the accidental symbol
How Martha Hall Findlay became synonymous with “women in politics” — despite her best efforts
BY Egle Procuta
Photography by Steve Payne
A plane landed at Vancouvers International Airport last September and a tired woman gathered up her bags, her mind preoccupied with the challenges of the next few days. As the longest shot of the long shots hoping to win the top job in the Liberal Party of Canada, Martha Hall Findlay wanted to deliver a dynamite performance at the leadership debate due to take place here. But walking out into the terminal, a news flash derailed her train of thought. Carolyn Bennett, the Toronto MP also in the running, had just announced she was dropping out. Findlay immediately picked up a phone and called up Hedy Fry, the only other woman in the race. She went over to Frys home in Vancouver and the two had a long chat. Findlay spoke passionately about her belief that the leadership campaign needed as many female voices as possible. But just over a week later, Fry also decided to abandon her bid, leaving Findlay on her own to speak out for a cause she had never expected to embrace. A cause that could be mistaken for the name of a university course, or a clich.
Women in politics. It stood against a principle Findlay believed in passionately, back in February of 2006, when she set off on her seemingly quixotic quest for the Liberal leadership. That principle was merit. Here was someone so well-rounded and talented, she wanted no concession for her gender. She had minimal political experience and had never held public office, but Findlay was adamant about being treated as a contender.
Intellectual challenge didnt faze the 47-year-old Toronto lawyerher exceptional IQ allowed her to skip three grades in high school. Physical prowess was a given: she used to be a competitive downhill skier and, without a stitch of previous experience, talked her way into a job on a construction site building houses for most of a year when she was 18. And she had an enviable handle on balancing work and family, writing her bar exams the day before giving birth to the youngest of her three children, who are now in their early to mid-20s. Small wonder Findlay described herself as someone genetically programmed to get things done.
So the perception that she was one of the token women in the racelumped together with Bennett and Fry just because of her genderrankled Findlay. For the first number of months of the campaign, I repeatedly said that I was not running as a woman, she explains. I was saying Im not here to be a woman in politics, Im here to be in politics. But as she toured across Canada on the Big Red Bus that became a symbol of her bare-bones campaign, Findlay had moments of revelation that led to her transformation into an advocate for the cause she initially resisted. A cause that needs all the help it can get.
There is no clear answer for fixing what is undoubtedly a huge flaw in the democratic process in Canada. But there is also no arguing with the numbers. Women make up more than 50 percent of the population of this country, yet our record at electing female politicians ranks us a dismal 48th in the world. The United States and the United Kingdom fare even worse, placing 68th and 53rd respectively. All three countries have a first-past-the-post electoral system, whereas countries with some form of proportional representation consistently elect more women. Thats why those advocating for fairer gender representation in Canadian politics are often strong proponents of electoral reform, as was the late, great feminist Doris Anderson. Does it matter if only 21 percent of the House of Commons and our provincial legislatures are women? Anderson asked in these pages last year. Damn right it does, she said. Women often bring a different viewpoint and have different priorities than men.
But as it stands, the majority of women do not feel engaged in the political process. In fact, theyre actively disillusioned by it. Its easy to understand why. The simple numbers are a turn-off. With women so badly outnumbered in public office, its no wonder that the issues that matter most in their livesthe so-called nurturing issues revolving around family matters or ones relating to social justice (feeding the hungry instead of building the army)are marginalized in policy development.
Canadian politics is in desperate need of renewal. And the new voices and valuable skills that women could bring to the table would do wonders for injecting life into a tired old horse thats been flogged senseless. Research shows that if women had equal political representation, not only would their interest and involvement in the public arena jump significantly, it would outpace that of men.
This is not a womens issue, Findlay insists. This is a societal issue. We need more women in public office. Men need that just as much as women need that.
On a snowy Saturday afternoon in January, in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto, Findlay grabs some time out of a hectic schedule for this interview. Then shes off to an event at a supporters home around the corner. It is eight weeks to the day since the Liberal Party crowned Stphane Dion as its great hope to save the country from the clutches of Stephen Harpers right-wing demagoguery. The brunch crowds have long thinned out at the Beacher Caf, but a radiant Findlay fills up the twilight stillness with her enthusiasm. She is not bitter about finishing eighth in a field of eight in the leadership race. She is thrilled to be part of the team of advisors working closely with Dion, behind whom she threw her support at the convention in Montreal when she fell off after the first ballot. She is pumped about running for Parliament in the next election shes been acclaimed as the Liberal candidate in the Willowdale riding of Torontobut in the meantime, she is busy criss-crossing the country, as chair of platform outreach for the party. All in all, Findlay is an overwhelmingly positive person, and a consummate team player. One of the first things I notice about her is how often she uses the pronoun we instead of I.
