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Ontario: A Province Ruled by Women?


By Randall White

About a decade ago Australian men would sometimes say that New Zealand was “a country ruled by women.” 

Helen Clark had been prime minister for several years at that point. Dame Sian Elias had just become Chief Justice of the land of the long white cloud’s new Supreme Court. Other powerful women were suddenly afoot.

The ruled-by-women paradigm has subsequently faltered in New Zealand. But it acquired fresh relevance here in Ontario last week, when Doug Ford finally announced that he would not be running for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservatives. 

Mr. Ford’s decision arguably increases the probability that current frontrunner Christine Elliott from Whitby-Oshawa will ultimately win the Ontario PC leadership in May. And this will be only partly because Doug Ford himself is now supporting Ms. Elliott, a Ford family friend. 

If Christine Elliott does win, for whatever exact reasons, women will lead all three of Ontario’s major political parties.

There will be a similar result on what currently seems the less likely prospect that Nepean-Carleton MPP and native daughter Lisa MacLeod will be next PC leader. 

Such potential fresh adventures may be close at hand. It may help to quickly review a few earlier signposts along the way.

One beginning is some legislation passed by Oliver Mowat’s Liberal Great Reform Government of Ontario in 1884.

This allowed married women to hold property - something previously thought best left to their husbands. And it gave a vote in municipal elections to widows and unmarried women, so long as they met property qualifications of the day that also applied to men.

In 1917 William Hearst’s Conservative government brought in legislation giving the vote to women in Ontario provincial elections. It was unencumbered by property qualifications, already dropped for men in 1888. 

Ontario was slightly behind the Prairie provinces in extending the electoral franchise of the evolving provincial parliamentary democracies to women. Starting with Manitoba, the Prairies led the way in 1916, in the middle of the First World War. 

British Columbia passed its legislation only a week ahead of Ontario in 1917. The Atlantic provinces followed, in 1918, 1919, 1922, and 1925. Quebec would wait until as late as 1940.

It would be another quarter of a century before the women who now voted in Ontario elections elected any women to the Legislative Assembly at Queen’s Park. 

This barrier was finally broken by the election of Agnes Macphail and Mrs. Rae Lucock for Toronto region ridings in 1943.

These first two female Ontario MPPs were part of the sudden Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) surge to official opposition, in the middle of the Second World War.

The CCF’s successors, the New Democrats, are carrying on with this gospel today. On June 12, 2014 the people of Ontario elected 11 female and 10 male NDP members of the legislature — marking the first time any party’s caucus has more women than men.

Another historical milestone came with Progressive Conservative Premier William Davis’s appointment of Margaret Birch as Ontario’s first female cabinet minister in 1972. Margaret Scrivener followed Ms. Birch into the cabinet in 1975. 

Stronger winds of change began to blow in the early 1980s. Veteran Queen’s Park reporter Robert Fisher has remembered: “In those days, Ontario elected 125 MPPs. But of that number, only six were female.” The group included PC education minister Bette Stephenson and “then Liberal MPP Sheila Copps. It was very much an old boys club.” 

From these inauspicious beginnings, the percentage of seats in the Ontario legislature held by women has increased substantially over the past 10 provincial elections. 

It was just under 5% in 1981. But this rose to just over 15% in 1987. Then it fluctuated back and forth between about 15% and not quite 22%, over the four elections from 1990 to 2003. It rose to 27% in 2007 and 28% in 2011.  

  1. Now, in the Ontario provincial election of June 12, 2014, 38 women were elected in the province’s 107 ridings — for a record 36%.  And they included the province’s first female premier, Kathleen Wynne.   

Elected as well was the current female leader of the Ontario New Democrats, Andrea Horwath, who recently received a more than 77% vote of confidence at her party’s convention. 

As discussed, if either Christine Elliott or Lisa MacLeod becomes the next provincial PC leader early in May 2015, all three party leaders in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario will be women.  

Visiting Australian men may then sometimes tell friends down under that nowadays Canada’s most populous province is another country ruled by women.

The rest of us who live here will start to learn just what this may or may not mean. And it will almost certainly be positive. The rule of men has been so terrible, some will say, the rule of women can’t be any worse. 

About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : December 03, 2014

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