Here are the facts: In Ottawa, only four of 23 city councillors are women. That’s a dismal 17 per cent of council. In cities across Canada, on average women make up only 26 per cent of the councillors. Women make up more than half of our population. We need politics to be representative of the population it serves.
In Ottawa, there is momentum to change this. Councillor Diane Deans is calling for a women’s bureau, and Mayor Jim Watson has shown support for gender parity on all committees and boards that receive appointments from the city. But we can do better. We need more women to run in politics. And importantly – we need more women to win.
When I was in grade school, I remember playing soccer with the boys. I could compete with the best of them, and one boy didn’t like that. “You run like a girl,” he told me. After decades competing in sports, business and politics at the highest levels, I can tell you this: You can run like a girl, you should run like a girl, and you can win like a girl. You can do it even when the odds are stacked against you.
Before I began my run for office, I thought I needed some sort of permission. I spent a lot of time asking people if I should run. I heard a lot of opinions. But in the end, it’s really up to you. It doesn’t matter what everyone you know thinks, or even what your mother thinks. (My mom thought it was a terrible idea. But I’m happy to report she has since come around.)
I was also worried about my three young kids. There was no way I could go to every event or ribbon-cutting and be the mother I wanted to be. Therefore, I chose to bring them along whenever they wanted, and I encouraged my volunteers to include their kids in our adventure, too.
Many people told me to worry about the old boys’ club in politics. And if you don’t feel like you’re part of it, you can feel like an imposter. But the good news is there’s a new girls’ club. And they will be very happy that you’re running. Much to my surprise, many of the first people who volunteered to help on my campaign were women who had run for office themselves, or were already very active in our community.
Happily, the first big step is also the easiest. You have to put your name on the ballot. In Ottawa, the filing fee is only $100. Then, you should go knock on doors. This is maybe the most important thing you can do. People need to meet you and find out who you are and why you’re running. You also need to listen to their concerns. And you need to really understand these, because if you are elected, it is to serve these people you meet on the doorstep.
During my election campaign, I learned that residents wanted a canal footbridge linking Old Ottawa East to the Glebe, a library that could serve as a community hub, and a National Housing Strategy. These issues were important to Ottawans and they were important to me too. (And I am proud to say I delivered.)
You also need to raise money. No one likes doing this. But campaigns are expensive; you will have to get used to it and it is not as daunting as it looks. Don’t be afraid to ask. People understand and you will be amazed at how generous they can be.
But let’s be honest: Running is hard. You will knock on doors in the freezing cold, in the rain, and in the sweltering heat. You will spend long hours at events, rallies and coffee shops, and preparing for debates. You will miss your kids, and inevitably you will be attacked and trolled online simply for being a woman.
And, in spite of all the work and heartache, you may still lose. After I knocked on my last door, I didn’t know what would happen on Election Day. But I knew I had tried as hard as I could. I knew we had run a positive campaign that included many people who had never been involved in politics. I made new friends and appreciated Ottawa Centre in new ways. For these reasons, I decided it had been the right decision to run, even if I lost.
My final piece of advice? If you’re going to enter politics, don’t wait for the “right” moment. It will never come. Just take a deep breath, and do it. Go run like a girl.
On March 22, I will host an event at Impact Hub to discuss my tips and tricks for running in politics. Think of it as a boot camp for women looking to enter politics and those who want to help support a female candidate. Please contact my community office (613-946-8682) for more information.
Catherine McKenna is the Liberal MP for Ottawa Centre and federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change.