Will Stos is Editor of the Canadian Parliamentary Review.
On October 1, 2019, a general election in the Northwest Territories ushered in a profound change to the make-up of its Legislative Assembly. Prior to the election, just two of the territory’s 18 MLAs were women. After a determined campaign to encourage more women to become involved in territorial politics, nine women were elected along with 10 men in the newly reconfigured 19-member assembly. NWT had gone from having the lowest proportion of women parliamentarians in an assembly to the highest and virtually achieving gender parity. A 2021 by-election has brought women MLAs to a majority position in the assembly. In this article, the author recounts the events leading up to this historic moment.
The Northwest Territories has been called a trailblazer in terms of diversity and representation. Since responsible government returned in 1983, a majority of its MLAs and premiers have been Indigenous. Nellie Cournoyea became the Canada’s first Indigenous woman premier and only the second woman premier in the country in 1991.
However, despite Cournoyea’s early success, rarely have more than 10 per cent of territory’s MLAs been women; and, on the eve of its most recent general election in 2019, the jurisdiction had the lowest proportion of women parliamentarians in the country. The territory’s MLAs were well aware of how it was lagging in terms of parliamentary gender equity.
The 18th Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories made “supporting initiatives designed to increase the number of women running for elected office” one of its priorities. The members of the Assembly unanimously adopted a motion on March 8, 2018 that set a goal of increasing the representation of women in the chamber to 20 per cent by 2023 and by 30 per cent by 2027.
A special committee of MLAs chaired by Julie Green was formed in October 2018 to research and recommend ways to achieve this goal. Some ideas proposed in the committee’s interim report and endorsed by the Assembly included: making child care an allowable election expense and an eligible expense from constituency work allowances, creating a four-month parental leave for MLAs, making family-friendly changes to the legislative building, and providing more funding for campaign schools.
A recommendation for “special temporary measures” that would have guaranteed a minimum number of women MLAs was ultimately rejected over fears of the appearance tokenism, but the committee supported revisiting the idea if the 2019 election did not bring about positive change in terms of women’s representation.1
The publicity generated by the committee prompted many women to become engaged in the discussion and debate over representation and encouraged some to put themselves forward as candidates or work on behalf of other candidates.
The result was staggering. The Northwest Territories went from having the lowest proportion of elected women parliamentarians in a Canadian Assembly to the highest. The non-partisan Assembly elected a majority of women MLAs to its six-member cabinet and a woman was elected premier. When Jane Weyallon Armstrong was elected as the first woman MLA for Monfwi in a 2021 by-election, the Northwest Territories became the first jurisdiction in Canada where women constituted a majority in an elected assembly.
Weyallon Armstrong told reporters that when deciding to run, “gender never came into my mind.” She said. “I went in there with good intentions, with a good heart.… I want to do good work for my people.”2
Weyallon Armstrong did hear about the nature of her historic candidacy when campaigning, however. “A lot of people said … that we need a woman there. A woman’s view is very important.”
1 Julie Green. “Women Achieve Parity in NWT Legislative Assembly Without Guaranteed Seats.” Canadian Parliamentary Review 42:4, 2019. URL: http://www.revparlcan.ca/en/women-achieve-parity-in-nwt-legislative-assembly-without-guaranteed-seats/
2 Sara Minogue. “‘Gender Never Came Into My Mind,’ Says Woman Who Brought N.W.T. Legislature to Canada’s 1st Female Majority.” CBC News, July 29, 2021. URL: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/nwt-mla-female-majority-reaction-1.6121722