From the Front Lines: A Young Woman in Politics by Erin Rennie

by Erin Rennie

BC Legislature via Flickr user mohit_k.

BC Legislature via Flickr user mohit_k.

I feel very lucky to be a woman in Canadian politics in 2012. I’ve studied my history and I know how hard women have worked for decades to achieve the political equality I enjoy today. Personhood, the right to vote, the right to attend university, the social acceptance of my choice to have a career, the guarantee of equal pay, and the freedom to speak freely at the boardroom table or at the kitchen table – these are things I am able to take for granted because of the women who fought relentlessly to guarantee them for girls of my generation.

But I don’t take these rights for granted. I take my political rights very seriously. And I think rights always come with accompanying responsibilities. I’ve chosen a career in politics not just out of a love for the thrill of the political world, but also out of a sense of duty. Politics are how I serve my community. Since Grade 8 student government, the political realm has been where my talents and my passions have fused. Unlike women of the past and women in other parts of the world I am able to exercise not only my rights, but my calling as well.

Which isn’t to say it’s all perfect. With just 24.7% of Parliamentary seats held by female MPs, Canada ranks 27th in the world when it comes to female representation in national parliaments, right above Sudan. As a political aide for the past four years, I have had many more male colleagues than female colleagues. And it wasn’t much better at university: in the UBC Debate Society I was often one of a handful of girls at a tournament full of guys. In 2008 I was the only female candidate out of five to run for President of the student body. My experiences often leave me wondering what was holding the other girls back. My generation has been raised with every right, opportunity, and encouragement that our male counterparts have had. Women are out-performing their male classmates in universities across the country. So why are we still seeing a gender gap at the top?

I think that there are many complicated reasons. Women face different challenges than men when it comes to entering the political world. Women continue to shoulder the bulk of the household chores and child-rearing responsibilities. Female politicians are portrayed more negatively by the media. Female politicians are even “heard” differently by voters who have been conditioned to expect their political leaders to be white, male, middle-aged, and WASPY. The political waters are still fraught with sexist sharks.

But I think women themselves also have something to do with the gender gap. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, says that there is an “ambition gap” at the bottom contributing to the gender gap at the top. Women, she argues, plan a way out of the “corporate ladder” long before they need to. Young women are more likely to choose a flexible, middle management career path in preparation for the children they may not even have yet. They “check out before they check out.” Effectively, women are self-sabotaging.

I think confidence is key to helping fill this ambition gap. It isn’t enough for girls to have the right to be walking through the halls of power, girls need to want it and believe they can have it.

As a political aide strategic communications are my bread and butter. I am constantly listening and analysing what people say and write and what I’ve noticed is that men are far better at articulating what they want. And unsurprisingly, they are better at getting what they want. The women in my life are the opposite. They hum and haw over decisions. They don’t express their preferences. They defer decisions to others. They think this is what it means to be likeable and feminine. Heck, I’m guilty of this too.

I believe that until women stop communicating this way we will never see equality in our political chambers. I challenge the women of Canada to stop self-sabotaging and lying to themselves about what they really want. Express your preferences. Tell us that you WANT to lead and why. Make the decisions you now have the right to make. Be as ambitious and demanding as you can be. Like everything else, if men can do it, we can too.

Pamela Palmater



Dr. Pamela D. Palmater (Mi’kmaq), member of the Eel River Bar First Nation, is a prominent lawyer and activist for the rights of Indigenous people and nations. During the 2012 leadership race for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Palmater challenged incumbent Sean Atleo, in hopes of becoming the first woman to lead the assembly.

Palmater is chair of Indigenous Governance and an associate professor in Ryerson University’s department of Politics and Public Administration. She is the academic director of the university’s Centre for Indigenous Governance. Prior to her academic career, Palmater worked at Justice Canada and for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. In 1998, she was called to the bar in New Brunswick. She received her doctorate in the Science of Law from Dalhousie University in 2009.

Until 2011, Palmater did not have full membership in her family’s first nation. Her grandmother married a non-Aboriginal person, which made Palmater ineligible for status until recent changes in the law under Bill C-3. She maintains the Indigenous Nationhood website. Her doctoral work focused on Indigenous nation membership, the Indian act and issues of status. Her thesis, Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity, was published by Purich in 2011.

Palmater’s AFN campaign sparked a great deal of interest and became a hot topic of conversation on social media, particularly amongst Aboriginal youth. She called for more involvement of the grassroots in the AFN and was a strong critic of Atleo’s approach to working with the Conservative government. Palmater’s platform was also critical of what she sees as assimilationist policies undertaken by the current government. She called for first nations to gain a bigger share of the wealth from natural resources on their territories and for Canada to honour the agreements it has made with Aboriginal nations.

“Everyone talks about resetting the relationship. There’s nothing to reset. The treaty relationship is there. We just now have to get Canada to live up to its part of the bargain.”

During the campaign, Palmater also talked about the need to call a “state of emergency” to address housing issues in some first nations communities.

Prior to her AFN leadership bid, Palmater had never served as chief of a first nation. Palmater finished second to Atleo in the Assembly of First Nations race, with 141 votes in the third round of ballots to his 341.

Further reading:

Lawrence, B. “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

Palmater, P. Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity. Saskatoon: Purich Publishing, 2011.

Palmater, P. “Stretched Beyond Human Limits: Death by Poverty in First Nations.” Canadian Review of Social Policy/Revue Canadienne de Politique Social 65/66 (2011): 112-127.

Katsitsakwas Ellen Gabriel

Photo via Michael Paolucci/Flickr user druojajay.

Photo via Michael Paolucci/Flickr user druojajay.

Katsitsakwas Ellen Gabriel (Kanien’kehá:ka Nation – Turtle Clan) first rose to prominence during her community’s resistance to a proposed expansion of a private nine-hole golf course into a sacred grove of pines near the town of Oka, Quebec in 1990. The resulting standoff at Kanehsatà:ke between Mohawk people and the Canadian army became known as the “Oka crisis,” and lasted for 78 days. Gabriel was chosen by the People of the Longhouse to act as a spokesperson for the community, and she became one of the faces of the struggle against the destruction of the pine grove.

The media has often presented the events at Kanehsatà:ke as a highly gendered event, with male Canadian soldiers facing off against male Mohawk warriors. The most iconic photograph of the crisis is one in which a soldier and a masked warrior stare each other down. The effect of this representation of the Oka crisis has served to erase the important role Mohawk women played in the resistance movement at Kanehsatà:ke. Gabriel was front and centre during the stand-off, acting as a key negotiatior and media spokesperson. She also spoke about the presence and leadership of women behind the barricades.

Gabriel has continued in her role as an activist for Indigenous rights since 1990. She has traveled internationally to speak about the events at Kanehsatà:ke. She has also participated in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues and the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In 2004, Gabriel was elected president of the Quebec Native Women’s Association, a position she held until 2010. During the summer of 2012, Gabriel ran in the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) leadership race for the position of national chief.

She came last in the second round of ballots, with 17 votes, after which she threw her support behind Pamela Palmater.

Further Reading and Resources

Alfred, G.R. Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors: Kahnawake Mohawk Politics and the Rise of Native Nationalism. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Conradi, A. Uprising at Oka: A Place of Non-identification. Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 34 (2009) 547-566.

Obomsawin, A. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. NFB, 1993.

York, G. & Pindera, L. People of the Pines: The Warriors and the legacy of Oka. USA: Little, Brown, 1991.