McGill’s Women in House program hosted “The Politics of Representation: Fostering Accountability and Integrity in Governance” on Nov. 5 to explore the significance and value of female participation in Canadian government institutions. The panel, conducted via Zoom, featured McGill Political Science Professor Kelly Gordon, L1 Law student Chloe Kemeni, and Women in House founder Chi Nguyen. They underscored the potential challenges women embarking on careers in politics may face.
The event marks the first panel discussion of the academic year organized by Women in House, a shadowing program that aims to give female-identifying McGill students the opportunity to pair up with Members of Parliament and Senators. In an interview with //The McGill Tribune//, Iyanu Soyege, U3 Arts, the panel’s moderator and a coordinator of Women in House, explained that she sought to ground the discussion of female representation in the network of social movements burgeoning across Canada.
“With the people of the Wet’suwet’en territory fighting for sovereignty over their land [and with] Black Lives Matter, we are trying to view government institutions as avenues for change,” Soyege said. “We’re asking what can happen when women do get into government, and what we can do to ensure that our communities are transformed.”
The panelists began their discussion of representation by distinguishing between two kinds of representation: Descriptive and substantive. The former is defined by the number of women in an institution, and the latter occurs when women-friendly policies are actually enacted. In doing so, Kemeni examined the different uses of identity politics in a liberal society.
“We need to critically assess what it means to be within our identity and intentionally understand it,” Kemeni said. “[…] We often talk about how we need more women, more racialized folks, and more folks from different backgrounds, and so they are [brought] to the table, and it’s almost as if they’re just there to […] not say anything. So when we talk about reclaiming identity politics within its feminist understanding, this means using your identity, and the teachings that come with who you are, your ancestors, […] what they taught you, and bringing that to the table.”
The panel then discussed the informal means through which women can exercise leadership and foreground local communities.
“Think about all of the parent councils, all of the activation that happens in communities by women,” Nguyen said. “Right after COVID-19, who was setting up mutual aid societies? Who was setting up these networks? It was driven by women’s leadership, and there’s an undervaluing of that care work.”
The speakers also addressed the barriers female politicians who pursue substantive change face. Professor Gordon mentioned the case of Jody Wilson-Raybould, a woman who resigned from the Trudeau cabinet in 2019 amid the SNC-Lavalin affair.
“What emerges is this pattern where although women are welcomed into the organization […], we also see people like Jody Wilson-Raybould doing […] what her community asked her to do, which is envisioning and [doing] things [in] a different way, and the party then ignores, denies, or blames [women like] her,” Gordon said.
Following a question that asked how the panelists have remained optimistic while navigating often-destabilizing political careers, the speakers imparted advice to the audience in their concluding remarks.
“For me, I’ve been able to find my tribe,” Nguyen said. “It should be feeding your soul, and if it’s not, you need to step back, reassess, and keep trying things on for size.”
Alex Byrne, U1 Arts, attended the event and praised the panelists for their candidness, while also emphasizing the need to continue engaging in nuanced conversations about representation.
“I feel like so much of our talk about female representation is this liberal [idea] that women should be ambitious, and we need to empower women to have seats, but we rarely talk about the process it takes to get there,” Byrne said. “It was eye-opening to hear that spoken about in a way that was so blunt and open.”