One hundred years ago, on a winter day in 1920, Constance Hamilton, a suffragist, social activist and talented pianist, took her seat on Toronto city council, making history as the first woman elected to municipal office in Ontario.
A century later, and despite a decades-long push to get more women into municipal politics, gender parity remains elusive in city and town councils across Canada.
To mark International Women’s Day, the Star looked at the gender makeup of the municipal councils of Canada’s largest cities and found just 31 per cent of councillors are women — far short of equal representation.
The data, compiled by the Star and researchers at the Canadian Municipal Barometer, reveal only 53 of the 441 municipalities studied, or about 12 per cent, have a council on which women equal or outnumber men.
Nineteen municipalities, including Pickering, Ont., a city of almost 92,000, have no women on council at all. In Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, there is one woman on a 13-member council.
The findings are a stark reminder that even in 2020 — 100 years after Constance Hamilton celebrated her historic victory — women continue to face barriers entering Canadian politics, including in the country’s roughly 3,700 municipalities.
“Despite advancements and ongoing civic dialogue about diversity and representation in government, it just hasn’t translated into actual numbers at city council,” said Toronto Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, one of eight women on the city’s 26-member council and the only openly gay councillor. “Things have got to change, including the system itself.
“Our democracy will be stronger with more diverse women around the council table.”
It’s a long-held assumption women have a better shot at being elected to municipal councils than to provincial or federal governments.
Campaign costs are lower, and there are often fewer competitors fighting for a seat. The commute to council chambers is across town, not across the province or country. And some of the day-to-day issues debated at municipal council, from library services to sidewalk clearing to parks and recreation, are thought to matter more to mothers and families, attracting more women to the job.
But Erin Tolley, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, debunked that theory in a much-cited 2011 report on Canadian municipalities. Her data, collected in 2009 while she was a PhD student at Queen’s University, found about 22 per cent of elected municipal officials were women. That same year, women held about 24 per cent of seats in provincial and territorial legislatures, while 22 per cent of MPs in the House of Commons were women.
“It was so clear (from my research) that municipal government was not more open to women, a real reversal of the conventional wisdom at that time,” she said. “I know political scientists who had to change their university lecture notes based on my research.”
Nearly 10 years after Tolley’s landmark study, the Star’s gender analysis of the country’s 441 largest municipalities (those with a population of 9,000 or more) found a modest increase toward gender parity — or 50/50 representation — on councils. The data, collected in 2019 by researchers with the Canadian Municipal Barometer and verified in February 2020 by the Star, found women held just 31 per cent — 1,183 — of the 3,756 council seats included in the analysis.
While researchers try to pinpoint the specific structural barriers preventing women and candidates from culturally diverse backgrounds from entering local politics, one of the biggest reasons there are so few women on councils is straightforward: They simply don’t run.
Studies show women who run for local government are strong candidates, ready for the job. Research also shows a woman is just as likely as a man to win a council seat, especially in open races.
Across Canada, dozens of programs aim to help women get elected to local government by offering political training, campaign advice and peer support.
For nearly two decades, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities has been offering supports for women running for local office. Through its current campaign — Toward Parity in Municipal Politics — 20 Canadian community groups have or will receive grants to aid female candidates.
Tolley says dispelling the myth that women “do well” in municipal politics is alone an important message.
“Maybe it will jerk us out of our complacency,” she said. “At one point, women making up 30 per cent of a government was an aspiration. Now it seems like 30 per cent is almost a ceiling … a level that’s hard for women to surpass. We need to find out why that is.”
Jack Lucas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, believes collecting rigorous data on local governments will help municipalities work toward equal representation.
“We can’t improve if we don’t know our starting point,” said Lucas, project lead for the Canadian Municipal Barometer, a multi-institution research group launched in 2019.
Beginning this year, the group will send annual surveys to thousands of mayors and councillors to better understand issues affecting councils. The surveys will also collect demographic data, including a councillor’s ethnicity, to measure whether councils reflect the cities they are elected to represent.
“There should be very few barriers for people to enter local politics,” Lucas said. “We need to find ways to make sure everyone can be represented. The policies debated in municipalities are the ones that matter most to people’s day-to-day lives.”
If it’s hard for women to make gains as city councillors, it’s even harder for them to win council’s top job.
Just 21 per cent of the country’s 441 largest cities have female mayors, according to the joint Star and Canadian Municipal Barometer analysis.
Strikingly, in the country’s 12 biggest cities (those with populations greater than 500,000), there are just two female mayors — Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie.
At the other end of the scale, the Star analysis found more women were elected mayor in smaller municipalities.
The Star’s analysis mirrors 2019 research by Katherine Sullivan, a PhD student at the University of Montreal, that found one-fifth of Canadian mayors are women. Her research, which looked at more than 3,500 municipalities, also revealed more women are elected mayor in small communities compared to the country’s bigger cities.
