How women have helped change the culture of politics in Quebec

It’s been 61 years since Claire Kirkland-Casgrain became the first woman elected to Quebec’s National Assembly, and though women politicians say there is still much to change to make Quebec politics more inclusive, they point to the ways they’ve already created progress in what was a boy’s club for centuries.

“It was really a purpose of mine to change the way we go about politics, the way we practice it,” said Véronique Hivon, who recently announced she would not be running in the next provincial election, after being a mainstay in Quebec politics for more than a decade.

Hivon, the Parti Québécois MNA for Joliette, is one of 16 women so far who have announced they will not run again in this year’s provincial elections, expected in October.

A CBC analysis earlier this week highlighted the fact that number represents about one in four female MNAs, compared to one in seven male MNAs who have announced they will not seek re-election. There are currently 55 women and 70 men who sit in the provincial legislature.

Experts who spoke with CBC said the proportion of women leaving is disappointing, given the 2018 Quebec election’s historic results for women and non-white candidates.

Group of Women, Politics and Democracyan organization based in Quebec City, has been pressuring the province to adopt a “parity law” that would force parties to have between 40 and 60 per cent of their candidates be women.

“Because it won’t happen alone,” said Esther Lapointe, the group’s director. “There are always setbacks.”

Lapointe worries the majority Coalition Avenir Québec government’s surging popularity in the polls and the opposition parties’ struggle to gain ground before the election could be the reason so many women are leaving.

But Hivon, in an interview with CBC this week, said she is optimistic more people – more women – will enter politics without feeling like they have to “fit into a mold.”

Hivon has been hailed for her work on cross-partisan initiatives. With three other female MNAs from different parties, and in just under four years, Hivon helped create Quebec’s new court specialized in sexual violence and domestic violence.

Women goal-oriented

She also helped draft Quebec’s legislation on medical aid in dying and led a highly praised commission on end-of-life care.

Women in Quebec politics are known for working across party lines on issues from medical aid in dying to creating a specialized court for sexual and domestic violence. Hélène David, Sonia LeBel, Véronique Hivon and Christine Labrie, left to right, worked on the court project together. (Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press)

Hivon was seen as a natural choice to succeed former PQ leader Jean-François Lisée when he lost his seat in the 2018 election, but she decided not to seek the job.

“I have no regrets. I feel I was able to fulfill my objectives and what I wanted to change in Quebec politics and in policies,” Hivon said.

“I feel I was able to do it, even though I wasn’t a leader – maybe even because I wasn’t a leader, “she added, laughing.

The PQ suffered a dismal result in the 2018 election, losing its official party status with only nine seats, compared to 30 in 2014, which was already one of the party’s worst results since 1970.

It is still reeling from those losses, finding itself fifth among the province’s six main parties in popularity, with only 10 per cent of the potential vote, according to polling aggregator 338canada.com.

Hivon posited that more women may be leaving this year because they are content to step aside once they’ve accomplished their goals.

“They don’t hold onto power maybe as much as men, who see it as a milieu, a place where they can still do things, even if they don’t know exactly what,” Hivon said in the interview.

WATCH | Véronique Hivon on why she thinks more women are leaving Quebec politics:

Véronique Hivon on why she thinks more women are leaving politics

Retiring Parti Québécois MNA Véronique Hivon says a different approach to power and the tone of discourse at the National Assembly are among her theories as to why women might not want to enter or stay in provincial politics.

The pandemic and the reflections it prompted about work-life balance may have also played a role, she said.

Thérèse Mailloux, the president of Group of Women, Politics and Democracyalso said she believes women tend to leave once they feel they have accomplished their objectives.

That may be because the culture still has a ways to go to be more welcoming to people who are not white men.

“The men who have been there for centuries, well, they are in their codes and their networks and the way they do politics,” Mailloux said.

Need for better work-life balance

Québec Solidaire’s Ruba Ghazal, the MNA for Mercier, said she sees firsthand the ways her female colleagues don’t feel as comfortable in the National Assembly, and believes the institution should do more to “make it easier for women to come and to stay in politics. “

Ghazal suggested the National Assembly create a daycare to make it easier for politicians to find balance between their work and their families.

“I’m going to run again, and in my personal life it’s easier because I don’t have children and I will not have children,” Ghazal said, also speaking in an interview with CBC this week.

The way men in the Blue salon approach debate is also different, Ghazal said, opting for harsher jabs in a style that can sometimes alienate women.

Still, she acknowledges, progress takes time.

“Even if it’s 50 years,” that women have been in politics in Quebec, “that’s not a lot of time to change this,” Ghazal said.

After Kirkland-Casgrain was first elected in 1961 for the Quebec Liberals, it would take another 15 years before more than one woman at a time would have a seat at the National Assembly.

Claire Kirkland-Casgrain served in two Liberal governments and was the first female provincial judge. (Radio-Canada)

Mailloux said she sees the culture changing. Debates – although at times brutal – have in general become more respectful. Schedules are more humane, and there is a recognition of the importance of working on cross-partisan initiatives, such as the ones Hivon participated in.

Hivon said it’s getting easier to be oneself in Quebec politics but it remains a fight to do so.

“I made a promise to myself when I entered politics that I would stay true to myself, my values, my convictions. It’s hard work every day because there are pressures, but you can do it,” she said, encouraging others to join.

“I really feel hopeful that there are new generations of women who will come and really be themselves.”

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