by Danielle Belec
A little over a year ago, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Quebec, the provincial government paid tribute to Ms. Elsie Gibbons, the province of Quebec’s first woman mayor, elected in the Pontiac municipality of Portage-du-Fort in 1953. This was a mere thirteen years after women had gained the right to vote in provincial elections. Ms. Gibbons also served as Pontiac County Warden from 1959 to 1961.
Sixty-four years later, the women of Pontiac are keeping Ms. Gibbons’ legacy alive with above average representation in municipal politics. In the MRC Pontiac, thirty-five percent (35%) of seats are held by women, compared to 31% regionally and 30% provincially. Women also hold 33% of mayoral seats, 11% more than in the entire Outaouais region. It’s interesting to note here that, as some political leaders strive for gender-parity in their cabinets—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was lauded in 2015 for having formed the Canadian government’s first gender balanced cabinet—the Pontiac would only have to elect three more women as mayors to achieve gender parity at MRC Council.
Despite ranking among the most advanced societies in the world in terms of gender equality, Quebec still lags in female representation across the political spectrum, which has been stagnating at around 30% for the past 15 years, proof that there are still social, cultural, and economic barriers to gender equality in political leadership. Social issues are perhaps the biggest hurdle for women, particularly young women, who still bear the bigger share of household and child care responsibilities, limiting their availability.
At the municipal level however, statistics do confirm slow and steady growth in the number of women candidates, and while there is still a long way to go before women break through the proverbial glass ceiling, some, like Ms. Gibbons and many others since, have done it individually. These women often serve as inspiration and motivation for other women who have a particular interest for serving, even shaping their community.
For change to occur, we must continue to promote the efforts of women in politics, and celebrate their achievements, not as a symbolic gesture, but as a reminder that inequalities still exist. By naming the MRC Pontiac’s new council chambers in Ms. Gibbons’ honour last year, the MRC wanted to ensure that this woman’s achievement would be remembered for decades to come. It was only fitting that, in the Elsie Gibbons hall, on this election year’s International Women’s Day, MRC Council paused to honour the Pontiac’s 43 women in politics, women who should be proud of their valuable contribution towards narrowing the gender parity gap in Quebec politics.