Agnes Macphail, the first woman elected to the House of Commons in 1921, and Nellie Cournoyea, the first Aboriginal woman to become government leader, in 1991, have accomplishments separated by decades, but they share the status of female trailblazers in Canadian politics.
International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate such achievements, to reflect on women’s progress and to highlight challenges women still face. The day is marked every year on 8 March and was first established by the United Nations during International Women’s Year in 1975.
Vital link between women’s leadership and economic prosperity
Canada’s 2012 International Women’s Day theme is “Strong Women, Strong Canada – Women in Rural, Remote and Northern Communities: Key to Canada’s Economic Prosperity.” The day will highlight the vital link between women in leadership roles and economic prosperity.
Having women in decision-making positions at all levels, in rural and urban areas, serves to strengthen women’s interests and perspectives in the economic realm. This benefits both women and their communities.
The widely recognized minimum benchmark to guarantee a critical mass of women in decision-making institutions is 30%. Despite progress, women remain under-represented in most decision-making positions in many countries, including Canada (300 kB, 1 page).
Canada and the international context
According to 2011 Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) data, the worldwide average for women’s representation in the single/lower legislative house is 19.7%, below the 30% benchmark and well below the 50% for full equality.
In Canada, women hold 24.8% of the seats in the House of Commons. Canada ranks 39th in the world in women’s representation in the single/lower legislative house, as indicated in the IPU world classification.
Canada is slightly ahead of Australia (24.7%) in women’s representation, and well ahead of the United Kingdom (22.0%), the United States (16.8%) and Russia (14.0%).
Progress at the federal level
Agnes Macphail’s 1921 victory did not open the floodgates for female politicians at the federal level; only four women were elected in the subsequent 25 years.
Their representation did gradually increase; by 1984, women held 9.6% of federal seats, and by 1993, 18.0%. In the 1997 federal election, women took 20.6% of the seats, although this proportion lingered around the 20% mark for the next decade.
The 41st Parliament, which has followed the 2011 election, includes a record number of female MPs. A total of 76 women were elected to the Commons, representing 24.8% of seats (see Map 1).
In the Senate, women hold a much higher proportion of seats, 37.9%.
Map 1 - Representation of Women in the House of Commons Following the 2011 Election
Provinces and territories
The representation of women in provincial and territorial legislatures varies widely (see Map 2). Currently, two of the provincial/territorial legislatures are above the 30% benchmark. Women fill 31.6% of the seats in Yukon, and 31.3% of the seats in British Columbia.
Quebec was the first among federal, provincial and territorial governments to meet the benchmark. In the 2003 election, women won 32% of the seats. Currently they occupy 29.0% of the provincial seats in Quebec.
Near the benchmark are Manitoba (28.1%) and Ontario (28.0%), while the Northwest Territories (10.5%) ranks lowest.
Canada set a record high of four sitting female premiers in October 2011 when Alison Redford became Alberta’s premier.
Map 2 - Representation of Women in Provincial and Territorial Legislatures, 2012
Representation by women in provincial and territorial legislatures does not always correspond with the percentage of women representing provinces or territories in the House of Commons (see Table 1).
Table 1 - Percentage of Seats Currently Held by Women in Provincial or Territorial Legislatures and in the House of Commons, by Province or Territory
|Province or Territory
||Provincial or Territorial Legislatures
||House of Commons
||0.0% (0 of 1)
|Prince Edward Island
||100.0% (1 of 1)
|Newfoundland and Labrador
||0.0% (0 of 1)
Source: ParlInfo, Library of Parliament.
Empowering girls to become leaders
Plan Canada’s Because I am a Girl campaign is inspired, in part, by the knowledge that educated and empowered girls become leaders in the home, in the community, and at the national level. This improves their economic prosperity, as well as that of their families and their neighbourhoods.
As part of this campaign, Plan Canada began an initiative to develop an International Day of the Girl Child. With support from the Canadian Parliament and the Canadian delegation to the United Nations, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring 11 October 2012 as the first International Day of the Girl Child. This event, which will occur annually, highlights the unique challenges girls encounter throughout their lives.
International Women’s Day recognizes the women of present and past; International Day of the Girl Child will celebrate the generations on the horizon.
The maps in this publication were prepared by Emmanuel Preville of the International Affairs, Trade and Finance Division.