Nelson City Council could easily be comprised of all men and no women after the Oct. 15 municipal election.
That’s because only three out of 11 candidates for council and only one out of five candidates for mayor, identify as women.
Only two out of seven members of council (including the mayor) were women after the 2018 election, a lower number than in some councils in the recent past. In three successive terms starting in 2008, women outnumbered men four to three.
“It’s a disappointment that there are not more female candidates running,” says former Nelson mayor Deb Kozak, “because I think there’s a lot of qualified women out there.”
In the towns and rural areas surrounding Nelson, the numbers of women candidates are higher.
In a combination of Nelson, Salmo, Kaslo, Slocan and Areas E, F, G, and H of the Regional District of Central Kootenay, 45 per cent of the candidates are women. Following the 2018 election, 40 per cent of elected representatives were women.
According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), 19 per cent of Canadian mayors are women. As for mayors and councillors combined, the FCM has set a goal of 30 per cent women. Quebec and B.C. are the only provinces to surpass it (34.5 per cent and 36.7 per cent respectively). The Yukon and the Northwest Territories have both achieved gender parity, which the FCM defines as 40-to-60 per cent.
Former Nelson councillor Donna Macdonald says the United Nations has also adopted a guideline of 30 per cent because it decided that “a minimum of 30 per cent of the people around a government table must be women in order for policies to begin to adequately reflect women’s concerns.”
Macdonald says ideally we would have 50 per cent women and men, with varying backgrounds and ethnicities.
“(Women) do bring different perspectives and experiences and different different kinds of brains, according to neuroscientists,” she says. “And I don’t always vote for women. I want good candidates: good, thoughtful, hardworking people.
“But I sure want to have the choice of women.”
Kozak says women need to be invited to run. She thinks there are many men who assume they are qualified for office, and many women who believe they themselves are not.
“A lot of women just don’t step forward. They maybe haven’t thought of it as something that they would do,” Kozak says. “So to encourage women and to support them to run is very important.”
Ramona Faust, who represented Area E for eight years but who is not running this time, says small towns and rural areas have generally elected higher numbers of women.
She says on her first term on the RDCK board, among the board members from the rural areas, she was the only woman, and that number has increased significantly since then.
In that first term as the only woman, Faust says, “I was treated very well. I don’t believe that I was a token or anything like that. I think that I was heard, I was given opportunities to be on committees. My strengths were valued.”
She says she won’t vote for women just because they are women.
“At some point, I get a little ambivalent about gender and more concerned about policy. But sometimes they go hand in hand.”
Faust’s biggest challenge was social media and a “small cadre” of men who attacked her online.
“They feel emboldened to just make any assumptions and accusations that they like. I think they would have been not so bold if it had been a male in my position.”
She says the attacks were personal.
“It had nothing to do with the job that I’m doing, or the things that I’m bringing forth that the community wanted.”
Faust says many women have told her they are interested in serving the community in some way but, “I couldn’t do what you do. My skin isn’t thick enough.”
This concern is part of an international trend, with frequent stories of politicians, especially politicians, being bullied in social media and sometimes on the street. A recent example is the public harassment of federal finance minister Chrystia Freeland during an incident in Edmonton.
Making it worse for women in many cases is the sexually violent nature of the comments.
Kozak, who ran for re-election in 2018, had experiences that scared her.
As the 2018 election neared, “the rhetoric ramped up around what me or my counsel had or hadn’t done, and some of the comments on social media were just blistering and oftentimes inaccurate. It was a very hard thing to hear and see.”
In one instance, council had to get the police involved because a man was targeting individuals at city hall. “It wasn’t just me that was being targeted. And that was really difficult. It’s very wearing and very, very concerning as well, because you worry not only about yourself, about your family and the people who are around you.”
Macdonald left politics before the prevalence of social media.
“Can I blame women for not wanting to commit themselves to that for four years? No.”
She says she encourages prospective women candidates to “think very carefully about how they’re going to manage that whole toxic world.”
Despite this misgiving, she says she encourages women to run.
“I would say, go for it. It’s a fantastic experience. It’s a chance where you can actually make a real difference. It won’t happen as fast as you think, but you can do it if you learn the skills that you need, and the strategies to make change. It’s wonderfully rewarding.”