MOMBOURQUETTE: Boundary changes could affect female councillors
I had a moment of panic this week when I thought, mistakenly, that the change in electoral boundaries meant that Dawn Sloane, Jennifer Watts and Sue Uteck would all be running against one another in the same district in this fall’s municipal election.
I was relieved to see that Watts plans to run in the new District 8 (Peninsula North) and Uteck in District 7 (Peninsula South), but, just as I was writing this, I learned that Dawn Sloane will unfortunately be facing off against Jennifer Watts.
I say “unfortunately,” because I think it would be a crying shame to lose any of these women’s voices from Halifax regional council. I think the history of backroom dealings during this administration makes it clear that Halifax desperately needs more women’s perspectives in the council chambers, not fewer. And even though I don’t always agree with each of these councillors on every issue, it’s critical that we keep the active and engaged women that we already have at city hall, and even more critical that we bring the gender balance closer to parity through the coming election.
Why? “Because the decisions that governments make, specifically at the local level, literally affect our everyday lives,” says Kristel vom Scheidt, a Halifax mother of two who is on maternity leave from her job as constituency assistant to provincial MLA Leonard Preyra. “They affect the roads that we drive on, the schools, everything that we interact with — and women’s lives are just different than men’s. Their experience, their perspectives, their views — unless there’s somebody at the table who has had that experience, those voices are not really being represented properly.”
Vom Scheidt knows of which she speaks. Her master’s thesis was on the subject of women in municipal politics in Nova Scotia, and she was co-author of a 2005 report on women in local government that was backed by the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the Halifax YWCA and Service Nova Scotia.
In fact, those groups, minus the YWCA, have been running municipal campaign schools for women all across the province since April. They did the same back in 2008, with good results: 40 per cent of the participants ran as candidates in the 2008 municipal elections, and of that number, 34 per cent were elected, including one mayor.
Having a greater balance of women in the council chambers, vom Scheidt points out, could go a long way toward combating the disconnect many of us feel with our local government. “The atmosphere of how the council table works and how decisions are made would be different if there were more women at the table,” she says. “It wouldn’t be so petty and immature. ...I think that’s one of the reasons that women are not there, because they look at it and think, ‘That’s not the way that I want to operate.’”
Nomination day is Sept. 1, so there’s still time for candidates to step up. “Most people don’t realize how much of an effect they can have if they get into municipal politics,” says vom Scheidt. “Once you are at the table, you really do have the ability to help set the agenda and sway some of the major issues and priorities of government. You’d be surprised at what a difference you can make.”
Next week: the voice of experience. Francene Cosman, former Halifax County councillor and mayor of the town of Bedford, on what it’s like to be a woman in politics.
Angela Mombourquette is a Halifax writer and editor.