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Home / The Course / Why Consider Politics? / Politics and Women / Gender Gap in Canada
Gender Gap in Canada

Women are under-represented at all levels of government in Canada.
The following 2005 percentages reflect women's participation in politics.

Historic Firsts
Agnes Macphail, a 31-year-old
schoolteacher, was Canada’s first woman member of Parliament.

She was elected in 1921, the first year in which women had the right to vote.

A courageous and dedicated champion of human rights, Macphail successfully fought for old-age pensions, prison reform, and farmers' co-operatives. In office she also came to see herself as representing women's issues and founded the Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada.

In 1943, Macphail was one of the first two women elected to the Ontario Legislature.

Source: Library and Archives Canada

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Federal 21.1 %
Provincial and territorial 20.3%
Municipal 21.7%

Women are not even halfway to equality. Women are 52 per cent of the population, but only two out of ten candidates for political office are women. Electoral reform to ensure our politicians more fairly represent the actual makeup of the population should help. Changes to the rules governing election financing could lower the costs of running and make it easier for women candidates to compete.

Across the country, women’s organizations are working to guarantee that any electoral reforms encourage the election of more women. Some initiatives being investigated are:

  • proportional representation
  • centralized candidate selection
  • tax breaks for women candidates
  • political party quotas

In 2004, the Canadian Parliament created a Standing Committee on the Status of Women whose first Chair was Manitoba MP Anita Neville, an Equal Voice member and strong advocate for the election of more women.

Party Leadership, Premiers and Prime Ministers

Despite the slow progress at increasing the proportion of women in elected seats, Canada has been blessed by remarkable female leaders who have sought leadership positions with major political parties - some successfully, some not - but always making gender gains for women everywhere.

Women leaders to note, by alphabetical order:
  • Kim Campbell, Canada’s first female Prime Minister, 1993
  • Sheila Copps, first woman Deputy Prime Minister, 1993-1997
  • Flora MacDonald, first woman to run for the leadership of one of
    Canada's three major federal parties, 1976
  • Rita Johnston, Premier of British Columbia, 1991
  • Sharon Carstairs, leader of the Manitoba Liberal party, 1987-1993
  • Catherine Callbeck, Premier of Prince Edward Island, 1993-96
  • Lyn McLeod, leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, 1992-96
  • Alexa McDonagh, leader of the federal NDP, 1995-2003

Reference: Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership Website, July 2005

Let’s look further at where women are today in these key areas:

  • Women in federal politics
  • Women in the federal cabinet
  • Women in provincial legislatures
  • Municipal government
  • Comparison with other positions of power.
Women in Federal Politics

The following chart shows the breakdown of women in the House of Commons by party affiliation based on information provided by the Library of Parliament, updated May 24, 2005.

Political Party # of Seats # of Women % of Women
Liberal 133 34 25.1%
Bloc Québécois 54 14 25.9%
Conservative 98 11 11.1%
New Democratic Party 19 5 26.3%
Independent 3 1 N/A
Vacant 1    
Total 308 65 21.1%

Historic Firsts
Rt. Hon. Ellen Fairclough became the first women federal cabinet minister in 1957.

Hon. Marie Thérèse (Forget) Casgrain was elected leader of the Quebec wing of the CCF party in 1951, and  became the first woman to head a political party in Quebec. She served as provincial leader of the CCF three times until 1957.

Hon. Flora MacDonald, PC, became the first women to serve as Secretary of State for External Affairs, 1979-1980, and one of the first female foreign ministers in the world.

Hon. Sheila Copps was the first woman appointed to the Cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister where she served from 1993-1997.

Source: Library and Archives Canada

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Women’s gains with regard to political equity are slow. The next table illustrates progress between 1972 and 2004.

Proportion of Women Elected to the House of Commons

Year # of Seats # of Women % of Women
1972 264 5 1.9
1974 264 9 3.4
1979 282 10 3.6
1980 282 14 5.0
1984 282 27 9.6
1988 295 39 13.2
1993 295 53 18
1997 301 62 20.6
2000 301 62 20.6
2004 308 65 21.1

Reference: Centre for Research on Women and Politics, University of Ottawa Website,
July 2005

Women in the Federal Cabinet

Women’s gains in cabinet appointments are anything but gains. The House of Commons after the 2004 election featured only nine women in cabinet positions; there were 11 before the election. Cabinet posts are a notable hurdle for women and represent a traditional male domain of power and old boy connections.

Women who have achieved cabinet posts have brought impressive and varied credentials to their offices and are to be applauded for their significant contributions. (See Women in Cabinet 1957- in the More on this Issue for a list of the women and the positions they’ve held.)

However, nine out of 39 cabinet posts doesn’t achieve the 30 per cent critical mass that author Sydney Sharpe states is necessary for “major, sustained influence”. (Reference: Sharpe S. The gilded ghetto; women and political power in Canada. Harper Collins Publishers Ltd., 1994, page 218)

Women in Provincial Legislatures

The First Woman Elected to a Legislature in the British Empire

Four years before any woman would win a seat in Canada's Parliament, Louise Crummy McKinney was elected to the provincial legislature of Alberta. With her 1917 victory, she became the first woman to take her seat in a legislature in the entire British Empire.