“In small cities, where the mayor isn’t paid much or it’s a volunteer position, no one really wants to do it,” Sullivan said. “Women pick up the job because it needs to be done, because they want to help their community.”
Studies show women are less likely to run for leadership positions in big cities, where the role comes with power and prestige.
“Impostor syndrome is quite real in politics,” Sullivan said, explaining women are more likely than men to undervalue their abilities, particularly when it comes to leadership. For that reason, she says, it’s important to look at both the gender breakdown of councils and the gender of Canadian mayors.
Get more of the Star in your inbox
Never miss the latest news from the Star. Sign up for our newsletters to get today’s top stories, your favourite columnists and lots more in your email inbox.
“That comparison shows women are more likely to participate in a back-seat role on council. That’s something we need to change.”
Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward made the leap from a two-term city councillor to mayor in that city’s 2018 municipal election.
While she was sure Burlington — a mid-size city with a population of more than 183,000 — was ready for a strong female mayor, Meed Ward said some warned her not to challenge the male incumbent, telling her to wait until the position was vacant.
“There was this sense of: ‘Why would you take him on? Why do you think you are better?’ My response was that in every election I’ve run, I’ve done so thinking that I can do something good for the community.”
Meed Ward, a mother of three whose family has lived in Burlington for 20 years, is the city’s first female mayor in more than four decades and one of three women on its seven-person council.
She says the three of them, along with other first-term councillors, have improved both the tone and types of discussion at Burlington city hall. Removing the acrimony in local politics was one of Meed Ward’s election platforms.
“For the eight years I was a councillor, it was a full-on blood sport,” she said. “This kind of bad behaviour in politics, women don’t want any part of it. It’s what’s keeping them out.
“Women want to sign up (to council) for the community good, for sound decision-making, for community building. They do not want to sign up for the social bullying, the discrimination, the blood-sport aspect of the job. As we get more of a critical mass of women in local politics, we will really start to change how politics is done.”
When Constance Hamilton took her seat on Toronto city council in 1920, the city she would help lead for two consecutive one-year terms looked very different than today.
Back then, Toronto was the second-biggest city in Canada after Montreal and home to about half a million people, the city’s pro hockey team was the Toronto St. Patricks, and a dozen eggs cost about 70 cents. It was also scandalous for women to leave their homes without wearing a hat.
But the issues Hamilton championed — a living wage, safe housing for immigrants, equal rights for women — are still debated at city hall, often brought forward by the current government’s progressive female councillors.
Wong-Tam (Ward 13, Toronto Centre) says she believes having more women in local government helps build better cities because their voices often speak for many groups of people, especially children and the elderly.
In her nine years as councillor, Wong-Tam says she has repeatedly seen women bring forward ideas and policy motions that aim to make the city safer for women and children. She wonders what cities would look like if their local governments truly reflected their populations.
Wong-Tam points to Toronto’s ongoing transit debate as one that would benefit from more female voices. She says data show women rely on the TTC more than men, while a greater proportion of men drive on the Gardiner Expressway, repairs to which are estimated to consume about 44 per cent of the city’s transit budget.
“There’s an opportunity here for us to ask: With each transit dollar, are we reaching people equitably?” Wong-Tam said.
For the last four years, Kate Rogers has been the lone woman on Fredericton’s 13-person council.
A mother of two who works full time as executive director of the Fredericton Community Foundation, Rogers can’t sit on all the city’s standing committees, even though she knows she adds a valuable and otherwise missing voice to the discussions. There just isn’t enough time in her days. Fredericton councillors hold part-time positions with an annual compensation of about $26,000.
Last year, Rogers spoke out after the city appointed a five-person, all-male contingent to a committee overseeing a major development of the New Brunswick Exhibition grounds in Fredericton.
Despite her efforts, public support and council taking an additional two weeks to review their decisions, council voted again in favour of the same all-male appointments. Following that vote, council adopted a motion to form a working group on gender diversity with the goal of including more women in civic discussions.
Rogers, who co-chairs the committee, says the group’s findings, adopted by council in February, are long overdue.
“As councillors, we make decisions that affect people — building roads, designing public transit, city services — and if we only consider these decisions through a single or very narrow viewpoint, we are not making decisions that truly represent our city.”
New Brunswick will hold its next municipal elections in May. Rogers, who is not yet sure she will run for a third term, is encouraging women and diverse candidates to seek election.
Yet as much as she believes in these efforts, Rogers equally believes local governments must change, from their outdated structure to how they do business, before there can be equal representation on municipal councils.
“If women don’t want to sit at the table, then maybe we need to change what the table looks like.”
Data analysis by Andrew Bailey, graphics and online database by Cameron Tulk and Andres Plana