Voters in Port Alberni, Fraser Lake and Vancouver struck a common chord in the Oct. 20 B.C. municipal election.
In all three municipalities, voters altered the gender balance on local councils, handing local governance and decision-making to women in the majority, a notable first.
Port Alberni council went from 15 percent female in the last election to 57 percent female after last Saturday’s outcome, a pronounced shift.
Mayor-elect Sharie Minions isn’t the first woman to lead the city — that distinction is held by Gillian Trumper who served as mayor from 1983-2001 — but she is the first to lead a gender-balanced group of city councillors. Debbie Haggard, Cindy Solda and Helen Poon will be joining Dan Washington, Ron Corbeil and Ron Paulson on the new council.
Minutes after results were announced, Minions credited people such as Theresa Kingston and Patty Edwards for encouraging more women to step forward and also acknowledged the willingness of female candidates to step up. The pair organized two springtime sessions intended to increase the number of women in politics.
When she was contacted after the election, Kingston wasn’t accepting any credit for the municipal outcome. She doesn’t feel voters marked their ballots with gender as a deciding factor.
“I think that the community selected, in their minds, the best people for council,” Kingston said. “I don’t believe people voted based on gender, and I think that’s really important.”
Kingston said the large number of people who ran for office municipally and regionally, with no seats left unchallenged as they were in past elections, is a positive indicator. She was also pleased to see the number of young people with children running for positions on school board.
“It speaks to the fact that the community wants to be involved in decision-making,” she said.
She pointed out that the Women in Government sessions were focused on encouraging women to run rather than encouraging people to vote for women based on gender. Part of the research in preparation for those sessions indicated that women are more likely to enter politics with peer encouragement.
“For women to run, women need to be asked to run, they won’t just step forward. That hasn’t happened in the past in this community, but I think it’s happening North America-wide.”
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities is among organizations that have taken a proactive approach to encourage more women to run for office, she noted.
“It’s something that’s been focused on in the last couple of years,” she added, describing it as collective awareness rather than a single motivating factor.
In Vancouver, eight of 11 city council seats are now held by women. In Fraser Lake, Sarrah Storey became the first female mayor of that Cariboo village, leading a council that is also gender balanced. Storey told the Vanderhoof Omineca Express that it was a historic outcome.
“I’m very excited, mommy gets to make Fraser Lake an even better place to live,” she told her children as she tucked them in on election night.
Elsewhere, other women were elected to prominent roles, including Michele Staples in Duncan and Mary-Ann Booth who squeaked into office with a 21-vote lead in West Vancouver. Also noteworthy, Josie Osborne was returned to the Tofino mayoralty for a third term with an 85 percent mandate in Tofino.
All a matter of coincidence?
“In the six elections I’ve been in, this is the most,” said Solda, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in her last campaign for local office, in 2014. The Women Lead Movement has been influential globally, she noted.
“It’s been really prominent,” Solda said. “Even four years ago, before the last election, there was big movement. There’s a big push for women to start getting out there.”
Women can bring a different skill set and set of experiences to elected office, said Solda, who ran because she loves a challenge and enjoyed her past political experiences.
Haggard, who drew the most votes of any local election candidate, said it’s important to have diversity on council as well as experience. All those elected are well qualified to hold office, she added.
She was among local women who attended one of the sessions last spring, encouraging women to encourage other women.
“I got really strong encouragement to run,” Haggard said. “It was a very important factor having that support.”