The inaugural cohort of U of T's Women in House program on Parliament Hill.

U of T's “Women in House” on Parliament Hill

Students shadow female politicians

Women undergraduates from the University of Toronto took to Parliament Hill recently, shadowing senators and MPs to learn about the realities of political life for women.

It was all part of the new U of T Women in House program from the Munk School of Global Affairs and the International Relations Program at Trinity College.

The program promotes greater female representation in the government by inviting women undergraduate students to follow female Canadian politicians for a full day in Ottawa. While in the capital, students witness political procedures, learn about gender equity, and engage in mentorship and networking with Canadian political leaders.

This year’s inaugural Women in House hosted 10 female students from the Peace, Conflict and Justice Program and 10 female students from the International Relations Program, all chosen through a competitive process based on their academic merits and future career aspirations.

The participating students shared their experiences live on social media March 4 and 5 and produced a report upon completion of the trip.

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

Hadear Shaheen, hosted by Charmaine Borg- MP: Terrebonne- Blainville (Quebec) NDP

"I had the lovely opportunity to shadow Charmaine Borg of the NDP for the day. As the MP for Terrebonne- Blainville, Quebec. Charmaine was one of the youngest MPs elected to Parliament in Canadian history following the 'orange wave' that swept Quebec in the 2011 Canadian Federal Elections. Needless to say, it was a humbling experience to be in the presence of such an accomplished and hardworking female parliamentarian who was only three years my senior- a testament to the truth that politics is an arena not only for women, but young women as well.…

"Charmaine and her assistant, Emilie, worked arduously to ensure that I got the most out of my time on the hill, tailoring my schedule to suit my personal interests. Aware of my passion in Middle Eastern politics, Emile scoped out an opportunity for me to attend a subcommittee session regarding the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt, being a Canadian of Egyptian descent, it was a topic that hit close to home.….

"My experience with Charmaine Borg, a young woman who entered formal politics at the ripe age of 21 inspired me and further fueled my passion to succeed in the field of politics of and international relations. Whether it was in parliament, during committee sessions, or in the office, seeing Charmaine work so onerously to engage herself in issues at the local, national and even international levels proved to me that, no, politics may not be perfect, but that dedicated individuals with the altruistic desire to change their society for the better do, in fact, exist. More importantly however, it brought home the message that despite whatever barriers women perceive to be in their ways, we can, and must, aspire to do the same."

Cindy Ou, also hosted by Charmaine Borg- MP: Terrebonne- Blainville (Quebec) NDP

"...This was the building where people decided the fate of this country; this was building where people could influence how the world will change tomorrow. What’s even more overwhelming is the greatest lesson I learned from this whole trip: I could be part of it all."

Sofia Reive, hosted by Dr. Carolyn Bennett - MP: St. Paul's (Ontario) Liberal

"Over lunch and in the early afternoon, I was invited to sit in on a meeting with two representatives from the health care community. They were seeking support to create an umbrella organization to address neurological disorders along the lines of the Canadian Cancer Society or Heart and Stroke Foundation, which represent and support oncology and cardiac related issues respectively. With her background in medicine and health policy, Dr. Bennett provided knowledgeable feedback and suggested an action plan. The positive interaction with lobby groups was encouraging – it demonstrated that there need not be a disconnect between federal politics and the community."

Leah Nosal, hosted by Elaine Michaud- MP: Portneuf--Jacques-Cartier (Quebec) NDP

"Though Canadian politics has been an interest of mine for some years, I felt that the process of policy making was a sizeable gap in my education. Shadowing MP Elaine Michaud this week allowed me to not only observe Canadian politics in action, but provided an opportunity for me to ask every question I had. This program was spectacular in that it allowed me (and other students, I am sure) to learn through personal experience."  

Christine Lee, hosted by Senator Yonah Martin- Senator: Vancouver (British Columbia) Conservative

"Senator Yonah Martin was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2009 to serve in the Senate of Canada. She is the first Canadian of Korean descent to serve in Canada’s Senate and the first Korean-Canadian Parliamentarian in Canadian history. Her embodiment of both Korean and Canadian cultures and her endless efforts to bridge the gap between 'the two twin nations separated at birth,' render her a key figure within the Korean Diaspora community. For any 1.5 generation Korean-Canadian, Senator Martin is a role model. Being a 1.5 generation Korean-Canadian, I was grateful for the opportunity to meet my role model. After our encounter through Women in House, Senator Martin still remains my role model.

"I first asked the Senator about how to achieve gender sensitive parliament in Canada. The response from Senator Martin caught me by surprise. She mentioned that women are born nurturers. She followed that the system within Canadian politics often forces woman to choose between her political aspirations and natural role as a nurturer. According to her, women are given a choice (a dilemma perhaps) not pertaining to the male sex. This was an angle I had failed to perceive before. In my narrow-minded pursuit of either reservations or quotas system, I had completely forgotten about the ‘inevitable.’ Our conversation continued on to my asking her views on how to better represent ethnic minorities within the Canadian parliament. Her response, once again, was unexpected. 'When it is time, it is time,' continued Senator Martin, 'there is a natural course that will take place when the different minority groups are ready.' According to Senator, one cannot be forced into civil citizenship for it is an individual and organic process. Her role as a public servant, however, is to provide opportunities to engage such ethnic minorities into the Canadian political system and to set precedents.

"Senator Martin’s response, now I look back, reflects her maturity obtained through personal experience and her confidence within the current Canadian political system. She believes in the system and accepts the boundaries and restraints. Recklessly pursuing equal representation in the parliament will not ensure a gender sensitive parliament. Fostering engagement and encouraging women to vocalize their concerns and ideals, however, will. The idea of not pushing ethnic minority groups into the political arena but providing the forum and choice to become engaged, is also a notion consistent with Senator Martin’s ideals. Artificial and forced progress cannot render success in the long run. Change will come naturally when it is due."

Camilla Shearman, hosted by Carol Hughes- MP: Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing (Ontario) NDP

"One of the more interesting experiences I had was at the Committee for Aboriginal Affairs on Tuesday morning. When I was talking to Carol before the meeting she told me that one of the core issues for Aboriginal affairs at the moment is whether the Canadian government has a right to pass bills concerning the wills of Aboriginal people. She highlighted that there is a core tension between the government seeming imperialistic, and the promotion of equal rights of women across the country. I thought that this was an interesting perspective, and illustrated how many challenges there are for women’s rights across Canada."

The Bulletin Brief logo

Subscribe to The Bulletin Brief