But she does revert to the first person when describing her new-found calling as a role model for the cause of women in politics. After Carolyn and Hedy pulled out, Findlay says, it was absolutely clear that this was now a responsibility that I hadthat I hadnt asked for but that was so important to so many peopleto stay and to be there in Montreal.
And that inspired her mantra: Ill be damned if in the 21st century the Liberal Party of Canada doesnt have a woman on that stage in Montreal.
A wicked cold front had blown into Montreal in the dying days of November, along with thousands of Liberal delegates, volunteer organizers, party brass, journalists and just plain hangers-on addicted to the adrenaline of the increasingly archaic institution that is a leadership convention. By the Friday morning, the intensity of the freezing rain had gone up a notch, like the rhetoric. But a small meeting room on the upper levels of the Palais des congres felt like a sauna. It was packed, with more people squeezing in every minute. The buzz of excitement in the air exploded into cheers when the kitschy twang of "Man! I Feel Like a Woman" blasted over the loudspeakers. Bopping his head to the Shania Twain tune, Bob Rae strode into the room and clambered onto its small stage.
He was using the last hours before the first ballot to woo female supporters. "Join Bob Rae for Women Mentoring Women" was emblazoned across the top of a flyer that his supporters had been handing out that morning to crowds streaming into the convention centre. "Women must play an equal, meaningful role in shaping the future of Canada," the leaflet read. "Bob Rae is proud to support young women as they grow into the next generation of leaders."
As Rae told heartwarming anecdotes about how he was inspired by his grandmothers, his mother, his wife and his three daughters, a stylish woman turned to me and said, "He's going to make me cry." Rae spoke, with well-deserved pride, about having a cabinet with 40 percent women when he served as NDP premier of Ontario in the 1990s and the difference this made to the kinds of issues that were brought to the table.
A lot of nice things were said in Room 524A that morning, but it is telling that a man did almost all of the talking. The feel-good vibes went on for 35 minutes, evoking an old-fashioned prayer meeting, but it ended abruptly and Rae was gone. A couple of women in the back of the room looked less than impressed as they clutched "We love Martha" signs to their chests. Were they thinking what I was thinking: that it will take a lot more than prayers to reach the goal, as Rae had promised, of having women play "an equal, meaningful role" in Canadian politics?
The barriers keeping women from public office are well documented: lack of money, insufficient party backing and sheer lack of time, when you consider the disproportionate role women play looking after domestic responsibilities. Whats less clear is how to dismantle the barriers in a way that doesnt marginalize women even more. Rightly or wrongly, politics is perceived as a mans game and the rules of the game are ones that put many women off.
Its rare to find an issue on which Olivia Chow, the firebrand NDP MP, agrees with Janet Ecker, a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister under ber-hard-line Ontario premier Mike Harris. But theyre both trail-blazing female politicians: Chow was the first Asian woman to serve in municipal politics in Toronto; Ecker held three of the top portfolios: finance, education and social services. And both are active supporters of the non-partisan lobby group Equal Voice, which advocates fair representation for Canadian women in elected office.
Differences in gender psychology are a key barrier, Chow says. Women like to get things done, but politicsat least the way its presented in the mediaseems to be one big power game. Who is in the cabinet, who is not. Who has power, who does not. Who has higher polling numbers, who does not. Blah, blah, blah, Chow laughs, her frustration palpable. Its not about the practical things that make peoples lives better.
Politics is perceived as a blood sport, Ecker agrees. Women are put off by the superficiality of some of the political process: the 15-second sound bites, the gotcha mentality that tends to dominate virtually every level of politics.
Its difficult to work cooperatively across party lines, she says. This is a terrible generalization, but women politicians are frequently more ready to work across the aisles. We are not better or worse: were different. But we need to have these voices at the table.
