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Character Shaping

Humour Power
One day as Agnes McPhail, the first woman MP, was sitting in the House of Commons, one of the gentlemen on the other side of the House got up and said: “Agnes, don’t you wish you were a man?” She stood up, thought about it for a moment, and said: “No, but I’ll bet you do.”

• 1984: The Canada Health Act introduced by Hon. Monique Bégin is proclaimed.

• 1986: The Employment Equity Act introduced by Hon. Flora MacDonald is proclaimed.

• 1980-1982: The Right Hon. Jeanne Sauvé, as Speaker of the House, overhauled the administrative and financial operations of the House, saving $18 million out of a $145 million budget.

• 1990: Hon. Pat Carney, as President of the Treasury Board of Canada, initiated a Task Force on Barriers to Women in the Public Service, and wrote the Foreword to the Task Force's report "Beneath the Veneer".

• 1992: The Right Hon. Kim Campbell, as Justice Minister, brought about a new rape law; its passage firmly entrenched that in cases involving sexual assault "no means no."


If you decide to run, you must be ready to accept attacks from opponents –including those inside your party – and from people who apply double standards in evaluating women’s performances – including members of the media.

As Barbara McDougall, former federal minister in major portfolios, put it: “It takes courage to be a political candidate, there’s no doubt about it. It goes without saying that it’s best not to be too thin-skinned when running for office. Many people consider politicians fair game it’s all part of the fun. So it helps to have courage, a sense of humour and a rubber ego.”

This situation is echoed by the Right Honourable Kim Campbell, first woman Prime Minister of Canada, in her autobiography Time and Chance: “Running for political office is a huge step. It is for many high-profile people the end of innocence, because they lose whatever special status they had with the public and become fair game for partisan attack.”

What better way to learn how to strengthen yourself for the hustings than to look at how some of our women role models believed in their strengths, overcame their fears, took calculated risks and went on to play major roles in their city, province or country.

For example, nothing can stop the Honourable Flora MacDonald, first woman to run for the leadership of one of Canada’s governing parties and first woman appointed Canadian Minister of External Affairs. Now entering her 80s, she continues to be actively involved, on site, in promoting women’s rights around the world, in particular in North-East India and Afghanistan. In 2005, she received the Padma Shri Award, which in Hindi is said to mean 'the ultimate'. Of India's billion plus population, it is awarded to only 50 of their nationals each year, and occasionally one is given to a foreigner. Flora was the first Canadian ever to receive one. Here is what she has to say about the competitive world of politics:

“When I won the nomination many pundits dismissed me as just
another sacrificial lamb. Never in my life have I been a sacrificial
lamb and I determined that the ensuing election would prove them
wrong!… and it did."

Honourable Barbara McDougall echoed this attitude in a speech she gave in June 1987, when she was Minister Responsible for the Status of Women:

“Don’t be afraid to take risks. ‘Afraid’ is the wrong word — we’re all afraid to take risks but take them anyway. I used to think that courage was something you were born with; then I discovered that in any given room, everyone else was as terrified as I was. And I realized a very great but basic truth. Courage is not the absence of fear — courage is driving on despite your fear, despite the risk of failure.”

Which is what The Right Honourable Kim Campbell had, given the way she describes her first campaign: “Heading off that first day, I remember my horror at being told I was expected to approach strangers on the street and ask for their vote.” She of course went on to win that election and the following one.

Another formidable woman is the Honourable Monique Bégin who revealed the fears she overcame in her convocation address upon receiving an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2000:

“For many years, in my heart of hearts, I felt that I was a failure in terms of what society expected. (Mind you, I was smart enough to never tell anyone and today is the first time I express this thought.) I had started teaching small kids when I was 19, but I wanted to study and that took money. I quit teaching, became a secretary, studied on evenings and weekends; got a Masters in Sociology after everybody else and almost by a miracle; could not finish my doctoral studies at La Sorbonne, again because of lack of money. I changed work often, but it was work that I always loved. So, long before it was the norm, changes had been an intrinsic part of my life. Did I know where I was going and where life was taking me? No, I didn't. But I always gave it my best and I did not shy away from challenges and difficulties. I have lost some and I have won some. There were moments of doubt, of frustration, of fear, of discouragement. And I learned in the process. I just had that general idea that I wanted to contribute to make the world a better place. Nothing particularly original — except that I never gave up.”

More recently, in May 2005, when the Honourable Belinda Stronach crossed the floor, joined the governing party's Cabinet, and became Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, she faced sustained sexist attacks. She faced so many sexist attacks that it created uproar among women of all parties and many members of the media. Belinda Stronach took the attacks in stride, and was quoted in The Globe and Mail, June 16, 2005:

“I have been called many things over the past weeks, some of them not very pleasant or mature. That is part of public life. But I know in my heart that I have done the right thing.”

All politicians, not only those who become ministers, premiers or prime ministers, find in themselves the savvy to do their job and hopefully become re-elected, as summarised by Carolyn Parrish, the independent MP for Mississauga-Erindale, on her website:

“The job of a Member of Parliament is not a high profile one. Many MPs work hard on behalf of Canadians for years with little recognition. Part of the reason for the anonymity is that people don't know what MPs do aside from the day-to-day grind of going to committee, voting in the House and lobbying for constituents… Making an impact often means being outspoken and standing up for the issues that you feel passionately about.”

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