Leaders drop out of women's issues debate, and that's a shame

The debate may have been cancelled, but violence against women, pay equity and other so-called women's issues matter — and so do our votes.
MACLEAN'S LEADERS DEBATE, TORONTO, ON, AUGUST 6TH, 2015. (DILLAN COOLS/MACLEAN'S) Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper at the Maclean's leaders debate in August. Photo, Dillan Cools/Maclean's.

Up For Debate, a coalition of more than 175 women’s organizations would like you to know that the word “women” was mentioned just four times in the first federal election debate, held earlier this month. The group hoped to correct that in its upcoming debate on women’s issues, scheduled for late September. That event, though, was cancelled Monday after Prime Minister Stephen Harper declined and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair reneged on his previous commitment, in keeping with his policy to only attend debates that include the prime minister. (Liberal leader Justin Trudeau delayed in responding initially but did eventually decide to participate; the Green’s Elizabeth May and the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe also agreed to the debate.)

My own initial hesitation about the debate — that it seemed to reduce half the population into an alien special interest group — has been overpowered by my frustration in seeing it cancelled. As Up For Debate spokesperson Jackie Hansen told the Toronto Star, “We still have the wage gap. Rates of violence against women, they’re not going down. We need a stand-alone debate because it’s clear that in the mainstream debates these discussions aren’t happening.” Meanwhile, we are still led by people who don’t represent or reflect us: Just a quarter of parliament members are women and just 10 percent are people of colour.


The issues the group wanted to focus on in the debate are hardly marginal: violence against women, pay inequality and gender parity in leadership. Nor are women marginal in this election, though they might be on the debate stage when May isn’t invited to participate. From the grassroots up, women have been leading some of the most urgent, vibrant political movements of our time, like Idle No More, Black Lives Matter and the fights for income equality and environmental protection. And when it comes to electoral politics, women turn out to cast ballots in greater numbers than men – 59.6 percent compared to 57.3 percent. Not only do our issues and participation matter, but our votes do, too.

This is old news. In August 1984, three men met on a stage at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto to talk about women — specifically women’s reproductive rights, their need for decent and affordable childcare, their struggle for equal pay and equal job opportunities and their concerns over Cold War tensions and the nuclear arms race. This was no random session of mansplaining; Liberal Prime Minister John Turner, Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney and NDP leader Ed Broadbent were vying for votes in an upcoming federal election and had been invited to a debate devoted to women’s issues and moderated by a panel of four women.


Their all white, all male presence made visible an infuriating truth about politics: Many of us — or even most of us — have our rights and fates determined by people who do not reflect or represent us. Take the issue of abortion. At that time, the procedure was legal only if a committee of doctors deemed it necessary to protect the physical or mental wellbeing of the mother. Watching those three middle-aged men in suits (actually only two, Mulroney punted) weigh in on what women should be allowed to do with their bodies seems as retrograde as the shoulder pads on the female panelists.

Those women held the candidates, who were all slightly sweaty and anxious by the end, to account and pressed them to make specific commitments to enforcing equal pay legislation and maintaining funding to social programs. Still, as the two-hour debate wrapped up, activist and broadcaster Kay Sigurjonsson turned to the trio onstage with exasperation in her voice and asked, “Why should we trust you now?”

Thirty-one years later and weeks away from another federal election, that question still feels apt. Too bad we won’t get the answer this time around.


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