Women in the Parliament of Canada: 100 Years of Representation

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One hundred years ago, on 6 December 1921, Agnes Campbell Macphail became the first woman elected to the House of Commons and the first woman parliamentarian in the Parliament of Canada. This HillNote provides an overview of selected notable firsts for women in the Parliament of Canada. It also discusses the results of the 44th federal general election, held on 20 September 2021, in the context of women’s representation and the representation of certain other groups in the House of Commons. Finally, the importance of the availability of data on the diversity of candidates in federal electoral politics in Canada and its related challenges are discussed.

History of Women’s Representation in the Parliament of Canada

Since 1921, women’s representation in the Parliament of Canada has gradually increased, reaching a record proportion in 2021. As of 22 November 2021, women represented 49% of all senators (13 seats were vacant) and 30.5% of all members of the House of Commons. Women’s representation has historically been higher in the Senate of Canada than in the House of Commons. Senators, unlike members of the House of Commons, are appointed; current considerations for the appointment process include achieving gender balance. While gender parity has already been achieved in the Senate (in December 2020, there were 47 women senators and 47 men senators), women remain underrepresented in the House of Commons.

Many women have paved the way for others over the past 100 years; selected historic moments for women’s representation in the Parliament of Canada since 1919 are highlighted in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – Women in Parliament: Selected Highlights over 100 Years

This infographic illustrates some notable firsts for women in Canada’s Parliament over the past 100 years. Notable highlights include the first woman, Agnes Campbell Macphail, elected to the House of Commons in 1921. In addition, various firsts for women with intersecting identities in Parliament are shown, such as the appointment of the first Black person, the Honourable Anne C. Cools, to the Senate in 1984. The infographic also shows increased proportions of women represented in both chambers over time. Representation of women reached 5% in the Senate in 1953, and a similar percentage was attained in the House of Commons in 1980. In 2021, women’s representation in Parliament reached 49% in the Senate and 30% in the House of Commons. Note: The proportions of parliamentarians who are women represent a snapshot in time and were calculated, in the case of the Senate, based on the makeup of the Senate on the first sitting day of the Parliament and, in the case of the House of Commons, based on the results of federal general elections.
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament.

Results of the 44th Federal General Election

The first step to gaining a seat in the House of Commons is the decision to run for office. According to data received from Elections Canada, in the 44th federal general election, 37% of candidates who indicated their gender identity self-identified as women, and 0.5% self-identified as a gender identity other than woman or man.

On election day, women won 103 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons. It is the first time that women’s representation in the House of Commons has surpassed 30%. However, progress towards achieving gender parity in the House of Commons remains slow: women’s representation in the 44th Parliament is only 0.9% higher than that at the time of the dissolution of the 43rd Parliament in August 2021. As of 1 October 2021, Canada ranked 59th worldwide in terms of women’s representation in national lower or single houses of parliament.

Recent updates and additions to available data on candidates in federal general elections have allowed for more detailed analyses of diversity among candidates. Data from Semra Sevi’s Who Runs? Canadian Election Datasets show that, among all candidates in the 44th federal general election,

  • 3% were “publicly out” members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and Two-Spirit (LGBTQ2) communities (59% of these candidates were women); and
  • 2.4% had Indigenous origins (52% of these candidates were women).

Among members of the House of Commons elected on 20 September 2021, 2.4% are publicly out members of LGBTQ2 communities and 3.3% have Indigenous origins. Additionally, the election of Blake Desjarlais, Member of Parliament for Edmonton Griesbach, marked the first time an openly Two-Spirit candidate was elected.

Availability of Data on the Diversity of Candidates in Electoral Politics

Women’s right to full and equal participation in the public and political life of their country is recognized by the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The proportion of parliamentarians who are women, or women’s descriptive representation, is often used to measure the achievement of this right. For instance, it is used to measure progress towards achieving goal 5 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and the advancement of gender equality in Canada.

There are different sources of data on the gender identity of candidates in Canadian federal elections. Elections Canada collects self-identification data via the candidates’ nomination papers, but these data are not always published. As well, the Library of Parliament compiles data on the gender identity of all federal electoral candidates based on publicly available material. Other organizations, such as Equal Voice, and research initiatives collect gender-disaggregated data but, in most cases, these organizations collect such data only for candidates running for major political parties.

While the collection and availability of data on gender identity are important, the collection and availability of data on other identity factors of candidates and parliamentarians are equally important in understanding the representation of all women in political institutions. In Canada, self-identification data on candidate diversity, such as racial diversity, sexual orientation, and Indigenous origins, are not collected by Elections Canada. Political parties in Canada do not usually publish individual-level data on the demographic diversity of their candidates.

For parliamentarians, in addition to data on gender identity, the Library of Parliament compiles publicly available data on Indigenous origins, family ties in Parliament and military service.

In 2021, a group of Canadian researchers published a dataset of 4,516 candidates from the five major political parties that fielded candidates in the 2008, 2011, 2015, and 2019 federal general elections; this dataset included “new data on racial and Indigenous backgrounds.” While the dataset shows that diversity among electoral candidates has increased since 2008, individuals who are racialized or Indigenous are underrepresented both as candidates and as members of the House of Commons in comparison to the representation of these demographic groups in the general population. Overall, members of the House of Commons who are women are more diverse than members who are men. In 2019, 24% of members of the House of Commons who were women were racialized or Indigenous, compared to 16% of members who were men (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 – Proportion of Members of the House of Commons Elected in the 2008 and 2019 Federal General Elections Who Were White, Racialized and Indigenous, by Gender

This figure compares the proportion of members of the House of Commons elected in the 2008 and 2019 federal general elections who were white, racialized and Indigenous by gender. The proportion of members of the House of Commons who were white decreased in 2019 as compared to 2008 – by 7% for women and by 9% for men. The proportion of women members of the House of Commons who were racialized increased from 16% in 2008 to 21% in 2019. The proportion of men members of the House of Commons who were racialized increased from 5% in 2008 to 13% in 2019. The proportion of members of the House of Commons who were Indigenous increased from 1% in 2008 to 3% in 2019 for both women and men. Overall, members of the House of Commons who were women were more diverse than men. In 2019, 24% of members of the House of Commons who were women were racialized or Indigenous, compared to 16% of men.Note: Independent candidates were not included in the dataset used to prepare the figure. Consequently, the three members of the House of Commons who were elected as independents in the 2008 and 2019 federal general elections are not represented in the figure.
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Anna Elizabeth Johnson et al.,
Dataset on the Demographics of Canadian Federal Election Candidates (2008-2019), Harvard Dataverse Repository, V1, 2021, accessed 15 November 2021.

According to this dataset, of all elected candidates in the 2019 federal general elections, 28% were women, 15% were racialized individuals, and nearly 3% were Indigenous.

Data on gender diversity among candidates and members of the House of Commons representing major federal political parties in Canada are generally available, allowing for analyses of women’s representation in federal politics. Improving the availability of authoritative data disaggregated by other intersecting identity factors for senators, members of the House of Commons and candidates will allow for the study of various population groups’ representation in federal politics over time.

Additional Resources

de Geus, Roosmarijn et al., eds. Women, Power, and Political Representation: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives. 2021.

House of Commons, Standing Committee on the Status of Women. Elect Her: A Roadmap for Improving the Representation of Women in Canadian Politics. Fourteenth report. April 2019.

Inter-Parliamentary Union. Women in Parliament in 2020. 2021.

Tremblay, Manon. 100 Questions About Women and Politics. 2018.

Authors: Clare Annett and Dominique Montpetit, Library of Parliament



Categories: Government, Parliament and Politics, Social Affairs and Population

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