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The NWT legislature has the lowest representation of women out of the country’s 15 parliaments, states a recently tabled discussion paper, which suggests filling the female leadership void by adopting a system used in Samoa.

“It’s working well for them,” said Speaker Jackson Lafferty. “That’s one of the options we want to consider going forward.”

Range Lake MLA Caroline Cochrane, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly Jackson Lafferty and Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green spoke about the discussion paper at a press conference on June 1. Ezra Black/NNSL photo

The discussion paper Lafferty tabled on May 31 suggests increasing the representation of women in the NWT Legislative Assembly by reserving seats for them – the same strategy adopted by the tiny South Pacific archipelago of Samoa, where women are guaranteed a minimum of five seats in the island nation’s legislature.

Samoa adopted the quota system in 2013, states the paper. In the event that five women are not elected, additional seats are created for women who got the most votes but didn’t win.

Four women were elected in Samoa’s last general election, resulting in the creation of one reserve seat, notes the paper, which is intended to generate discussion on strategies to increase the number of women running for office in the NWT.

Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green and Range Lake MLA Caroline Cochrane were the only women elected to the assembly in 2015.

“I want to give the credit that it was man that actually tabled this,” said Cochrane. “Having women in leadership is not only a woman’s issue, it is a societal issue.”

Cochrane, who is the Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, said there are a variety of reasons women have been having a hard time breaking into territorial politics including financial constraints and family obligations.

“There’s also something about societal expectations,” she said. “Some cultures are still very traditional which is good, we want to keep traditions, however, within that they’ve constrained women

in saying that women, especially Indigenous women, should not be in politics, period. So we need to challenge that.”

“If we had these designated seats for women my hope is we’ll actually have more women in the communities willing to run,” she continued. “Guaranteed seats will encourage them to take the chance.”

Green said reserving seats for women is an idea worth considering.

“What we need is a critical mass of women to talk about issues that affect the other half of the population and more representation is the way to do that,” said Green. “If the decision is made it would have ripple effects across the northwest territories.”

In March, the legislative assembly adopted a goal of increasing the representation of women in the legislature to 20 per cent by 2023 and 30 per cent by 2027.

If the Samoan model were applied to the NWT, four women would have to win seats in a 19 member legislature to hit the 20 per cent target. If none were elected, an additional five seats would be created.

To hit that target in the 2015 election where two women were elected, an additional three seats would have been created to make a 23 seat assembly.

That would have meant Jane Groenewegen, who ran in Hay River South, Yvonne Doolittle, who ran in the Sahtu and Nigit’stil Norbert, who ran in Yellowknife South, would have been elected.

Reserve seats would not be based on merit and give preference to women over men, states the paper, but they would be a quick and temporary way to overcome persistent barriers to proportional gender representation in the legislative assembly.

The paper calls them temporary measures because they are often put in place for a limited time and if they encourage more women to run, they eventually become unnecessary.

After the system was tried in Samoa, the number of women candidates increased by nine per cent over the last election, it states.

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