Donna Dasko’s crusade to get more women into political office

May 12, 2016 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Newsroom by

Many of the country’s leading feminists and activists from the political arena gathered last Friday night at a home in Toronto’s tony Rosedale to fete two of their own who had just been appointed to the Senate, and to mark the 15th anniversary of the movement to elect more women in Canada.

It was a remarkable evening.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was there; so were Janet Ecker and Isabel Bassett, who both served in former Ontario premier Mike Harris’s cabinet, and former Toronto Star political journalist Rosemary Speirs, one of the few women to run a parliamentary bureau. Beth Atcheson, a lawyer and one of the founders of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, attended, as did Penny Collenette, who was a senior member of Jean Chrétien’s PMO.

Nancy Ruth, the formidable feminist senator from Toronto, was running late – delayed after staying in Ottawa to support an MP’s private member’s bill to make the lyrics of the national anthem gender-neutral.

At the centre of it all was Donna Dasko – national pollster, sociologist and long-time advocate for women in politics. It was her house; her party. And on this day exactly 15 years ago, and in that same living room, Ms. Dasko and a number of other women, some of whom were there again last Friday night, helped to found Equal Voice, the non-partisan organization aimed at electing more women in Canada.

“It’s very basic. It’s a matter of representation. Women are half the population and we should be there [in the House of Commons and provincial legislatures] in numbers that are equal to men. I’m just not going to give up on it,” Ms. Dasko says, explaining why she’s spent so much time on this cause. She has never run herself, however, feeling she is more effective in a non-partisan role.

During her tenure as Equal Voice’s national chair, the strategy was to raise awareness about electing women and to urge political parties to nominate more female candidates, at least giving women a better shot at winning a seat.

“The focus should always be on pressing the parties,” she says.

Ms. Dasko’s polling has shown that Canadians will vote for women. “There is no problem with the electorate,” she says. “The problem is elsewhere. The problem is with the parties and with their inability or unwillingness to make this [nominating more women candidates] a priority.”

She believes Equal Voice has been successful in raising awareness, but not on the more important piece of getting more women elected to Parliament and the legislatures – for example, only 26 per cent of the MPs elected in the 2015 general election are women. But that’s still better than 15 years ago, when 20.6 per cent were women.

Although Ms. Dasko has moved on from Equal Voice, she has not abandoned her efforts to see more women in official Ottawa. Her focus now is creating gender parity in the Senate. It’s not an issue that Equal Voice is backing – an indication that there a differing priorities, leadership styles and maybe a little tension in the women’s political movement.

Equal Voice is now focused on an initiative to bring young women from every riding in the country to Ottawa next March to help mark the 100th anniversary of some women being given the vote in Canada. The national leadership was not aware of Ms. Dasko’s party.

At her Friday event, Ms. Dasko also talked about her new Senate plan as she celebrated the two new female Senators from Toronto, Frances Lankin, a former Ontario NDP cabinet minister, and Ratna Omidvar, an expert on migration and diversity. Both are friends, and both were at that founding reception 15 years ago.

In fact, Ms. Dasko’s relationship with Ms. Omidvar goes back even farther. In the late 1980s, as the president of St. Stephen’s Community House, an immigrant settlement house in Kensington Market, she gave Ms. Omidvar, an immigrant whose two children were attending daycare there, her first break – a job. Proud of her friend, Ms. Dasko was emotional that night in honouring her.

The new Senators are among the seven – four women and three men – appointed by Justin Trudeau last March, his first Senate appointments as Prime Minister. Ms. Lankin and Ms. Omidvar sit as independents, and they told the group Friday they are working with others in the Red Chamber to reform the much-maligned institution.

There are still 18 Senate vacancies, and the fact that Mr. Trudeau has so far appointed more women than men gives Ms. Dasko hope.

She has argued – and she’s been up on Parliament Hill speaking to cabinet ministers about this – that there are now 33 female senators compared with 54 men, and if the Prime Minister were to fill the remaining 18 vacancies with women, the chamber would be almost equal.

Now, she is about to launch the second phase of her Senate campaign – extracting a pledge from Mr. Trudeau to reach parity by a certain date. What date that is, she hasn’t quite figured out. But just watch her.

Jane Taber
The Globe and Mail