CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - P.E.I.’s legislature chose to mark the United Nation International Day of the Girl Child by filling all the seats with young women from Island high schools.
On Thursday, 27 high school students took part in a day-long event featuring all members of P.E.I.’s Famous Five. The five women – former speaker of the house Nancy Guptill, former lieutenant-governor Marion Reid, former leader of the opposition Pat Mella, former premier Catherine Callbeck and former deputy speaker Elizabeth (Libbe) Hubley – occupied, for the first time, all of the most powerful legislative positions in P.E.I. in 1993.
Premier Wade MacLauchlan, who led a question-and-answer session with the women, began by asking all five what it felt like to be considered trailblazers.
All five women brought up challenges they faced as women in politics. But each encouraged the young women seated in the legislature to get involved and not to be afraid of throwing their hat in the political ring.
"I never really considered myself a trailblazer because you sometimes don't get into these positions very easily. I lost a nomination and I lost an election before I was ever elected," said Callbeck.
"You have to stick with it. That's very important. And don't ever get down on yourself."
Pat Mella noted the number of female MLAs currently serving in the legislature is far below parity.
At present, there are five female sitting MLAs out of 27 in P.E.I.’s legislature. This represents less than 20 per cent.
"A trailblazer usually means that you started something that's becomes common practice,” Mella said.
“We do not have a high level of female representation in government. And so the trail has gone a little bit cold."
How do P.E.I. parties stack up so far in the gender parity of nominated candidates for the next election?
- Liberals — 2 male, 1 female candidates
- PCs — 5 male, 2 female candidates
- Green — 10 male, 5 female candidates
- NDP — 2 male, 2 female candidates
- Total — 19 male, 10 female candidates
Three students who attended the event from Westisle Composite High School in Elmsdale, Kara MacIsaac, Cailin Gaudet and Emma Lee Lyon, all agreed that this was a problem.
“I think there should definitely be more women,” Gaudet said.
But Lyon predicted that this would change in the future.
“I feel that more women are coming up and having more of a voice," she said.
Although it is still early, male-female parity may be an issue for candidates of all political parties in the coming election. Of the 29 candidates nominated so far by the four major parties, only 10 are women.
Mella said there were a number of barriers that often prevent more women from running for office. These can include a lack of child-care options, as well as the requirement of working late into the evening.
But Mella said public perception of politics, perhaps fuelled by the current scandal-plagued cycle of politics in the United States, was also a barrier.
Not everyone saw it this way.
Ella Doucette, a Grade 12 student from Bluefield High School, said watching the conduct of the U.S. president may propel her to become more involved politically.
"I think it encourages me, to see someone – for example Donald Trump who is kind of oppressive towards women in many ways – it encourages me to stand up more," she said.