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Guelph Politico is locally sourced and dedicated to covering the political and cultural scene in the City of Guelph. Est. 2008.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Liberal Roundtable Part I

Last Saturday, I attended “Summer Fling” at the University of Guelph. It’s the annual gathering of Ontario’s Young Liberals, and by sheer fate it happened to be at the one place in Ontario that’s having a by-election campaign right now. Not that I’m alleging a conspiracy theory of course, I’m sure this event is planned long in advanced. It’s just funny to me how things work out.

The opportunity afforded was the chance to talk to several high profile Liberals. Bob Rae and Michael Ignatiaff were scheduled to speak, but several other provincial MPs and MPPs were in attendance. In an interesting feat of logistics I got to do a roundtable of sorts with four of them: Guelph MPP Liz Sandals, Kitchener-Centre MP Karen Redman, St. Paul’s MP Carolyn Bennett and, of course, Guelph Liberal MP candidate Frank Valeriote.

I started with Valeriote. The last time I talked to him after all was technically before the election began. (Day before, to be precise.) I asked him how the campaign had treated him thus far. “It’s obviously intensified,” he joked. “It’s the same strategy just more of it: we’re just trying to get out message out.”

As for OYL meeting, Valeriote said that he found it energizing and inspiring. “It encourages me to know that the youth in our country are so interested in their future, because that’s what this is about: planning and strategizing their own future.”

One of the topics of discussion at the ‘Fling was the role of women in politics. Now women’s issues are not a foreign concept to Valeriote, his community involvement has included his role as Founder of the Guelph Wellington County Committee Against Family Violence and he was a Board Member of Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis. Valeriote says that from his perspective, Guelph has never been underrepresented by women in politics

Liz Sandals is perhaps evidence of that. She knows first hand the challenges but also knows that they’re not universal. “I think it depends on the community,” she says. “I think Guelph is one of the few communities to get past gender. Being a woman running is no longer an issue and that’s the way you want it to be.”

Sandals also points out that the demographics of women and when they come into politics is different than men. For example, if you are a woman with a young family and far from the seat of government, than running for office will require a certain amount of sacrifice. As a result most women start close to home in their municipalities as trustees, councillors or activists. “I think in some ways if you have a base of community service then it makes things easier because the community already knows and trusts you and knows what you’re capable of,” Sandals adds

Carolyn Bennett agrees. “This basis in community shows a palpable motivation to make a difference; this isn’t someone going after a salary or a title, this somebody who is part of a community and knows a community can do better,” she says.

Bennett points out that community is a key factor, especially in a campaign like this; the issue in a by-election is who better understands the community. “The great men are the ones that fight for women’s issues and are prepared to take the needs of a community to the table regardless.”

But Bennett says that part of what keeps more women from getting involved in politics are that the games put them off. Many women just don’t want to be “dropped into the locker room,” she says. “There still are guys that are running for the games, the gotcha and the put-down stuff, like they’re running for the debating club rather than trying to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Karen Redman explains that she’s tired of exorbitant qualifiers; that a woman running for office seems to need a proverbial laundry list of credentials. “The most tiresome thing when you get into politics is when you hear, ‘we need a really good woman to run for riding x,’ when the reality is we need more good people and having more women in really changes the dynamic.”

The total number of women in the House comes to 21 per cent, while female Senators make up 35 per cent of the upper house. With this gender gap in mind, Redman adds that the important thing is not just find more women candidates, but to familiarize male members with the issues. “We have male colleagues that regularly attend women’s caucus meetings every Wednesday afternoon, and they get it. That’s why you’ve got a Ken Dryden that can speak with passion about the kind of childcare vision we need.”

Bennett sees the current political climate as especially important in regards to the impact on Canadian women. “I guess what I feel right now is that this is going to be a big election,” she explains. “Is it going to be about Stephen Harper’s top-down, paternalistic approach or will it be a bottom-up, team ready to govern, that values community and have great Members of Parliament with a leader that wants to know what’s important in their community.”

When once asked about what the most important issue facing Canadian women was, Bennett said that she couldn’t really bring it down to just one issue, or one government department for that matter. “Everything that women care about lies in three or four different government departments, and therefore different jurisdictions.”

Amongst these issues are poverty, violence against women and housing, the funding and administration of which happen to varying degrees at all levels of government. “They’re complex issues that require collaboration and co-operation across government departments and across jurisdictions.”

Valeriote says that he doesn’t see this as a problem as long as you come at a problem in the spirit of collaboration. It comes back to the ability to build bridges between people with differences, he says, and an ability to get past all that. “You’ll find generally, if you reach out, they’ll respond,” he adds.

Redman puts the question simply: “We’re within a year of going to a general election and the question is: ‘What kind of Canada do you want?’”

As for the Canada she wants, Bennett says that we need the people that care about issues and bring them together. At the same time, stopping Stephen Harper should be the most important thing for all of the activists on all the issues that will bring forth a more progressive Canada.

As a result, Bennett says, she’s seeing people of previous affiliations coming to the Liberal party and seeing it develop as a more progressive voice in relation to the Harper Conservatives. “This is such a critical time that we’re finding these extraordinary candidates that are prepared to come and run with us and Stephane Dion.”

To be continued on Friday

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