10th Anniversary Leadership Summit
It began, as women’s work often does, around a dining room table.
The idea was discussed at a Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) breakfast in January 2001 by several women who had led the Committee for 94, the forerunner of Equal Voice (EV). It was after that breakfast that the late Christina McCall invited Libby Burnham and Rosemary Speirs to a lunch at Jamie Kennedy’s restaurant at the Royal Ontario Museum to discuss the idea of breathing new life into the old Committee for 94 whose unrealized goal had been to have women make up half the House of Commons by 1994.
Rosemary had recently retired from The Toronto Star and was pondering post retirement projects to channel her formidable energy. Both Christina and Libby knew what she should do. Soon after that lunch, a dinner meeting of a dozen or so women took place around Libby’s dining room table in central Toronto. It was February 22, 2001.
There was consensus that any effort to get more women elected must be multi partisan and action oriented; however, not all women there agreed that such an initiative was viable. Under pressure from a table of pleading eyes and nodding heads, Rosemary agreed to act as chair of the ‘steering committee’ ,and planning for a founding meeting began. Those at the meeting put together lists of names of people to invite to a May 6 reception, and letters were then sent to about 120 women and men. As the plans progressed, Susan Delacourt wrote a piece in the Ottawa Citizen about women in politics and mentioned the upcoming event; this generated calls to the party hosts from women asking “can I come too?”
On the sunny afternoon of Sunday May 6, 2001 a reception of people who shared the belief that more women should be involved in politics, and those simply curious, was held at the Toronto home of Donna Dasko. The late Doris Anderson spoke eloquently of the need for change and specifically about the need for some system of proportional representation that would be more conducive to electing women. This gathering of the many enthusiastic supporters resulted in the formal creation of what would become the national volunteer movement Equal Voice/À voixégales.
This spring launch led to a year of organizing and networking, reaching out to like-minded organizations and testing the interest level for getting more women involved in politics. Various names for the organization were bandied about, and eventually the name Equal Voice was chosen. EV spearheaded the creation of the Women’s Political ConneXion/ ConneXions politiques des femmes, a network of 44 organizations and individuals supporting the cause.
More pizza dinners with salad were held, and before long Rosemary drafted a Mission Statement. Diane Williamson was recruited to build a website and Patricia Dumas tirelessly translated into French the media releases and other materials. A broad strategy, based on a survey of those at the launch party put together by Donna Dasko, was agreed upon. Equal Voice would focus on convincing the political parties – the gatekeepers – to set internal targets for nominating more women. The young organization would be run by a Steering Committee, uncompromisingly multi partisan, nimble, action oriented, and quick to react to media opportunities.
In May 2002 Carolyn Bennett became the first recipient of the Eve Award. The small glass EVE figure, symbolizing the glass ceiling, was conceived by Gloria Bishop. Carolyn Bennett had been chastised by Prime Minister Jean Chretien for daring to speak publicly about the lack of women in his cabinet. Previous Eve Award recipients include Belinda Stronach, the Right Honourable Kim Campbell, the Honourable Anne McLellan, the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, former Member of Parliament and federal cabinent minister Flora MacDonald, Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, and former Ontario cabinent minister Francis Lankin.
Armed with Vicky Smallman’s ground-breaking research tracking the number of women running in elections across the country and Lesley Byrne’s work showing a timeline which demonstrated that at the present rate of progress it would take four generations before women would achieve electoral equality.
Equal Voice was able to attract much media attention and became a ‘go to' source for media commentary during campaigns. Letters were sent to all federal leaderships candidates in 2003 asking what each would do as leader to nominate more women.
In June 2006 after visits from the ‘rainbow coalition’ of EV women from all parties including Janet Ecker, Elinor Caplan and Frances Lankin, and after much behind the scenes negotiation, the leaders of the three main political parties in Ontario rose in the legislature to take the EV pledge to run more women in the 2007 provincial election.
Equal Voice had moved well beyond the founding years and far outgrown its ‘ginger group’ beginnings.
Branches had sprung up across the country starting with Janet Wiegand’s initiative in British Columbia and with Raylene Lang - Dion’s creation of a National Capital Region chapter in Ottawa. Chapters were formed in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Alberta and New Brunswick. A Youth Chapter was created in Toronto. An Advisory Committee of key women from all political parties was organized to provide guidance, credibility and enhanced profile to EV.
There was a need for more structure and formal procedures in decision making and operations. A National Board of Directors was formed and an Executive Committee was struck. Several women have volunteered many hours in these positions since the beginning.
Diane Williamson, Francois Gagnon, Ann Wicks, and Nancy Peckford have served as Equal Voice's Executive Directors.
EV's National Chairs have included: Rosemary Speirs, Raylene Lang –Dion, Donna Dasko and, currently, Lynne Hamilton who is serving a two year term (January 2015 to January 2017). You can view a list of all of EV's current board members here.
Recognizing the need to move beyond election time activity EV moved into educational programming work. In 2005, spearheaded by Patricia Dumas, the first virtual bilingual Campaign school, Getting to the Gate / Osez vous lancer financed with a grant from the Status of Women Canada was created followed the next year by a similarly financed Public Awareness Campaign. A customized version of Getting to the Gate was subsequently developed for First Nations, Inuit and Métis women.
In 2008, a three year grant from the Status of Women resulted in the launch of the Experiences Program - a national bilingual youth engagement and mentorship program - for young women and girls.
In a decade, Equal Voice had moved from a gathering of women around a dinner table to a national organization with a secretariat in Ottawa and a plan for the future. Yet the challenge remains. Women seldom exceed 23% of the elected members in governments across the country, far short of the ‘critical mass’ of one third targeted by EV ten years ago.
Get involved... in equal voice chapters
from coast to coast.
Find one near you, or perhaps even start a chapter.
Getting to the Gate Online
For women of all ages, back- grounds & walks of life interest- ed in running for public office.
Thanks also to the Government of Canada (Status of Women & Canadian Heritage) for their financial support.