Laura Busch

A Few Good Women: The Gender Problem in NWT Politics

Another assembly, another under-representation of females in NWT government.

It’s 2015, but when it comes to gender equality in leadership, the Northwest Territories are stuck in a flashback to less enlightened times.

Despite a record 10 female candidates running in last month’s territorial election, the number of female MLAs heading to the 18th assembly remains unchanged: two of 19.

To examine why our legislative assembly lags so far behind on gender equality, EDGE talked to some of the female candidates who ran but were not elected this time around. They had some interesting things to say: first and foremost, they don’t feel comfortable with the idea of being elected because of their gender – or even in spite of it.

“I don’t want people voting for me because I’m a woman. I don’t want the bar lowered for me. I want to win because I am the strongest candidate.” says Jan Fullerton, who ran against three male candidates in Yellowknife’s Frame Lake riding, and came in second place with 141 votes to Kevin O’Reilly’s 156.

“I would like to get to a point where I don’t have to think about the gender of a candidate.”

But we’re just not there yet, admits Fullerton. One of the participants in the NWT Status of Women Council’s campaign school this past February, she says there was a conscious effort by Yellowknife female candidates this election not to run in the same riding as each other, in hopes of increasing the odds of having more female representation.

The only NWT riding with two female candidates was the Sahtu, where Yvonne Doolittle and Judy Tutcho both fell to Daniel McNeely, who garnered 271 votes to Doolittle’s 242, Paul Andrew’s 229 and Tutcho’s 175.*

Doolittle thinks both her age and gender affected the number of votes she received. She is 44 years old and has a child at home under the age of 12, so voters’ feelings about her taking care of her family could have played a part, she says. Criticism against women leaving the home to enter the political arena, specifically in smaller communities, tends to come from other women.

“I think women just need to build each other up more,” said Doolittle. “I think, as women, we are maybe too busy. We need to see more family stability, more support, especially for single mothers.”  

While all women are underrepresented in the legislature, things are particularly bleak for indigenous women from the smaller communities. There has not been a female MLA elected outside of Yellowknife and Hay River since Manitok Catherine Thompson from Rankin Inlet represented the Aivillik riding after the 1995 election — before the Northwest Territories split from Nunavut. To find an example from a region still part of the NWT, we must go back to 1991, when Nellie Cournoyea became the second female premier in Canadian history.

Doolittle is also uncomfortable about the idea of her gender being a factor in her campaign, although she is adamant more female voices are needed in territorial politics.

“In my campaign, I did not play the ‘woman card,'” she said. “I was actually cautioned not to do that by a male, because men would be offended if I did that.”

The would-be giant slayer

Yellowknife South was one of the more interesting races this election when it comes to gender equality. It was in this upper-middle class neighbourhood where Nigit’stil Norbert set out to slay a giant and unseat sitting Premier Bob McLeod.

EDGE joined the energetic 30-year-old on the campaign trail the week before the election.  

“It was a very pointed action,” Norbert said of her choice to run in Yellowknife South rather than a different, perhaps easier to win, riding. “First of all, I didn’t want Bob to be acclaimed. I don’t think anyone should be able to just plop themselves back into office.”

In between navigating her way past friendly guard dogs — there seemed to be at least one for every house in the area — to door-knock, Norbert was congratulated several times on putting her name forward against such a formidable opponent.

“Let me get something straight: I’m definitely running to win,” she said after leaving one such house. “What I saw as an opportunity is that I am the complete opposite of the person who has been here for the last eight years representing this riding. And what a wonderful, stark difference that would make.”

As the minister responsible for women in the 17th assembly, McLeod was one of the most prominent voices calling for more women, and specifically young women, in government. “Having balanced representation in this House and in other leadership positions allows us to be stronger and wiser together,” he said in the legislature on March 8, International Women’s Day, this year.

So, what was it like for him to be running against a young Aboriginal female candidate?

“This is what democracy is all about. I’m pleased that a strong young Aboriginal female candidate has come forward and is running against me,” he stated in an email on the Friday before the election, pointing out he also faced a tough female opponent in Amy Hacala in 2007. “I prefer running in a campaign rather than being acclaimed. The best way to get more women into the Legislative Assembly is to have more female candidates running.”

In the end, McLeod won Yellowknife South handily, with 485 votes to Norbert’s 179 and Samuel Roland’s 29.

