The Need for More Women on Edmonton City Council

Above photo: Stats about women running in Edmonton’s 2017 and 2013 elections | Image: Equal Voice.

Even a cursory glance at Edmonton’s current city council tells the story of a government not representative of the full diversity of the city. With only one woman and one person of colour the council elected to make decisions for Edmontonians does not represent the broad range of experiences necessary to make policy that works for all Albertans. On October 16 Edmontonians may have the opportunity to change that.

Edmonton’s lone woman out of 12 council seats last term, Bev Esslinger, put the female representation at about eight per cent. Across Alberta, women held around 26% of elected municipal positions. Edmonton’s chances to elect more women this year look better. More women are running for council than in the previous election, by just over 10 per cent, also offering voters chances to elect Edmonton’s first Indigenous woman and first women of colour as councillors. 

But election results could still fail to reflect the efforts of the non-profits and advocacy groups that have worked to bring attention to the issue of under-representation.

“Not everything is going to be fixed in one election,” says Lana Cuthbertson chair of Equal Voice Alberta North. “It’s important to ask the women who don’t win this time to run again. Running in the first place is a huge win.”

In the past year Equal Voice has advocated that more women put their names forward as candidates. The organization launched a campaign last October calling on women to run. In 2015 they held a speakers series to connect potential candidates with experienced politicians. In February of this year, the group held a campaign school.

Equal Voice is not alone in its efforts, with the provincial government launching the Ready For Her campaign last fall. And the Women’s Advocacy Voice of Edmonton (WAVE), a committee of city council, has been working on these issues throughout its term. Regardless of all that work, it could actually be current events that have led to the increase in women running this year.

“I’ve heard that women seeing the [New Democrats] form such a gender balanced cabinet and caucus motivated women to get involved,” says Cuthbertson. “Also seeing the results of the American election and seeing that it’s got to be me who runs.”  

Nav Kaur, who ran in Edmonton’s 2016 by-election, felt that pull to run. Kaur won 888 votes to place fifth in a race of over 30 candidates for the vacant Ward 12 seat. She decided to run fairly last minute, just over eight weeks out from election day. But she saw the need for a progressive candidate to run in the ward. And she knew it would be difficult. But she did it anyway.

“Campaigns are education projects,” says Kaur who works as an educator now. “Campaigns are message machines that can bring out progressive, complex conversations about what kinds of communities we want.”

Nav Kaur | Photo: Facebook

Kaur’s campaign was viewed as progressive and grassroots. She spoke about community-based policing and addressing issues of class privilege. Her campaign focused on sustainable transit options for Mill Woods. She spoke to the need to elevate LGBTQ voices in decision-making processes and working from an intersectional standpoint. Her campaign demonstrated how diverse voices would lead to more representative policy.

And that’s what diverse representation is truly about. More than just ticking a box to ensure representation, diversity in government makes a difference in how decisions are made. The evidence is happening at the provincial level right now.

With 50 per cent of the governing New Democrat caucus being women, the government has increased funding to women’s shelters, increased minimum wage (which primarily affects women’s wages), changed the way recruitment to leadership positions is done to increase diversity and created a pilot childcare program.

Edmonton could use the same approach.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) recently ranked Edmonton as one of the three worst cities in Canada for women to live. The report cites the higher wage gap, a lack of economic security, safety issues and domestic violence rates as reasons.

In order to create change a government must reach a 30 per cent threshold. The United Nations estimates there must be at least 30 per cent representation by women in order to change the direction of conversation and policy decisions. That is unlikely to happen in the current Edmonton election.

While there are 30 per cent of candidates who are women, it’s not realistic they’ll all get elected. There are no women running in Ward 1 or 6, while five are running in Ward 5. Most are running against incumbents, and in municipal elections it’s near impossible to unseat an incumbent. Especially when women face the systemic barriers they do in an election.

“Society still tends to see women as primary caregivers, it can hurt them politically to be seen as leaving their kids at home,” says Cuthbertson.

Kaur says that she experienced the exhausting task of first convincing people she was a legitimate candidate, and then getting into the actual task of campaigning on her principles.

“What surprised me, was the level of disbelief that I was a candidate,” says Kaur. “There’s a sort of thicker crust to crack to be seen as a viable candidate.”

Studies back up Kaur’s experience on the door.

A study by Dr. Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, shows that voters are more likely to vote for men, even if women are equally qualified. Women running had to be clearly more qualified than their male counterpart to gain the vote.

Melanee Thomas, political science professor at the University of Calgary and editor of the book Mothers and Others, says that this bias can be overcome in elections where candidates are associated with parties. The platform and record of a party will often overcome the individual candidate. But on the municipal level, women lose out.

“Take party and leader evaluations out, as we do in municipal elections, at least explicitly, and all of this bias comes into play,” says Thomas.

Women running municipally then are doing twice the work just to gain credibility as a candidate.

“On average, at a door I’m speaking five to seven more sentences to 200 people a day,” says Kaur, whose campaign ran close to eight weeks. “The exhaustion is the deterrence.” She’s uncertain she would run again.

But hopefully the women who lose out this time choose to pick up and try again in 2021. And the efforts of numerous advocacy groups will continue to build momentum.

“We know that something that needs to be actively done to recruit women, it’s not just going to sort itself it out,” says Cuthbertson.

Journalist Samantha Power is a prolific writer, editor and researcher who has worked in Albertan independent media for over 10 years. She is particularly adept and experienced at working in the political realm. With an eye to issues of social and environmental justice, her research into the inner-workings of the Government of Alberta is extremely well suited to Heather MacKenzie Consulting clients.