Big bucks, closed minds identified as obstacles

Bonnie Belec
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St. John’s female candidates say they couldn’t overcome challenges

There’s about as much diversity on the new St. John’s council as there is among peas in a pod, but that’s what the electorate asked for, says a woman who ran for deputy mayor.

St. John's City Hall. — file photo

There’s about as much diversity on the new St. John’s council as there is among peas in a pod, but that’s what the electorate asked for, says a woman who ran for deputy mayor.

“Selling change takes extra hard work,” said Jennifer McCreath, who lost the race for deputy mayor to St. John’s businessman Ron Ellsworth.

“There is a history and culture of politics being often dominated by rich, old men. I don’t believe voters have any blatant individual gender-based discrimination. I’d like to think the voters elected these 11 men because they felt they had the best resume of education, skill set, and/or experiences needed to do these jobs,” she told The Telegram Thursday.

For the first time since 1969 — when the late Dorothy Wyatt was first elected to St. John’s council — there won’t be any women sitting around the table. Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff — first elected to council in 1977 — announced in May she wouldn’t seek re-election. Coun. Debbie Hanlon also decided not to run after serving one term, and Coun. Sheilagh O’Leary, councillor-at-large for the past four years, ran against Mayor Dennis O’Keefe and lost.

Besides O’Leary and McCreath, three other women offered themselves as candidates — Tracy Holmes, Sarah Colborne Penney and Deanne Stapleton.

Stapleton, who has run in three municipal elections, said she doesn’t know why none of the women were elected.  

“I wish I knew what the answer is,” she said.

“But I learned a lot and one is you got to have a big bank account behind you if you want to keep up with the big boys,” said Stapleton.

Garnering 10,838 votes and placing sixth out of 13 candidates for four at-large positions, Stapleton said she’s proud of her accomplishment.

She said there might have been a different outcome if there was a committee in place that could offer help to women who are interested in municipal politics.

Stapleton said the committee could offer assistance in organizing and preparing for elections, and maybe even fundraising.

“I’m ready to get involved with one any time. If someone wanted to contact me to get something started we can go from there,” Stapleton suggested.

Colborne Penney, who ran in Ward 3 against Coun. Bruce Tilley and lost by 201 votes, said she benefitted from mentors in the community.

“I did some networking a year before I started my campaign, talking to people who had experience in that sphere and getting their advice, and out of that networking I ended up with a couple of people who acted as mentors and guided me along all the way through until the election,” she said.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do it unless people acted as mentors to me and they kind of did out of the kindness of their hearts,” said Colborne Penney, suggesting some type of mentoring program may be an idea to help women get through the campaigning and election process.

In 2005 the provincial government held a series of seminars for women who were interested in running in municipal elections, and in 2009 Premier Kathy Dunderdale, then minister responsible for the status of women, hosted a series of lunch and learn sessions as part of the Make Your Mark campaign.

However, none of that was done in 2013.

A spokeswoman for the women’s policy office, said for this election, “the government chose to focus efforts on a social and electronic media campaign for support and to reach an even wider audience. There was specific attention to women through this approach, which included testimonials and advice from past councillors and mayors,” which was shared with different agencies, she said.

As well since 2009, she said there has been a broader focus on the inclusion of women overall through initiatives like Ovations — a gala celebrating accomplished women.

For this year’s campaign, the province publicly highlighted some of the strong women in leadership positions, including Dunderdale and Minister Susan Sullivan through testimonial videos. Videos and posters were also developed featuring female mayors and councillors.

Stapleton said she went to one of the sessions in 2005 and it was an uplifting, learning experience.

“I remember going into Paradise. We had a luncheon workshop where all the female candidates running were there and all the women elected officials were there like (St. John’s Deputy Mayor) Shannie Duff, (Mount Pearl Coun.) Paula Tessier,” she said.

“Oh my gosh it’s an excellent idea. They should do it every election actually. The late Dianne Whalen (former cabinet minister) was very instrumental in putting off these workshops. She was a strong advocate for women in municipal elections. Maybe that’s the reason why there wasn’t one this time,” Stapleton said.

McCreath said the bigger problem, more than outreach groups and networking, involves the way people think.

She said voters tend to stick with the status quo unless they have a major reason to oust the incumbents who are recognized in the community and are well known.

“I think the real issue here, and one that I would like to see the provincial government take a look at, would be taking steps to encourage all of society — especially big corporations — to take steps to raise the profile of women in their organizations in general,” she said.

