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Women in House: female students shadow senators, MPs on Parliament Hill

U of T program seeks to inspire more women to enter politics

Senator Salma Ataullahjan with Buchra Nassab, who studies Peace, Conflict & Justice

“When I first heard about the Women in House program, I shrieked inwardly,” recalls second-year Peace, Conflict and Justice student Anah Mirza. “I knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime.”

The annual program – where female U of T students job-shadow MPs and senators in Ottawa – more than lived up to Mirza’s expectations:  “Going in, I knew this visit to Ottawa would be memorable, but I couldn’t have predicted just how memorable it turned out to be.”

It’s the third year for Women in House, which was born in the fall of 2012 out of a discussion between U of T history PHD candidate Tina Park and Dr. Carolyn Bennett, the MP for St. Paul’s and a U of T medical school graduate. They were discussing the dearth of women in Canada’s House of Commons and how to open up more opportunities for young women to experience the Canadian political system.

Park still coordinates the program, which started in March 2013 with 20 students from International Relations and Peace, Conflict and Justice. This year the program includes undergraduate students from the Trinity One program and political science and graduate students from the School of Public Policy and Governance. 

The program is non-partisan and bilingual, with host parliamentarians representing both the government and opposition parties. Hosts included Conservative MP Stella Ambler, Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, NDP MP Djaouida Sellah and senators Judy Sgro and Salma Ataullahjan and several others.

Participants are asked to write about their experiences which are then posted on the program’s blog (https://utwomeninhouse.wordpress.com/reflections/). A common theme in their reflections was the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in Parliament. 

“Not only were there obscenely few women on the floor, but there was a marked lack of multiracial representation, with both the Conservative government and NDP opposition being majority Caucasian,” noted third-year Peace, Conflict and Justice student Jahaan Pittalwala.

Her feelings were shared by classmate Sabrina Neto: “The obvious lack of both gender and racial equality in government was clear during my brief time on the Hill. There is still a long way to go, but with programs such as Women in House, then perhaps we can get there a little bit quicker.”

Mirza said that despite the partisan debates in Parliament, all the female parliamentarians she met during the trip were working towards a common goal – increased equality and diversity in government. 

“I was privileged enough to meet so many accomplished women, and while they work on various levels and teams, they all fight the same fight. One day, I hope to join them.”

Below are some more excerpts from their reflections on Women in House.

Buchra Nassab, Peace, Conflict & Justice, hosted by Salma Ataullahjan, senator (Ontario, Toronto) Conservative
“I had the honor of shadowing Senator Salma Ataullahjan, one of the very few Muslim senators in Parliament. Senator Ataullahjan was an example of the ideals that Canada prescribes to – the ideals of multiculturalism and respect for others regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. It was extremely inspiring to see the kind of person that Senator Ataullahjan was – a human rights advocate, an active member in the Pakistani‐Canadian community, and a genuinely nice and kind person. Seeing Senator Ataullahjan speak during the Senate’s committee session, in addition to a panel discussion in the Canadian Parliament on human rights abuses in Burma, opened my eyes to the sort of career that I would like for myself in the future – to make a presence in the Canadian government despite being both a female and a Muslim.”

Jahaan Pittalwala, Peace, Conflict & Justice, hosted by Yonah Martin, senator (British Columbia, Vancouver) Conservative and Barry Devolin, MP (Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock) Conservative
“The high intensity environment of Parliament had fazed and tired us. Senator Martin, however, remained rooted, calm and collected throughout the day, which I admired. Though my feet were aching from all the speed walking and my head spinning from all that I had absorbed, the entire day was a highlight and I was incredibly inspired by the various officials with whom I had significant interaction – it was an unparalleled experience. 

As a woman of colour, and having learnt as much as I did from Senator Martin who is also a non‐white woman, I came to appreciate the importance of diversity in politics. With this in mind, I plan to do all that I can to facilitate equal and fair representation of our diverse and multicultural country, whether it be in government or through increasing resource access or providing an advocate voice to the marginalized, because it is this that is the true linchpin of democracy.”

Mariam Jammal, Peace, Conflict & Justice, hosted by Laurin Liu, MP (Rivière-des-Mille-Îles) NDP
“The highlight of the trip was definitely Question Period. Watching the debate between the three parties all I could think was ‘I’m watching news being made.’ It was so exhilarating to be in the room as Canadian issues were being laid out on the table and responded to in their raw, uncut form. Looking down from my seat and seeing the faces of the MPs I had met: Laurin Liu, Carolyn Bennett, Peggy Nash, Elizabeth May; it made me feel unbelievably empowered to see working women front and centre in our government. 

“In the face of underrepresentation and sexism, these women quickly became role models regardless of their political affiliations because they were engaged in different battles of the same fight. The fight for gender equality, self‐determination and self- representation in an otherwise largely old male dominated system. They have won against unfavourable odds set by history and made it to the highest level of our government. These are the Women in House I signed up to meet.”

Natalie Petra, Trinity One, hosted by Peggy Nash, MP (Parkdale-High Park) NDP
“It was incredible to be in the [office of Thomas Mulcair], Leader of the Opposition's Office. The office had a million unique features. Peggy pointed out features that previous leaders of the opposition had left, such as an inscription commissioned by William Lyon Mackenzie King. Given that I’ve spent a large portion of my semester learning about King in my class on the history of Canadian public policy, I loved the opportunity to see my class material live and in the flesh.

“I leave the trip extremely inspired by my mentor. Peggy Nash has long been breaking down barriers for women, and I only hope that I can do the same one day. It was incredibly valuable to be able to ask female leaders what their experiences in politics have been like, and to get advice on overcoming the systemic obstacles that face women as they involve themselves in public policy.”

Sarah Sgambelluri, Trinity One, hosted by Hedy Fry, MP (Vancouver Centre), Liberal
“What I will remember most is Dr. Fry's passion. Having researched Dr. Fry before participating in Women in House, I learned that she has held office since 1993. I asked her about her first campaign and why she decided to run on a platform of rights for the LGBT+ community. She spoke of her experience as a physician, tending to patients who had contracted HIV/AIDS. She was invested in an issue and was empowered to make meaningful change.

“I am consistently amazed by the way women, especially in male-dominated fields, garner respect. I saw it from the way Dr. Fry's aides spoke of her with such adoration or how she interacted with her fellow parliamentarian during question period. And there I was, a first-year student with no major publications or job experiences, yet an amazingly influential individual had taken the time to mentor me. At the time, it made me feel special. Now, reflecting, I feel empowered.”