Rebecca French of Bay Roberts and Tiffany Howell of Northern Bay were right in the thick of it, and the significance of the occasion wasn’t lost on them.
“It’s difficult to sum it up in one word,” French told The Compass last week. “Historic, maybe? Very inspiring, empowering. I’ve been to the House of Commons two or three times before, I guess, but I mean, this was the first time that you looked around and there were, what, 337 other women sitting around you. That in itself was something that’s never happened before. Who knows when and if it will ever happen again?”
Daughters of the Vote, an initiative sponsored by the by-partisan group Equal Voice, was a chance for emerging female leaders to familiarize themselves with Canada’s political institutions, meet some noteworthy folks, and hopefully become inspired to participate in politics down the road. Equal Voice overall aim is to increase female representation in government.
Howell, a second-year MUN student pursuing a double-major in psychology and linguistics, heard from a few people who suggested she’d be a great fit for the event, as did French, who is presently finishing off her fourth-and-final year in the social work program at MUN.
French and Howell arrived in Ottawa March 6 for five days of activities and events. There were lots of female speakers who were able to talk about their own careers and political involvement, with the opportunity usually available afterwards to take questions from the audience.
They gathered in the House of Commons March 8, which also coincided with International Women’s Day, and listened to a variety of prominent speakers, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada’s first female prime minister Kim Campbell, all opposition leaders and other guests.
Howell found the experience of sitting in the House to be a powerful and emotional.
“It was almost unbelievable, actually,” she said.
In Parliament, some delegates gave speeches on issues impacting their own life and those they care for. Their words struck an emotional chord with Howell.
“There were women, indigenous women, who stood up and talked about their own personal stories of sexual abuse or not trusting in law enforcement, and then there was other people who were Muslim, and they spoke about (their issues), and that was probably my favourite part,” she said.
Hearing about people who struggle to access mental health services didn’t seem so foreign to Howell, given she’s aware of similar problems in rural Newfoundland.
“Hopefully I can be an ambassador to supporting mental health services and helping in that aspect.”
French was particularly struck by the words of Nova Scotia Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, who is also a former social work professor.
“She focused a lot of her research and her life’s work on anti-oppression movements and diversity,” said French. “I think it’s just really impactful for me to see the type of social work viewpoints and social work background she has that can be applied later in life to a political career, and see how you can take all the experience that you’ve gained from working with other people and learning from them and take that and actually make a change at the large scale.”
Like Howell, French was also overwhelmed by what indigenous delegates brought to the event.
“I learned so many things that I feel like I’ll be able to take with me and incorporate that in my professional life later and my career.”
Change is something French wants in the years ahead, as she’s fully aware of the disparities that remain when it comes to men and women. She notes the gender wage gap in Newfoundland and Labrador is the largest in Canada, with women making 66 per cent of male salaries. As of 2014, the Canadian average was 75 per cent according to Statistics Canada. French also wants to see more women holding positions of political power.
“I think it’s just important to have women in those roles so when you’re growing up and a child, you’re not always looking at the mayor or your Member of Parliament or your Member of the House of Assembly and seeing a male figure and never picturing yourself in those roles.”