Ange Qualizza speaking at UBCM. (Image courtesy of Ange Qualizza)

Why don’t women run for Fernie council?

Historically, half the number of women compared to men have run for office in Fernie in the last four election cycles

Politics is a man’s game in Fernie if you go by the numbers.

In the last four municipal elections (2008, 2011, 2014 and 2018), there have been 48 candidates for the seven seats of office in Fernie, of which only 16 were campaigns for female candidates.

Of those 16 campaigns, nine have gone on to win office, meaning 28 positions have been held by nine women over four different councils – an average rate of a little over 32 per cent. Despite women accounting for a little over 50 per cent of Fernie residents (3,185 of 6,320 to be exact), they are chronically underrepresented on council.

Local government consultant Kerri Wall said that this wasn’t just a Fernie phenomenon.

“Research seems to show that if women run, they get elected in even numbers, but the problem is women don’t even run.”

“It seems to be cross country, it’s not a Fernie or B.C. thing,” she added. Overall in Canada, the number of women holding political office stands at around 30 per cent, putting Fernie close to the national number, with on average two women per council for the past eight election cycles.

For Fernie the lack of women representatives is exacerbated by a lack of women candidates to begin with.

In 2018, of 14 candidates for public office in Fernie, five were women (and three of them were running for mayor). In 2014, two out of eight candidates were women. Four of 12 candidates were women in 2011 and in 2008 only five of the 15 candidates were women. In the best year, historically twice as many men run for office in Fernie as women over the last four elections.

Wall said there were plenty of theories around, but a political system that wasn’t friendly to anyone was discouraging female representation.

“I think women are less practiced at basically dealing with the crap that might get slung,” she said.

“Women are known generally for being good at connecting and caring, and being peacemakers, and are good at maintaining relationships over the long term, but when it comes to being in the public eye in political office, we all know that attacks happen. It would be great for everyone if there were less attacks, but I think men are somehow maybe more habituated to it.”

Wall said she believed the the system wasn’t any more ‘friendly’ towards men, but they were just more conditioned to think it was normal.

She added that any efforts to harden politicians or the political system against attacks in the public realm was too much like putting the responsibility on the attacked.

“It makes me think about school shootings in the States, with solutions like giving teachers guns and locking doors – ‘hardening’ isn’t the answer to any of these systemic issues.”

While the number of women on council overall hasn’t been higher than three (briefly, after the 2008 election) since 1996, the mayoral role in Fernie has been held by, and mostly contested by, women for the last four elections.

Cindy Corrigan served as mayor between 2008 and 2011, and previously was a councillor for two terms between 1999 and 2005.

Coming to the role with political roots (her mother was one of the first women serving on Fernie’s council back in the 1960s), she said that she never felt discouraged as a woman, but was always aware she was in a room full of men.

“You have to have enough confidence in yourself that you can actually voice your point of view. It’s a different dynamic when you’re in a room with all men.”

Asked whether her experience on council was a positive one, Corrigan took a few moments to reply, but said she’d never discourage anyone from running.

“I think to be in public office is probably one of the most humbling experiences of my life,” she said. “I do believe that public office is one of the best things we can do to build and maintain a community that all are welcome into.”

For Corrigan, she said that it was the processes and politics involved that put her off. She said that dirty politics played out among men and women she served with.

“It discouraged me the most in looking forward to trying to run again after I lost the election in 2011,” she said. Since leaving office, she hasn’t run again, and has since found a new calling as an ordained minister.

Overall, Corrigan said more women in public office was a good thing.

“Women think differently to men, and there’s a real need for woman on council because of the way that women work. There’s an opportunity for balance, and it’s a very rewarding time if you can be away from the politics of it.

“I think a woman’s voice on council has a lot of merit.”

Mary Giuliano served two terms as mayor between 2011 and 2018 after defeating Corrigan. Previously she served three terms as a councillor.

She said that her experience had been a positive one, and she had never felt discouraged, instead laying the blame for lower representation of women on work-life balance.

“I was encouraged to run but I couldn’t because I still had a little kid at home,” she said, explaining she waited until her children were old enough to be more independent before she got into politics in 2002.

“You can’t just leave your job to attend meetings during the day. And then you come home to a husband and children … it’s pretty difficult.”

Giuliano did give some credit to the sense that politics may be seen as too rough or negative for many, but felt that primarily it was a question of family.

“I don’t feel people don’t run because they have fear, but because they don’t have any time … You have to prioritize your family and your children for sure.”

As a local politician for 16 consecutive years, Giuliano said she was never made to feel less for her gender.

“I never felt like I wasn’t valued for the job I was doing because I was a woman, never. Not from men.”

In the current cycle in Fernie, incumbent mayor Ange Qualizza is running against a male challenger, while the only other woman on the council elected in 2018 is stepping away from politics to focus on her young family. Of the 11 declared candidates for office in Fernie so far (as of Sept. 6), there are two other women.

Qualizza said she believed the rough and tumble of all levels of politics was a major reason why a lot of people didn’t run – not just women.

“I think why (women) don’t run is probably the same reason a lot of men and trans-gendered people don’t like running. There’s a big group of people in the world that don’t like conflict, don’t like friction – they don’t deal with it,” she said.

“When we’re talking about the type of person that goes on council, unfortunately you have to be able to absorb (conflict) and have a bit of constant friction thrown at you. That is absolutely part of the job, but it is way more heightened today than it was 10 years ago — way more heightened that it was when I was on city council — dramatically so.”

Qualizza took a more broad approach to the issue of women in politics, saying there were systemic problems with the politics of today and how politics and politicians were regarded and engaged with, which was de-grading discourse and reducing the effectiveness of government because so many were being driven away.

“Local politicians should be able to move around the community, shake hands and engage with people in unstructured places. When we see on television or the 24-7 news cycle some of these politicians getting harassed and verbally assaulted, it makes everyone else feel less confident.”

Qualizza said the way to get more women to participate was to raise the quality of engagement.

“Everyone needs to be mindful of what they’re saying, people need to be reminded to engage us in all of the ways that they’re able so it feels safe for everyone,” she said.

“I’m talking about proper engagement, not getting yelled at from across the parking lot. I don’t know when we started doing that, but it can’t be the way forward.

She said that everyone lost out when good people that simply didn’t want to engage in such an environment stepped back.

“We all have a responsibility. If we want young people and women to be at the table to represent our community, we have to create safe places and safe spaces, and we have to call out that behaviour.”

Nominations for the 2022 local government elections remain open to Sept. 9, with successful candidates to be declared that day. The election will take place on Oct. 15 across the province. Local leaders selected on that day will lead communities across British Columbia for the next four years.

READ MORE: Elk Valley: Running down the candidates in the local elections
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