Getting these voices to the table, of course, is easier said than done. Ive asked a lot of women to run in the past, Chow says, and the common thing that I hear back is: Oh, I dont know enough. Im not quite ready. Men seldom say that theyre not ready, that they dont know enough. Most of them should think that, but they dont.
Findlay echoes this sentiment. I cant tell you the number of women who say, I dont know if I have a thick-enough skin, or I dont know if I have what it takes. And I look at them and think: Okay, you told me you have three children. You started your own business. You now employ 73 people. And you tell me you dont have a thick-enough skin and you dont think you have what it takes? Look in a mirror. Why is it that some people who are so capable and so accomplished somehow still dont think they have what it takes?
In a 2006 research paper entitled Called to Speak, the Washington-based Institute for Womens Policy Research took extensive data and boiled them down to six key strategies to boost womens political activism. One example is going out to meet women on their own turf, where they feel safe to try out unfamiliar roles. It might sound simplistic, but it gets to the heart of the matter, the reports author, Amy Caiazza, says. Another simple and profound strategy is providing political role models of women who break the mould. Despite her initial reticence about being labelled as a woman in politics, Findlay is now gratified that this is the legacy of her leadership bid.
It was a pretty risky thing for me to do, she admits, as she orders a coffee refill. She hopes that women who may be thinking about getting into politics will say, Damn it, I can do that, too, after seeing somebody like Findlay take the leap of faith and, not only survive, but come out laughing.
To describe running for the Liberal leadership as a pretty risky thing is an understatement, of course. As Findlay got set to announce her candidacy, even some of her closest friends tried to talk her out of it. Almost everybody I knowand certainly everybody I dont knowthought, Oh my god, what is she doing? This is a disaster. Shes going to fall flat on her face. Nobody knows who she is. Shes not going to be able to raise any money. She doesnt have the machine. Is she nuts?
Nuts, no. Determined, definitely.
Her first-ever foray into politics, in the federal election of June 2004, was an impressive debut. Running against then-Conservative star candidate Belinda Stronach in the Ontario riding of Newmarket-Aurora, Findlay unexpectedly came within fewer than 700 votes of beating her big-name rival. This augured well for up-till-then unknown Findlay, so she took the big financial and personal risks of moving from Collingwood, Ontario, to Newmarket, with the perfectly reasonable expectation that she would tackle the riding again in the next election.
Everything was falling into place for Findlay, until the bombshell day in May 2005 when Stronach crossed the floor. Her political reincarnation was a stay-of-execution for Paul Martin. And politics being rife with favouritism, Liberal apparatchiks decreed it was Stronach who would carry the party banner in Newmarketleaving Findlay out in the cold. Findlay took the decision like a trooper, despite her anger and wounded pride, but she also made a personal pledge to show the Liberal Party what it was missing by shunting her aside.
Martins announcement the night of the disastrous 2006 election that he would be stepping down as leader gave Findlay what she describes as a window of opportunity. When Findlay first entered the leadership race, the overwhelming reaction was Martha who? But as the 11-month campaign gathered steam, both those inside and outside the party began to take notice. Short on cash but long on enthusiasm, Findlay crossed the country in the Big Red Busactually a Damon DayBreak motor homethat quickly became her calling card. Most nights on the road, she and her campaign workers would sleep in the RV. Everybody took turns hooking up water and power on arrival in campgrounds, although Findlay does good-naturedly admit that she got a bit more time in the shower to tame the beast of bad-hair days.
She didnt espouse particularly groundbreaking policies. Some of themlike advocating a mix of private and public health-carewouldnt fall on the progressive side of the political spectrum, but Findlay did stand out as a beacon of civility, with a knack for consensus-building.
Despite all the positive feedback Findlay was getting, the Liberals cumbersome process of delegate selection was stacked against her. It was members of local riding associations that elected who got to go to Montreal, and their ranks were very heavily tilted toward candidates at the front of the pack. After the so-called Super Weekend of delegate selection in September, Findlay finished last with only 46 votes, less than one percent of committed supporters. But that didnt mean results of the first ballot of the leadership were a foregone conclusion.
Also due to vote in Montreal were close to 1,000 ex-officio delegatesMPs, senators, defeated Liberal candidates and other party officialswho didnt have to declare who they were supporting. These free agents, then, were an obvious focus of the lastminute wooing going on at the convention.
