On April 5, 1917, women won the right to vote in British Columbia. During the 100 years that have passed since that historic date, women have broken barriers in the political realms and continue to push for gender equality.
The Gazette checked in with five of our local municipal politicians to find out how they would gauge West Shore’s political climate and how female councillors or mayors are treated.
“It’s really important that women in politics – or other leadership positions – are modeling for other women,” said Langford Coun. Lillian Szpak. “We want more diversity.”
When looking at the United Nations’ minimum goals for the number of women sitting in elected positions nationally, she said “we still have a ways to go.” But when looking at the municipal level, there’s much more balanced representation between the sexes. “The climate at the municipal level is quite welcoming to women,” Szpak noted. “It’s a natural role for women and they bring their perspective to the table.”
That may be because municipal politics is the closest connection many have to the political world and, as Szpak noted, councillors are more accountable to the people, not just financially, but the decisions they make and how they live and work in the community are all under a very close microscope. “You’re encountering the community … there’s a sense of being connected.”
While working on her master’s at Royal Roads University, Szpak wrote her thesis on women in leadership positions. What she learned from the process was there are a number of misconceptions surrounding women in politics.
Often she noted, there’s this belief that women can’t handle these leadership roles without the support of men, because historically men have been the decision makers. “I think that has changed … In my experience women support other women.”
Szpak first ran for council in 2002 after serving on a standing committee for the City. Roughly 15 years later, she said “in a democracy the best representation you can have is people from all walks of life … You need to have different views.”
But, she empathized, that’s not just limited to women.
View Royal Coun. Heidi Rast decided to get into politics back in 2008. “I was looking for something challenging that was very different from my career,” she said. Rast works as a molecular virology research technician for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which as she put it, means she develops tests to detect viruses in plants – something that is very different than forming municipal policies.
Before deciding to run, Rast opted to test the waters and see what she’d be getting into by sitting in on council meetings and gauging the tone of discussions. “I liked what I saw,” she said.
After several years on council she still enjoys that discussion. “The hardest thing is trying to get consensus around the table … You see that even when you’re discussing regional issues.” But gender has never played a role in that discussion, at least not as Rast is concerned. “I’ve always felt comfortable speaking up.” She added it’s often about the experiences, knowledge and skills councillors can bring forward that help them form their decisions.
More diversity on councils helps build on that. “I think we need strong candidates.” Often during municipal elections, Rast noted there can be a limited number of candidates running. “I would like to see more candidates step up for residents to choose from with diverse backgrounds.” She added, “it would be nice to figure out why people aren’t running and get them interested.”
Coun. Moralea Milne is in the midst of serving on her third term with Metchosin council. But getting there wasn’t easy.
“When you start it’s a steep learning curve,” she said. A fellow councillor who served as a mentor for Milne helped her learn the ropes and get over that initial stumbling block. While finding that right balance can be tricky, especially for those with young families, Milne noted she sees more young faces every year at UBCM and she’s hopeful that will continue.
With municipal elections slated for 2018, she’s also hoping a more diverse group of residents will step forward across the region. “I’m personally reaching out to other women to run,” she said. “I think women do bring a unique perspective.”
Across the region, that sentiment seems to ring true. There has been lots of female councillors, mayors and board or committee members. “I don’t feel I’ve ever been fighting a male/female dynamic,” Milne said, adding she’s in good company in Metchosin.
“It’s more our political views … I think the fact I’m an environmentalist has more effect,” she said with a laugh. “I think our area is very special … Metchosin is very progressive in many ways.”
Milne noted Metchosin has always had a good council in terms of respect and the decision making process – which she credits Mayor John Ranns for making sure everyone has a voice at the table. But that hasn’t always been her experience on some of the regional boards and commissions. There was one, she noted, when she first started that was dominated by one type of perspective and that limited opposing views from being heard. That led to a toxic environment where discussions weren’t respectful. However, by adding a few more women to the board, she noted that atmosphere completely changed.
Mayor Carol Hamilton has found herself in similar situations. She started with Colwood as a councillor and took a break for a few years before returning to serve as mayor in 2011. Looking back at past councils, she noted it wasn’t that long ago when that balance was skewed.
A desire to move Colwood in a new direction helped unite council with a common goal. “It takes a team to find a direction, to believe in a vision and move it forward.” Before, she noted council had some problems with people opposing motions based on their personal opinions of other councillors. A large changeover helped as most were starting at the same place in terms of their experience on council. “We had to prove we were changing and doing things respectfully … That’s been my goal,” she said. “Once we’re here, we’re here together. We can have good healthy debate.”
As mayor, Hamilton noted, she’s worked hard to rebuild council’s trust in each other. At the beginning that meant some meetings would go for hours because each councillor wanted their time to ask their questions and make sure they were answered adequately. Now that more trust has been built, Hamilton noted council meetings tend to go a little quicker and that’s not about rubber stamping motions, it just means that that trust has been re-established. “Now we can engage in a more wholesome conversation and it goes quicker.”
However, in her years of service Hamilton has noticed turnover on council often happens when results are not as fast as individuals would like. “Very little is very straight forward and immediate,” she said. A better understanding of the municipal process, what councils are capable of making decisions on and how many hoops those decisions must past through are often stumbling blocks.
She added that a number of really good people tend to fade out because “they think they can’t make that change they want happen … We see it a lot.”
Highlands Coun. Karen Burns is in the midst of serving her first term as a councillor. For those looking to get involved in municipal politics, Burns warned it can be a bit of a learning curve and one that takes up a lot of time. “I don’t want to downplay the amount of work … That was the biggest surprise,” she said.
“It’s (also) frustrating.” Burns recalled the first time one of her motions was defeated. She remembered thinking everyone hates me but quickly realized it’s not personal. For those considering a move to politics, she said, “I wouldn’t let that discourage anyone from running … It’s not always rosy but it’s a very worthwhile experience.”
It’s that experience that keeps her going. “At the municipal level you have greater control of what happens in your community … You really get to make a difference – or at least try,” she added with a laugh. “It’s really fulfilling to serve your community … It’s a really great way to volunteer your time.”
As for gender roles, that has no impact. “In the Highlands it doesn’t matter what your gender is,” she said. “I think that’s what I really like about Highlands council, people bring forward their ideas … and represent their community.”