“We need to start seeing gender equality on corporate board of directors. We need to start seeing gender equality in terms of CEOs and in senior management positions. You fix this imbalance, and I guarantee you will see gender equality in terms of political candidates, and in terms of candidates who get elected,” said McCreath adding the same thing could be said for gay or transgender people.

“We are grossly underemployed in the work force, and hence, are under-represented on political councils. We also need to take steps to change the mindset of society, with regards to (being) accepting of diversity, not just in politics, but in leadership roles everywhere. People from all aspects of life can make great leaders. Being a woman, or being gay, or being transgendered, should not limit one’s ability to climb a corporate ladder, nor should (that) be cause for society to take them less seriously,” said McCreath, a community activist who is transgender.

Corrected version

Geographic location: Mount Pearl

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Recent comments

  • Tim Jamison
    September 29, 2013 - 13:41

    The affirmative action programs suggested in this article are disgusting and vile. Our democracy is a meritocracy and if you don't have the merit, the people tell you to leave. Weaselling your way in in some other way is a subversion of our right of choice and it can't be tolerated. Why would we pay our taxpayer dollars to get a clearly less-qualified candidate who would have lost without those dollars? It makes no sense, when you're thinking with your brain and not your hormones

  • McLovin
    September 27, 2013 - 13:14

    I don't mean to be sexist or rude. I respect women and think there should be equal opportunities in any workplace. However, I don't think things are imbalanced in today's society as what is being eluded to in this article. In St. John's during the last election, out of 30 candidates only 4 were women. I don't see how anything can or should be done about this. At the end of the day, the onus is still out there for women to take the initiative and get involved and enter the race. To say that it is easier for a male to enter an election race is just plain ludicrous. A new male candidate faces the same obstacles as a new female candidate. They still have to learn the ropes and are still facing an uphill battle against incumbents. I'm sorry but the commentary in this article seems like sour grapes to me.The sad truth is that these ladies have to admit that they just didn't run a good enough campaign to get elected and the same thing can be said about all the men out there who were not successful in their campaigns. I think the biggest reason for this is that all the candidate's platforms were too similar. Given the choice of two candidates who have similar platforms, I will vote for the incumbent every time. Any new candidate has to offer something different

  • Guest
    September 27, 2013 - 10:00

    I agree that gender equality is a positive component in any aspect of society, both private or public. Lunch and learns, along with mentoring programs are a great way to encourage and foster would-be female candidates. However to form a committee aimed at raising funds that only female candidates can avail of goes against the exact principle trying to be overcome - gender equality. Would it be viewed in a similar negative context if the council was all female? I for one didn't vote on gender and I strongly believe the majority of voters didn't either. I voted for who I felt was best suited to the job, be it male/female/transgendered/etc....

  • Gerard Neil
    September 27, 2013 - 09:24

    We should evolve a system wherein if a sitting councillor vies for a seat (Like O'leary going for Mayor), then if that person gets X % of the vote, they get to keep their old seat. We sort of just punished her for trying to do better, and ourselves by throwing her out of the loop. IT's not a very rewarding system for change... oh right, I forgot, this is Newfoundland. We won't be changing any time soon. Meanwhile everyone is excited about the "new oil find" which isn't very much oil, and we already knew it was there - but the fallout from those lies will keep rents high and house prices out of line and eventually our foolish little house of cards will come tumbling down.

    • guest
      September 27, 2013 - 10:33

      There are thousands of municipalities and governments who hold elections - the rules are pretty straightforward. You pick the seat you want to run for and go for it.

    • James Williams
      September 27, 2013 - 17:05

      Really now! REALLY!!! Absolutely not, an individual puts him or her self up for a better position on council, and ends up loosing the election under no circumstances be allowed to simply go back to their old position. Your comments are ripe of NDP partisan crap. You are just upset that the heritage wing nut tree hugging hippie lost and now your only hope of putting heritage over development is Dave Lane.

  • Steve
    September 27, 2013 - 07:39

    The biggest problem is that all of the incumbets were male. There is a major incumbent advantage, in that the electorate has gotten 4, 8 or 12 years to know who an incumbent is. For those who dont' even follow municipal politics, when they get their mail in ballot kits, there are usually only a few names that they even recognize, and those are the ones getting the votes. Something needs to be done to level the playing field for non-incumbents, both male and female. If we do this, I think the task of being a new candidate will not be as daunting, and we will get more women and young people running.