We had a small but very, very keen team in Montreal, really working the ex-officios, Findlay explains. Their efforts began to bear fruit. Toronto MP Judy Sgro made a public declaration that she would vote for Findlay on the first ballot, and she challenged other ex-officios to do the same. I think as Liberals we need to come out and give her full credit and kudos for her courage and commitment, Sgro said. The only way we can do that is to put an X beside her name.
Findlays supporters were the smallest group at the convention, of course, but, in some way, they seemed to be having the most fun. There were no laggers, no killjoys; everybody in that parade was going for broke. They snaked their way through the throngs, straining their vocal cords, chanting, Martha, Martha, Martha. Then one of the other camps started to shout Martha, Martha, too. And then another camp did the same. Recalling this moment, two months later, Findlay is still incredulous. It was so fantastic ... it just indicated that regardless of the competitive thing, we had somehow resonated.
Findlay received only 130 votes on the first ballot, and was dropped from the race (her next-closest rival, Joe Volpe, had 156 votes). She threw her support behind Dion, who shared her keen intellect and commitment to party renewal, but many of her supporters were crushed that Findlays run for the Liberal crown had ended this way. Its a dark day for Liberals, said Janet Maxwell, a high school special education teacher, and long-time party loyalist. She was particularly disillusioned that more people had voted for Volpe, whose campaign had been marked by a fundraising scandal and who, Maxwell felt, made a rather tasteless reference to Findlay in his speech the night before by boasting about how he toured Canada in his little red Ferrari.
Findlay, on the other hand, put a positive spin on the outcome. We had worked so hard and put so much heart into it that, yeah, it was tough. On the other hand, we did increase our vote. She had arrived with 40 committed delegates and finished with 130 votes.
And she was moved by the tremendous amount of affection she gotfrom family, friends and strangers for having stayed the course to ensure at least one woman in the race. People still come up to me, Findlay says, and give me a hug and say thank you. And so much of that is tied to the fact that we dont have enough women up there doing this.
Just as most parties say they want to take care of the environment, they also say they want more women to run for them. The key is how they will deliver the goods. The NDP has had a policy in place since 1993 that wont allow a nomination process to close until the riding association can prove its taken credible measures to find a candidate who is either female or from a minority group. The Progressive Conservative Party in Ontario has a special fund called Women in Nomination to give women seed capital in this crucial phase of the election process. Stphane Dion declared, shortly after taking over the Liberal helm, that he was committed to fielding at least 103 women, out of 308 ridings, in the next vote. But hes already run into trouble about how to actually make that happen. Dions solutionthat he would simply disallow men from seeking nominations in certain ridingshas resulted in an angry backlash over reverse discrimination.
And even once women actually get elected, there is virulent disagreement about how to treat them. Last fall, when Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay allegedly referred to former girlfriend Belinda Stronach as a dog during a parliamentary debate, many observersboth male and female were vehement in defending Stronach. Others said she deserved the comment, especially since she had broken MacKays heart when she joined the Liberals.
Findlay insists that both sides should just get over it. Ive worked on Bay Street and we get called bitch all the time. Men get called awful things too. People insult each other. Its an unpleasant side of human nature. Politics is no different. My preference is to dismiss those kinds of comments, rather than give them weight.
Findlays personal mission now is to encourage women to work on becoming more comfortable in the public eye, a strategy the U.S. Institute of Womens Policy Research has seen is profoundly effective in such success stories as mentoring at the Georgia Citizens Coalition on Hunger. Many of the staff there are former welfare recipients who are initially reticent to speak out publicly. But the encouragement of colleagues who have embraced political activism helps melt the trepidation. One worker describes how scared she was when sent to the state capital to talk about hunger. When I got up there I was just shaking. And all of a sudden something came over me, and I began to calm down I said what I had to say.
Parties need to do a better job teaching women the nuts and bolts of running for office, Findlay says, Because, unless youve been working the backrooms for a long time, it frankly is intimidating. And a lot of women just simply dont know how to go about it. Equal Voice has an excellent non-partisan solution with a free online course for women interested in running for office.
As Findlay has proven, the crucial thing is having the faith to take the first step, no matter how frightening it may seem. If I have a job over the next little while, she says, a huge part is to encourage women to look in the mirror and realize just how capable they really are.