On May 26, 1997, two years in advance of the territory’s official creation, future Nunavummiut voted in a non-binding plebiscite on whether or not the territory’s legislative assembly should see equal representation of men and women.
The concept presented by the Nunavut Implementation Committee: voters casting ballots for one man and one woman in each constituency.
Fifty-seven per cent voted “no.” Voter turnout was 40 per cent.
“It was so close. It could have gone either way,” said veteran politician and Iqaluit-Sinaa MLA Elisapee Sheutiapik.
“I supported gender parity. I honestly believe that we’d be a bit more advanced in the social area. For example, I’m minister of Family Services. It’s the one department that nobody seems to ever want.
“It’s hard, but we need to have discussions about violence, about sexual abuse. If we don’t we’re never going to come up with potential solutions.”
Sheutiapik says the social issues her department is responsible for are the issues no-one wants to talk about.
“Normally these (topics) are not of interest, but they certainly are of interest to women. That’s why I say I think we would have been more advanced when it comes to our social challenges,” she says.
Former territorial politician Manitok Thompson disagrees about the gender parity plebiscite.
“If the territory had voted yes, the women would be in because of their gender and not because they are equal to men who have been in politics for some years. After the vote of gender parity, (women) are elected because of their skills and education,” she said.
“As I have said, ‘The brain is between the eyes not between the legs.’”
Former health minister and Iqaluit-Niaqunnguu MLA Pat Angnakak says the topic has been divisive among women in Nunavut, “with each opposing side having strong arguments for or against gender parity.”
“In thinking about my own election, I would like to believe and think that my constituents voted me in because they felt I was the candidate to do the job and not because of my gender.”
Angnakak also notes having two representatives for each constituency would be very expensive. Sheutiapik considers the failure of the gender parity vote a “lost opportunity.”
“Nunavut – it’s 20 years, but it’s still fairly young in a sense – just two generations ago we were nomadic. Here we are we have our own government already but I think – what a lost opportunity,” she said.
“Having been in the legislature now for (almost) two years, when we’re having sessions, we might as well be in Ottawa. What a lost opportunity to be different. We try to sell ourselves as a distinct culture, a different, unique territory … Why isn’t our government like that?”
While the current legislative assembly has an all-time high of six women among 22 MLAs, both Sheutiapik and Angnakak note it’s not always simple being a woman in a male-dominated assembly.
“Sometimes I say, ‘Why do I have to yell to be heard?’ I don’t want to have to yell,” said Sheutiapik.
Angnakak, meanwhile, recalls her experience with Premier Joe Savikataaq before he stripped her of ministerial duties.
“I felt and saw treatment towards me by the premier different than to my male colleagues as a cabinet minister,” she said.
Encouraging women’s particpation
Thompson says women in Nunavut are way ahead of men in the employment sector.
“Men are losing out. More men are also committing suicide,” she said.
“We have had women MPs, a woman premier, women mayors and women MLAs to sit at the legislature. There are also a lot of women sitting in committees and boards in the communities, maybe more than men.”
Lawyer and Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern, who is also president of the Nunavut Association of Municipalities, isn’t looking back – but she says women remain underrepresented, whether it’s at the municipal level, at the territorial level, with Inuit organizations and with community organizations.
“What’s more important instead of speculating about what if, because it’s long gone, is the need to have more women participate in politics. How do we support that,” she asked.
Sheutiapik notes in the Northwest Territories, the government struck a special committee looking at how to increase representation of women in the legislative assembly.
“That’s something I’m certainly going to be looking at, to bring the idea forward,” said Sheutiapik.
When she was mayor of Iqaluit, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities had a toolkit, which led her to hold an event in Iqaluit.
“I tried to generalize it. Even if it’s not for city council, get involved. Even if it’s committee level. Get out there. Get experience. Eva Aariak attended, and that’s when she ran and became the premier,” said Sheutiapik. “There are benefits to those kinds of events. I’m certainly going to try and see if there’s going to be support for a committee to try to increase women. It only makes sense for me to do it at this level, because I was involved at the municipal level.”
Redfern said politics still remains a very male-dominated arena.
“Though, if we can see more women getting into politics it would be beneficial to attracting more women,” said Redfern.
Women in power are a benefit
“I think that women have a lot of barriers put in front of them, but they can be overcome in time if we, as a society and the Government of Nunavut, would put special focus on areas that support women to succeed,” said Angnakak.
“For example, creating adequate childcare services so women can participate in our economy, supporting more women with families to be able to go back to school, or provide work-friendly policies that will address the different needs of women who have children in the work place.”
Redfern pointed to how women need to juggle multiple roles when it comes to family and work balance.
“Women are the primary caregivers in the home in addition to often trying to work and, in some cases, being the primary breadwinners.”
Angnakak said it can be especially difficult in smaller communities for women to participate in politics, such as running against a family member, especially if that person is male,
“Or the difficulties in of some families within our communities where when their wife, daughter or female cousin becomes the spokesperson of the community under their MLA hats – this is not always supported by the family.”
But, she says, women are just as capable as anyone else in regards to their abilities to work or govern.