parties must get serious about tackling the root causes of under-representation. While progress has been made, there are still significant roadblocks.
- Systemic barriers and lack of supports are pervasive: Diverse candidates may be on the ballot but they aren’t always invited behind closed doors. Too many are left out of the inner circle where the real decisions are made. And many new Canadians and people with disabilities simply don’t have access to mentorship opportunities or the networks needed to help fund their nomination or election campaign. For women, the lack of family-friendly environments and family responsibilities can make campaigning a non-starter.
- Stereotypes are rampant: Visible minorities are often judged by their name, not their ideas. What’s more, female candidates are subjected to gender-based media treatment and criticized for what they look like, not what they stand for. Racism is an ongoing issue that parties need to take a firmer stance on – and leaders hold the most influence here.
- Safety is a serious risk: Violence, vandalism, harassment, and threats are unfortunately the reality for far too many women and visible minorities who choose to run, and a significant deterrent for those who don’t. The ugly truth of this federal election: More than a quarter of comments sent to incumbent candidates on Twitter during the first week of this campaign were toxic. Most alarming – but not at all surprising – is that females and people of colour are on the receiving end of the majority of online hate and vitriol.
Without the increased representation of women, visible minorities, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ and people with visible/invisible disabilities, democracy in Canada will not ever be its most effective: financial priorities will be misaligned, perspectives will be male-skewed, discussions will be myopic, and critical issues will be ignored.
It’s time to move beyond tokenism and create real traction in addressing the real barriers. This can no longer be a story about how many women and people of colour are knocking on doors. Rather, it must be about how many diverse candidates successfully get to Ottawa.