Women need to take leadership roles at every level of government, from local community groups through municipal councils to federal and provincial politics.
That was the message from a panel of respected female leaders during a public forum in Warman on Thursday, November 15.
The “Empower Your Voice” forum, aimed at encouraging women to become active in government and political activity attracted about 40 women. Organized by Warman Mayor Sheryl Spence and the City of Warman, the gathering also celebrated the achievements of women leaders at all levels.
The panel of elected leaders included Spence, Corman Park Reeve Judy Harwood, One Arrow First Nation Chief Tricia Sutherland, Martensville-Warman MLA Nancy Heppner, Prairie Sky Chamber of Commerce President Tracey Fesiuk, and Carlton Trail-Eagle Creek MP Kelly Block.
Spence said the while political office can be stressful at times, it is also very rewarding.
“It’s so important to be part of the decision-making process,” said Spence. “It’s all about serving your community, whether that’s as a soccer or hockey coach, or serving on a church board, or a city council table. Women need to be involved because there needs to be a balance. I know from my own experience on council that good decisions are reached when men and women have an equal voice.”
Harwood said in Saskatchewan, 26 per cent of MLAs are women, 13 per cent of mayors are women, and only four per cent of rural municipality reeves are women.
“In the history of our country, we have had 29 Prime Ministers,” said Harwood. “Only one was a woman, and she only lasted four months. We have a problem, folks.”
Harwood said women need to stand their ground and step forward because they have much to contribute.
“We want capable people, but the fact is that women are indeed very capable,” she said. “We need women in all areas of government. Women have to be tough, but not so tough that we lose that female intuition we all have. It’s valuable.”
Harwood said women shouldn’t be intimidated.
“We have a long way to go, but I think times are changing,” said Harwood. “I say to young women, and all women, take that step; be courageous. You might lose an election, but who cares? Try again. Be brave and be a leader.”
Heppner said she overcame a fear of public speaking when she entered politics with the goal of helping people. She said after she was first elected as an opposition MLA, she was given the opportunity to advocate for nine public service workers who had been sexually harassed in the workplace.
“The government at that time handled it badly and the women were ignored while the harassers were rewarded,” said Heppner. “I was supposed to be the voice for them. Later, when we formed government, we issued a formal apology on behalf of the government, gave them a compensation package and recognized their suffering. It was very emotional. I know it sounds idealistic, and that’s often lost in the day-to-day business of government, but really, it’s all about people. For those nine women, it changed their lives. That was a very powerful moment for me, because I knew I’d made the right decision. If we hadn’t stood up for them, they would have been voiceless.”
Sutherland said she also decided to run for office in order to help shape a better future for her community. She said women are increasingly taking a leadership role in First Nations communities, and said the key to building a more equitable society is to learn from the past.
“History is horrible,” said Sutherland. “But we don’t have to live there. We have to learn from it and not hold on to it. We’re all in this together.”
Block said women can succeed in politics if they have a strong support system, which includes family and friends, and also a loyal team that is willing to work hard.
“I learned a lot the first time I lost a nomination,” said Block. “That was the most valuable experience I could get, because it showed me what I needed to do the next time.
Fesiuk said the path to leadership is made up of a series of small steps.
“I started out helping with my kids sports teams, and then later got over my shyness and got involved in helping form the Martensville Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “I was not comfortable with it, but somebody had to step forward, and you never know you can do it until you try.”
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities is actively encouraging women to become more involved in municipal government.