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Did you know that it’s been over 100 years since women gained the right to hold municipal office in Ontario? Much like winning the right to vote, the milestone marked a huge achievement in the fight for gender equality and smoothed the path for a future that would see more balanced representation among those in power. Except… things haven’t quite gone as envisioned.

Currently, women account for 27% of elected municipal council members in Grey Bruce. While it’s a step above the province-wide 23%, the disparity is concerning, especially considering that 51% of our local population is made up of women. To help municipal government become more reflective of the people they serve, Owen Sound councillor, Carol Merton, and community volunteer, Laura Wood, co-founded electHER Now, a local non-partisan organization aiming to even out the gender divide among elected officials.

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Since its inception last May, the grassroots team has expanded to include councillors and volunteers from all over the two counties. Together, they offer support for women throughout the entire process of entering into municipal politics, beginning with preliminary guidance on narrowing down political focus and running for council, and continuing with campaigning, election, and their first term in office. It’s about minimizing barriers for women who want to get into local politics and providing them with a solid foundation for their careers.

Jami Smith, who is currently serving in her first term as one of two Port Elgin Ward Councillors in the town of Saugeen Shores, notes that because of the lack of women in council, it can be a difficult road to navigate on one’s own. “A lot of first-term councillors, like myself, maybe don’t have other women mentors on their council that they can lean on, and they may feel very isolated as a lone woman around the table,” says Smith. “[Through electHER,] we can bounce ideas off of one another, and there’s a sense of community among us that newly engaged members, or people considering running, would find comforting.”

Of course, there stands the question of WHY so few women hold political office in the first place. As you likely know, that requires a deep-dive well beyond what can be covered in a single article. We could explore the challenge of balancing parenthood and profession, where the majority of primary caregiver roles rest overwhelmingly on mothers’ shoulders. Or we might look at the stereotypes and assumptions that many women face regarding their aptitude (or supposed lack thereof) for handling debate and conflict. Then there’s the myriad of gender-based systemic inequities. I’ll just leave it at that for now.

“We are all just people who are looking to improve the communities with which we live”

Yet, barriers can be dismantled, and this is why organizations such as electHER are integral to changing the political horizon. Smith points out that, “We have to see it to be it. The more women we see represented in these leadership positions, the more young women and girls will be inspired to think, ‘It’s not for other people; it’s for me.’” As the number of women taking on roles in politics grows, so too does the support for future candidates. This is the momentum that carries us forward.

In order to make politics accessible, electHER is committed to providing information to all women who are considering running for municipal office, want to support women running for office, or who would simply like to learn more about how local government works. Information can be found on their website and the team is always open to answering questions.

They’re also hosting a series of virtual learning events to address specific topics, open to girls and women of all ages who are interested. In fact, the next one is happening on May 11th from 7:00pm to 8:30pm and will delve into what exactly the various municipal office positions do. You can register for this session here (https://www.electhernow.ca/may-11-event) and follow electHER on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for news on upcoming events.

It’s never too early to begin exploring politics or to support more diverse representation, especially when it comes to our own community. As Smith says, those involved with electHER “are all just people who are looking to improve the communities with which we live, and in doing so, engaging women in a meaningful way to be part of that.” That’s a direction worth moving in.

Written by Sarah Goldman

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