Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House to address Bill C-473, legislation that would amend the Financial Administration Act to achieve balanced representation in the number of women and men serving as directors on boards of parent crown corporations by establishing the minimum proportion of each sex on those boards. I want to commend my colleague for her initiative and her remarks in debate today.
Before I discuss the merits of the legislation, I would like to note the context in which this debate occurs. November 25 was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It marked the first of 16 days of activism against gender violence, which will conclude on December 10, international Human Rights Day. During this period, as members know, we will observe, on December 6, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, marking the anniversary of the 1989 murders of 14 young women at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal. The truth of this tragedy should not be ignored, marginalized, or otherwise sanitized. Simply put, these 14 women were murdered simply because they were women, a fact that finds expression in global violence against women both domestically and internationally.
While I know the bill before us is not on the subject of gender violence, I believe that we must situate our debate on gender parity within the broader context of discussing women's rights. At the risk of repeating myself in the chamber, although it is a moment and a message that bear repeating, Canada should lead the way and heed the call, first affirmed 20 years ago at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, that women's right are human rights, and there are no human rights that do not include the rights of women. It is up to us to give expression to this message through concrete action, and it should be clear to all listening to this debate that the tools to promote the objectives of equality are within our own hands. We must commit ourselves to this cause without delay.
I have been inspired by the work of civil society and NGOs in this regard, but most of all, I have been inspired by young people who are leading the call for change. As many members are aware, McGill University held its annual women in House program last week, bringing McGill women students to Parliament to meet with MPs to discuss encouraging more participation among women in public life. I was privileged to participate in a panel, which included representation from all parties, as part of this inspiring gathering. I would like to publicly thank the organizers for their hard work in achieving this year's event success.
As I noted in my remarks to the visiting students, it is a shame that while women make up 50.9% of the Canadian population, 70 million-plus strong in the 2011 census, in the current House, women have barely one-quarter of the seats. This is a result of policy choices we have made and could change. While I will not go into the details here, we have seen in examples around the world, using, for instance, Norway and Sweden as examples, that if we remove obstacles such as financial barriers, the old boys' network, and the like, more women will run and more women will be elected, and we can improve gender parity in the Commons.
As an aside, I would be remiss if I did not note that in the wake of this week's by-elections, I look forward to welcoming the new member for Toronto Centre, Chrystia Freeland, who I have no doubt will make many important contributions to, among other things, women's rights and gender equality in her new role.
Beyond policy options to improve gender parity in Parliament, there are policy options with respect to parity more broadly, and this is what this bill is about. Bill C-473 is at second reading, and thus the question before Parliament is whether it should be sent to committee for further study and refinement. I believe this matter should, indeed, be referred to committee so that witnesses can help inform the discussion and debate. I support the spirit and principle of the bill, as I believe gender parity is a goal we should pursue.
That said, there are some questions to be addressed in committee regarding the scope and implementation of this bill. One such question I think it important to raise is whether the legislation goes far enough in that the number of women on boards may not be an accurate indicator, in and of itself, of women's progress more broadly. In other words, to illustrate with an example, just because we have gender parity on a board heading a science agency does not mean we are doing enough to encourage women to enter and remain in the sciences or that women are equitably represented in decisions regarding science policy.
Certainly, I share the hope that if more women are on boards, these boards and agencies will adopt policies and perspectives that are inclusive and sensitive to the need for minority representation. However, we might wonder whether there are other metrics to be considered in this regard, such as compensation and the promotion of women relative to their male counterparts.
It is interesting to note that the bill comes from the NDP, which generally takes very progressive stances in this regard. Another such question is that this bill seems not to contemplate how a transgendered individual may count or wish to be counted for gender-parity purposes. Simply put, there may be consequences to ambiguity in the legislation as it does reinforce a gender binary to which not all ascribe.
Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the bill seems to be silent on the matter of sanctions. That is, it does not outline penalties or remedial action for failure to adhere to the objectives outlined in the bill. It specifically states:
An act of the board of directors of a parent Crown corporation...is not invalid on the sole ground that the composition of the board is not in compliance with that section.
In other words, any decision made by a board without the designated gender representation is not invalid if the board does not meet the appropriate gender representation requirements. This clause would seem to lessen the strength of the bill. I think we will have to investigate whether we might have some sort of mechanism whereby we do not merely say, as this bill does, and importantly so, that failure to meet the required parity is “just business as usual” and “we're sorry”. Ultimately, without any consequence for failure to meet the quotas, this entire initiative may become an exercise in symbolism, which again is important but which I am sure the hon. member who introduced the bill did not intend to be the principal impact.
There are multiple approaches to this question. One which I believe ought to be considered, though again this perspective might be informed through debate and in committee, is whether we set a goal of 50% parity in the statute and mandate sanctions when a figure of less than 40% is achieved. While I agree that 40% is not parity, a requirement of 40% with a 50% goal is preferable to a goal set of 50% with a requirement of 0%, which is what the bill would appear to mandate in its current form. I want to be clear on this point because I know there will be some doubts as to what direction this ought to take and whether one should support quotas, affirmative action and the like, and whether this initiative can be effective.
In part, the discussions on this bill will be illuminated by expert witness testimony before the committee. I do hope we can send this bill to committee so that witnesses will provide the evidence that we as parliamentarians can then use to inform our perspectives and the subsequent debate.
Indeed, there is expertise and experience on this question, most notably from my own province of Quebec, as my colleague cited in her remarks. She stated:
As previously mentioned, in Quebec, An Act Respecting the Governance of State-owned Enterprises requires that the Government of Quebec establish a policy with the following objective:
...that the boards of directors of the enterprises as a group include an equal number of women and men...
Just before that line, there is a provision that states:
...that the boards of directors of the enterprises as a group be composed of members whose cultural identity reflects the various segments of Québec society;
We might wonder if a similar provision on cultural community representation ought to be in Bill C-473 as well. From Quebec's experience and international experience in this regard we can better establish how effective such a law is at achieving parity and where the pitfalls are. For example, if it turned out that to comply with the guidelines, some board would simply reduce the overall number of members but that this would have a prejudicial impact on the work of such a board, we might want to reconsider if in some cases a ministerial exemption might be appropriate. This would be a matter in which hearing from Quebec's experience would greatly inform and assist parliamentarians as we address this issue.
Before concluding my remarks, I would be remiss if I did not note that all issues of gender parity are not solved by this bill, though it is certainly a step in the right direction.
For example, the recent appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada of Justice Marc Nadon, was critiqued in that his appointment did not preserve the previous 5:4 gender parity observed on our nation's highest tribunal. While I would agree that judicial excellence and merit ought to be the prime consideration in any appointment, it is troubling to note that under the current Conservative government there have been six justices appointed to the Supreme Court. They are the Honourable Justices Rothstein, Cromwell, Moldaver, Karakatsanis, Wagner and Nadon, only one of whom is a woman. Surely, we can do a better job of achieving and maintaining gender parity at the Supreme Court and of addressing diversity in the judiciary overall, as there is room for improvement on this front.
This bill would not address parity on a body such as the Supreme Court, though one would hope that in 2013 the Government of Canada would adopt a mindset of equality and not need a legislative reminder of what ought otherwise to be considered common sense, if not principle.
As I close, I want to applaud my colleague from Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles for addressing an issue of women's rights wherein the government's leadership has been wanting and wherein Parliament has a distinct role to play.
There are many other concerns, both domestic and international, that time does not permit me to address, including women in armed conflict, pay equity, matrimonial real property, gender budgeting, access to comprehensive medical care, and the like, on which I would encourage the government to adopt a more progressive and inclusive approach. Until then, I hope more private members' bills such as this will seek to advance the equality cause that arguably the government has abandoned.