Women’s participation in Canadian politics and in the Parliament of Canada is longstanding. Over 100 years ago, women began lobbying to obtain the right to vote in federal elections and to represent the interests of their fellow Canadians as elected or appointed parliamentarians.
Women and the Parliament of Canada
Federally, some women gained the right to vote in 1917, under the Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act. In 1918, An Act to Confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women granted most women the right to vote federally in Canada. However, most Asian-Canadian, Inuit and First Nations women and men were not able to vote federally until 1949, 1950 and 1960, respectively. As well, other groups of women, such as Black women, have historically faced prejudice and discrimination that may have affected their decision to vote.
The first female member of Parliament, Agnes Macphail, was not elected to the House of Commons until 1921, and for decades, various groups of women would remain unrepresented in the House of Commons. For example, Ethel Blondin-Andrew was the first First Nations female Member of Parliament (1988) and Jean Augustine was the first Black female Member of Parliament (1993).
In contrast, women were not eligible to be appointed to the Senate until 1929, following the efforts of five women who fought to have women recognized as “persons” under the law (the Persons Case).
While the first female senator, Cairine Wilson, was appointed to the Senate in 1930, some groups of women remained unrepresented among senators for several decades. For example, Anne C. Cools became the first Black senator in 1984, and the first female First Nations senators, Lillian Eva Dyck and Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, were not appointed until 2005, nearly 50 years after the first male First Nations senator, James Gladstone, was appointed in 1958.
Women in the 42nd Parliament
The world average for women’s representation in the single or lower house of national parliaments was 24.3% on 1 January 2019, whereas women’s representation in Canada’s Parliament stood at 26.9% (62nd of 193 countries) on that date. In Canada’s 42nd Parliament, women’s representation reached its highest ever level in both the House of Commons and the Senate, as illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1 – Women’s Representation in the Parliament of Canada since the 14th Parliament
As of 26 February 2019, a total of 322 women had been elected to the House of Commons since 1867; representing 7.3% of all elected members of Parliament since the first Parliament. Further, women’s representation in the House of Commons and the Senate has increased since the beginning of the 42nd Parliament in 2015, as illustrated in Figure 2.
Figure 2 – Women’s Representation in the 42nd Parliament of Canada
While women’s representation has steadily increased since 1921, Canada’s House of Commons has yet to surpass the 30% target for women’s representation in decision-making and leadership roles set by the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Furthermore, only one prime minister in Canadian history has been a woman, the Right Honourable Kim Campbell, in 1993.
Gender Equality Initiatives in the 42nd Parliament
During the 42nd Parliament, various pieces of legislation related to women’s rights and gender equality have been enacted or introduced, including the following:
- the Canadian Gender Budgeting Act, which requires all federal budgetary decisions to take into consideration gender and diversity;
- the Gender Equality Week Act, which establishes the fourth week of September as Gender Equality Week; and
- An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, which adds gender identity and expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act, and extends protection against hate crimes based on gender identity and expression under the Criminal Code.
Since the beginning of the 42nd Parliament, parliamentary committees have conducted several studies on gender-related issues, including the following:
- the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women is set to table a report on barriers facing women in politics;
- the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage tabled a report entitled Gender Parity in Canadian Artistic and Cultural Organizations;
- the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration tabled a report entitled LGBTQ+ At Risk Abroad: Canada’s Call to Action;
- the House of Commons Special Committee on Pay Equity tabled a report entitled It’s Time to Act; and
- the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development tabled a report entitled An Opportunity for Global Leadership: Canada and the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.
Furthermore, Canadian delegations for various parliamentary associations have focused on gender-related issues while attending international conferences and meetings. For example:
- Each year, a delegation of the Canadian Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) attends the meeting of the IPU’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The 63rd session of the CSW will take place on March 11–22, 2019.
- In 2018, the Canadian delegation of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) presented the report entitled Gender Balance Report: Taking Urgent Action in the OSCE Region to End Gender-Based Violenceat the 27th session of the OSCE PA.
- In 2016 and 2018 respectively, the Canadian Branch of the Assemblée parlementaire de la Francophonie presented two draft reports at the meeting of the Network of Women Parliamentarians: Mobiliser les hommes et les garçons pour prévenir et éliminer la violence envers les femmes et les filles [in French only] and Les besoins en santé des femmes et des filles réfugiées [in French only].
Inter-Parliamentary Union, Women in parliament in 2017: The year in review, 2018.
Linda Trimble, Jane Arscott and Manon Tremblay (eds.), “Stalled: The Representation of Women in Canadian Governments,” UBC Press,2013.
Manon Tremblay, “100 Questions about Women and Politics,” 2018. [Translation of Manon Tremblay, 100 questions sur les femmes et la politique, 2015.]
Rosamund Shreeves, “Spotlight on Women in Politics,” European Parliamentary Research Service Blog, 5 March 2019.
Authors: Clare Annett, Dominique Montpetit and Mathilde Chartrand, Library of Parliament