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Louise McKinney was the first woman to be sworn in and to take a seat in any legislature in the British Empire. That was in Alberta in 1917, two years before Agnes McPhail would become the first woman elected to the House of Commons. After being defeated federally in 1940, Agnes McPhail pursued her political career at the provincial level as the CCF candidate for York East in 1943 and became one of the first two women to sit in the Ontario Legislature.

Recent statistics on the provincial and territorial standings show women lagging behind in reaching equality of representation. For details on the proportion of women elected to the provincial and territorial legislatures between 1970 and 2004, see the tables developed by the Centre for Research on Women and Politics, University of Ottawa, referenced in More on this Issue.

In reviewing these tables, we can see that women’s representation ranged from a high of 32 per cent in Quebec to a low of 11.5 per cent in Nova Scotia. Quebec is presently the only legislature in Canada to have surpassed the 30 per cent critical mass of women in elected office. Jean Charest, Quebec Premier, and Opposition Leader Bernard Landry, made recruitment and electing women a high priority.

The three territorial governments - Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories - had achieved standings of 10.5 per cent, 29.4 per cent and 10.5 per cent respectively.

Historic Firsts
The Hon. Audrey McLaughlin achieved many 'firsts' in her life.

She was:

Source: National Library of Canada, Website 2005

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The Yukon is interesting. Women’s representation is higher than for most other provinces and territories (except for Quebec at 32 per cent) and has steadily increased since the first woman, G. Jean Gordon, was elected in 1967. (Library and Archives Canada)

The high Yukon percentage can be explained partly by the difference in the number of seats. When the total number of elected officials is small, as is the case of the Yukon, a small number of women can raise the overall percentage. Nevertheless, the Yukon’s commitment to women political leaders remains undisputed. Audrey McLaughlin, our first woman leader of a national political party, began her political career in the Yukon.

Women in Municipal Politics

As of August 2005, the average percentage of women councillors in Canada was at 28.3 per cent, only a few points behind the critical mass of 30 per cent. The average percentage of 14.6 per cent women among heads of Council, though still very low, was definitely higher than the total absence of women as party leaders or heads of provincial or federal governments. It is particularly interesting to note that women play a major role in the non-elected management of city, town and village governments as Chief Administrative Officers.

FCM 2005 Statistics on Male and Female Participation in Municipal Government

Province/Territory Mayor Councillors Chief Administrative
  Male Female %F Male Female %F Male Female %F
AB 288 59 20.5% 1174 377 32.1% 177 165 93.2%
BC 148 37 25.0% 850 338 39.8% 150 33 22.0%
SK 724 64 8.6% 3206 508 15.8% 264 537 203.4%
MB 191 8 4.2% 865 125 14.5% 93 101 108.6%
ON 377 64 17.0% 2159 653 30.2% 279 161 57.7%
QC 1043 145 13.9% 5723 1744 30.5% 521 668 128.2%
NB 91 14 15.4% 404 136 33.7% 48 55 114.6%
NS 52 4 7.7% 295 86 29.2% 45 10 22.2%
PE 63 12 19.0% 274 108 39.4% 25 49 196.0%
NL 225 54 24.0% 934 360 38.5% 66 208 315.2%
NT 15 6 40.0% 76 49 64.5% 14 6 42.9%
NU 20 5 25.0% 92 54 58.7% 21 3 14.3%
YT 5 3 60.0% 24 10 41.7% 6 3 50.0%
TOTALS 3260 475 14.6% 16076 4548 28.3% 1709 1999 117.0%

Municipal councillors 28.3% (as of September 2005)


Then and Now

In Canada, women have come a long way since getting the right to
vote and finally being recognized as persons in the constitution less than a century ago.

Women’s right to vote is due to the incredible battles suffragettes fought across Canada in the early 20th century. The table below provides the dates when women gained the right to vote in each province.

Women Winning the Vote in Canada

Historic Firsts
The Famous Five and the Persons Case

1927: Emily Murphy along with four other Alberta women - Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Henrietta Muir Edwards - exercised their right to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to include women in the British North America Act interpretation of person.

It was rejected.

1929: They took their fight to the Privy Council of London, England which overruled the Supreme Court of Canada decision and the rest is history.

The word 'persons' in section 24 of the BNAA includes both male and female.

See More on this Issue for links to the Famous Five story.

[ More ]

Manitoba Jan. 28, 1916
Saskatchewan March 14, 1916
Alberta Apr. 19, 1916
British Columbia Apr. 5, 1917
Ontario Apr. 12, 1917
Nova Scotia Apr. 26, 1918
New Brunswick Apr. 17 , 1919
Prince Edward Island May 13, 1922
Newfoundland Apr. 13, 1925
Quebec Apr. 25, 1940
* In Newfoundland, women 25 years of age and over received the right to vote in 1925, while at the same time men could vote at 21 years of age. Women did not vote on an equal basis until the referenda on Confederation in 1948.

Reference: Parks Canada Website

Today, more and more citizens support women's representation in
elected office. A 2004 study conducted by the Centre for Research
and Information on Canada
reveals thatstrong majorities in every region support increasing the number of women in elected office in order to achieve a well-functioning political system.” And, the support crosses genders, with 90 per cent of younger men 18 to 35 indicating support for increasing the number of women in politics.

That commanding declaration of support cannot and
should not
be ignored if we are to reduce the democratic deficit that
exists in Canada today.

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