On Dec. 6, 1921, Agnes Macphail blazed a path for women with her election to the federal House of Commons. It was the first federal election in which women had the right to run as candidates, and Macphail was the first woman elected. She was also the only woman elected, and would remain the sole woman in the House of Commons until 1935.
Almost a century later, on Oct. 19, 2015, Catherine McKenna was elected in the riding of Ottawa Centre, one of 88 women elected to the 338-member House of Commons. A big step, but still a far cry from gender parity.
Over the next six years, McKenna would serve as Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, in the process enduring a torrent of online hate and attacks on her constituency office. She declined to seek re-election in 2021.
In a wide-ranging interview for Canadian Geographic’s Explore podcast, McKenna spoke with journalist David McGuffin about the milestone Agnes Macphail anniversary. Here’s what she had to say about a century of women in federal politics.
On the hatred directed toward women MPs
It’s a huge honour to be in politics. You can make a real difference. But it is challenging and this is something that I am committed to taking on. Even post-politics there is the hate, the misogyny online that is often directed towards women. But it can be directed towards a whole variety of people — especially if you are a visible minority; if you are a member of the LGBTQ2+ community; if you’re Indigenous. And we really need to change that because we need more diversity in politics. And the last thing you want is for people to decide they’re not going to run because of the attacks they will get.
I have called it out at times. I mean, I didn’t spend every minute of every day. It would be a waste of time. But I don’t think Canadians are willing to accept the treatment — especially the online end. And I think social-media companies have a significant role to play in doing a better job of addressing the hate and vitriol and violence. Because the problem is that it’s not just online — it has a tendency to go offline, as well.
On whether social media companies need to be regulated
If you can’t regulate yourself, then that’s when government certainly has a role to play. And, you know, these companies have the algorithms. These companies are able to identify unacceptable behaviour, but often they don’t because their business model is focused on how many likes and retweets something generates.
We’ve learned that if you are on Facebook, if you dislike something, it’s more likely — I think the statistic is five times more likely — for it to be promoted. So we’re actually helping people hate more. These companies are so big and they have such a pervasive influence on folks’ lives. And with that comes great responsibility. And they’re not willing to step up. I think that’s really where government needs to step in.
Advice for women entering politics (or considering entering politics)
Do it! We need more women in politics. We’re not going to change things by having less women in politics.
In 100 years, things haven’t changed as drastically as we’d like. But then I think about a picture of Karina Gould [the Minister of Democratic Institutions had a baby in 2018 while in office and, when she returned after 10 weeks of maternity leave, she attended Cabinet meetings and question period with her son]. She was the first cabinet minister to have a baby while a minister and she was breastfeeding in the House.
And I think that’s the different face of Parliament. And that’s what we need. You only change institutions by getting broader diversity because this has a huge impact on the institutions and also what’s acceptable behaviour. And so I’m all for more women in politics. I’ve said across party lines, I’m happy to support women in politics.
On paying it forward
I did a campaign called “Run Like a Girl” which is about supporting women and girls who want to get into politics. At one of the events we had, a girl stood up and said, ‘You know what? I think I’m going to run for my student council as president.’ And she won. And then I met her later on and she was really excited.
At that same event, a woman stood up and said, ‘You know what? I think I’m going to run for mayor.’ And I think she felt the solidarity because there were all these women in the room. I think she slightly regretted it. So she tried to take it back. But then she ran anyway, and she won.
I think having more women in politics makes a difference. I think it makes a difference in the tone of conversation. I think it makes a difference in the experiences that women bring. That doesn’t mean all women are the same. But I think that we just need diversity and that’s broader than just women.
Parliament needs to look like Canada looks, and it’s not the way it looks now. I think you make better decisions and you’re better able to reflect the will of Canadians.