Gender inequality and family violence

Although none of the candidates EDGE spoke to said they ran into any overt sexism on the campaign trail, not every woman running in this election season was so lucky.

Leading up to the municipal election on Oct. 19, three female city councilor candidates had signs vandalized. While someone drew mustaches on Rebecca Alty’s signs, the defacement of Linda Bussey’s and Marie-Soleil Lacoursiere’s promotional material was more sexualized in nature. One of Bussey’s signs had a “P” painted over the “B” in her last name, while someone splashed a white substance dripping from Lacoursiere’s mouth on one of her campaign signs.

“We can’t expect the level of female leaders to improve if young women are constantly discouraged by incidents like this,” Lacoursiere wrote in a Facebook post responding to the incident.

“It just comes down to ignorance and respect,” says Nigit’stil Norbert’s partner Paul Wilcken about the vandalism. “I think it was a direct attack against the feminist idea of women standing up and having a voice. I’ve heard stories over numerous years — we have friends who are very strong female figures in the North who have run in the past — and they’ve had everything done to them. They’ve been put through the ringer just for being female and just for standing up against male counterparts and most likely having different views.”

The NWT consistently ranks second-last in Canada for female representation in its legislature, with Nunavut in last place. Family violence statistics follow the same pattern, with the numbers highest in Nunavut, and the NWT in second place.

Coupled with the disappointing number of successful female candidates, the re-election of Michael Nadli in the Deh Cho sparked outrage amongst many NWT voters — most of whom reside outside of the Deh Cho — because of Nadli’s recent conviction for spousal assault.  

Those two issues could well be related, but there hasn’t been enough research done to say for sure, according to NWT Status of Women Council executive director Lorraine Phaneuf.

“We don’t have evidence,” she said. “But we would like to have a really hard look at those issues. ”

Phaneuf hopes the new Liberal federal government will provide funding for more research into the possible connections. The NWT Status of Women Council also hopes to offer more programs similar to its campaign school for women. February’s workshop was the third of its kind hosted in the territory, and while it was productive for those who attended — all 10 female territorial candidates attended at least part of the workshop, as did other women interested in leadership, including Darlene Sibbiston, the recently-elected mayor of Fort Simpson — there were shortfalls.

Women from outside Yellowknife had to provide their own transportation because of a lack of funding. Also, nine months before an election is really too late to start thinking about running a campaign.   

Reaching critical mass

What would actually change if there were more women leaders in the NWT  is difficult to determine without playing into problematic gender stereotypes about family values and personality traits often associated with “the fairer sex.”

But more female voices in leadership could translate into more attention being paid to the family violence, mental health and healthcare issues that currently plague the territory. In order to affect real policy change, the UN sets a target of 30 percent female leadership in a legislative body. That has never been achieved in the history of the Northwest Territories, nor in Canadian politics.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced his gender-balanced cabinet, he pointed with pride to the fact it “looks like Canada.” However, Canada remains ranked at 48th worldwide for gender parity in federal politics, with 25.8 percent of elected MPs female.

“One of the challenges is that young woman who grow up in the Northwest Territories are not used to seeing women in those positions to any significant degree,” said Fullerton. “So, I think even people who support female candidates and gender parity, there is still a picture in their head that that figure has a male face. When you’re picturing a cabinet minister, you’re picturing a male cabinet minister because that’s most of our experience here in the North.”

If voters in our territorial election last month had elected a legislature that “looks like the NWT,” it would be 50.8 per cent male and 49.2 per cent female: at least nine female MLAs. To hit the UN’s 30 percent threshold, there would need to be at least six women elected to the legislature.   

There are ways to force this to happen, such as a legally-mandated quota for women in government, a controversial system used by several federal governments worldwide — including Rwanda, Bolivia and Cuba, the top three countries in international women-in-politics rankings.

However, forcing a quota system right now would be premature, says Phaneuf. The focus should be on figuring out why more women aren’t running, and then creating support systems to empower them to run and support their campaign process. To reach at least six female MLAs, there must be more than 10 candidates.

“I’d like to see change, but I can’t say that there are enough women interested right now to hardline any seats for them. We need to have more candidates first,” said Doolittle.

“If we have 20 women run next time, maybe we’ll have four (MLAs). And two might be on cabinet. And just maybe, one will be premier.”