When Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a much-anticipated cabinet shuffle in July 2013, many observers pointed to the increase in women on the front bench. In the lead-up to the announcement, government representatives hinted widely that female representation would be a central story and Harper himself tweeted out during the announcement that he was “proud to be naming four new strong, capable women to the ministry” (CBC news story). In fact, with two prominent Conservative figures no longer in cabinet—Calgary MP Diane Ablonczy who announced she would not running again and Senate leader Marjory LeBreton whose departure signaled the bad odour of Canada’s senior house–,women’s number only increased by two to constitute a third of ministers. In addition, one third of these take up junior “minister of state” positions. While a few hold portfolios of some public visibility – Health (Rona Ambrose), Environment (Leona Aglukkaq), and Labour (Kellie Leitch), the powerful front-bench portfolios remain dominated by a handful of long privileged white men – Finance (Jim Flaherty), Foreign Affairs (John Baird), Defense (Rob Nicholson), and Justice and Attorney General (Peter MacKay).
Women’s cabinet representation is not simply a numbers game; it influences official choices and policy outcomes. Atchison and Down find that, in advanced industrial democracies, there is significant correlation between the number of female cabinet ministers and the provision of female-friendly social policy. In Canada’s Westminster system, the executive controls spending and nearly all legislation and policy decisions. As Atchison and Down argue, women in cabinet in such systems are “ideally placed” to pursue certain policies. In the absence of female voices in powerful portfolios, decisions remain concentrated in the ‘old boys club’.
Some Canadian examples demonstrate the substantive importance of women in cabinet. The longtime determined feminist and powerful party insider, Flora MacDonald, who was first appointed as Secretary of State for External Affairs in 1979 and later presided over Foreign Affairs and Employment and Immigration, was instrumental in the adoption of employment equity legislation. When Rosalie Abella, the commissioner of the Royal Commission on Equity in Employment approached Macdonald, then Minister of Employment and Immigration, in 1984, asking for an expanded mandate, the response– “take the whole thing, whatever you want”—confirmed the value of a senior cabinet ally (in Bakan and Kobayashi, 2007). With MacDonald’s aid, the Abella report on Equality in Employment led to the introduction by Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government of the 1986 Employment Equity Act and the Federal Contractors Program. Although sometimes criticized for omitting affirmative action (for example see Cohen, 1985), the legislation marks a critical change in government’s obligations and a legal recognition of women’s rights to employment equity in the public service.
The leading Liberal, Judy LaMarsh, the second woman cabinet minister (after the Conservative Ellen Fairclough) was similarly critical in the government of Lester B. Pearson. She was Minister of National Health and Welfare when Ottawa adopted the Canadian Pension plan and built on the medicare initiatives introduced first in Saskatchewan. As Secretary of State, LaMarsh later established the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1967. In fact, she had tried to convince Prime Minister Pearson of the need for such a public inquiry while she had served as Minister of National Health several years earlier (LaMarsh, 1969). It wasn’t until 1967 after several years of hard work by LaMarsh along side women’s groups such as the Canadian Federation of University Women that the Commission was established (Pierson, 4-5).
Other examples further depict the point. In 1990 the President of the Treasury Board of Canada, Conservative cabinet minister Pat Carney, initiated a Task Force on Barriers to Women in the Public Service. In 1992 then Justice-Minister Kim Campbell introduced new rape legislation, the passage of which firmly established the legal standing of ‘no-means-no’. Gender matters in the provinces and territories as well. In an extensive case study of women in cabinet in Ontario 1990 to 1995, Bryne finds that, while the effects “were not as dramatic as the feminist progressive components might project nor as extensive as the women’s movement had hoped” having women at the table did make a substantive difference to policy outcomes and institutional change. Under Minister of Justice Shirley Bond, British Columbia introduced major changes in 2013 to the Family Law Act and overhauled strategies for addressing domestic violence by facilitating cross-service cooperation.
Such cases demonstrate the importance of women’s representation in senior positions around the cabinet table. Although single individuals cannot guarantee action and certainly not feminist initiatives, power is always helpful. As long as the senior posts go to a paltry handful of unrepresentative men as they did in June 2013, prospects for more egalitarian policies remain limited.
Armstrong, A. (1976). Flora MacDonald. Don Mills, Ont. : J.M. Dent & Sons.
Atichson, A. & Down, I. (2009). Women Cabinet Ministers and Female-Friendly Social Policy. Poverty and Public Policy.
Bakan. A, & Kobayashi, A. (2007). AFFIRMATIVE ACTION AND EMPLOYMENT EQUITY: POLICY, IDEOLOGY, AND BACKLASH IN CANADIAN CONTEXT. Studies in Political Economy, 79.
Bryne, L. H. (2005). Feminists in Power: Women Cabinet Ministers in the New Democratic Party (NDP) Government of Ontario, 1990–1995.
CBC News. (2013). 7 key changes in Harper’s new cabinet. Online news story – retrieved August 31, 2013 from .
Cohen, M. (1985). EMPLOYMENT EQUITY IS NOT AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. Canadian Women’s Studies, 6:4.
Dobrowolsky, A. “Intersecting Identities and Inlcusive institutions: Women and a future transformative politics”, J of Can Studies 35:4 (Winter 2001)
LaMarsh, J. (1969). Memoirs of a Bird in a Gilded Cage. Montreal : McClelland and Stewart.
Pierson, Ruth R. et al, Canadian Women’s Issues , v. 1 (Toronto: Lorimer, 19930
Studlar, D., & Moncrief, G. (1997). The recruitment of women cabinet ministers in the Canadian provinces. Governance, 10:1.