Cover Story

Run Sheila Run  by Kaj Hasselriis
Run Sheila Run

Twenty years ago, then Fisheries Minister John Crosbie called her "baby " and set off a storm of protest over sexism in politics. Sheila Copps went on to become the first female deputy prime minister.

Today Copps, a feminist and a fierce defender of Canadian culture, is vying for Jean Chretien's job. There won 't be a hockey game at Toronto's Air Canada Centre on November 15, but that doesn't mean there won't be noise. In fact, it will probably be noisier than ever.

For one Saturday night, thousands of Maple Leafs fans will be replaced by thousands of Liberals, at the party's long-awaited leadership convention. Instead of blue jerseys, there will be a sea of red shirts and hats. But the event will have at least one thing in common with a hockey game: most people in the crowd will be men.

The Liberal Party's constitution guarantees an equal number of male and female delegates, but that rule applies only for delegates chosen at selection meetings in September. There are almost 1,000 other delegates attending the convention -so-called ex-officio delegates like members of parliament, senators, past candidates, presidents of riding associations and top executive members -and the vast majority are men.

"Sure it 's weighted, there's no question," says Winnipeg-area MP Anita Neville, who chairs the Liberal women's caucus on Parliament Hill. In the Liberal Party, she adds, "most of the decisions are made by men."

In the Liberal Party executive, the leader, deputy leader, president and past president are men. The English vice-president, French vice-president and all six regional vice-presidents are men. And men preside over the provincial and territorial wings. Only one out of 13 wings -Manitoba's -is headed by a woman, Bobbi Ethier.

Women are much better represented in the party's parliamentary caucus. The Liberals hold 171 out of 301 seats in the House of Commons and 23 percent of those seats (39 in all) are held by women. There are ten women in the federal cabinet -or 27 percent. At the November convention, Sheila Copps will face just one challenger, former finance minister Paul Martin -all of the other hopefuls, including John Manley, Brian Tobin and Allan Rock, decided they couldn't stand the heat. None believed they could beat Martin. But Copps has stuck it out, determined to make sure her centre-left ideals are fully debated within a liberal party that is unquestionably moving further to the right.

Her platform outlined in her Red Book is designed to do just that. The issue of women's equality, she says, "is not a problem unique to the Liberal Party. It's systemic to the whole country, and you have to turn it around." To that end, she is proposing faster action on pay equity, a national child care plan, a national strategy for affordable housing, more immigrants, and more prominent roles in the public service for women and visible minorities.

"Wonderful opportunities will only be maximized when everyone is at the table," she says. Copps knows of what she speaks. At many times during her political career, she has been the lone woman at the table. In 1981,she was elected to Ontario's provincial legislature and became the only woman in the Liberal caucus.

The next year, at 29, she ran for the provincial party 's leadership and finished second. In 1984,she won a seat in the House of Commons and soon became the first MP to give birth while in office. In 1990, she ran for the federal Liberal Party leadership -the first woman ever to do so -and came third. Then, in 1993, when the Liberals took power, she became Canada's first woman deputy prime minister.

From 1993 to 1996, she served as environment minister, then switched to her current post of Canadian Heritage. In keeping with her frequent speeches about the "politics of inclusion and empowerment," Copps has helped ensure that women's voices are more prominent in Canadian culture, boasting that at least half of the people she's appointed to boards and other posts have been women. She's also outspoken about the need for change in her own party.

As a result, she insists that, within two elections, at least half of the Liberal Party's candidates will be women. You would think that an agenda to advance women within the party would have the support of Catherine Callbeck, who was elected Canada's first female premier in 1993 when she took over the top job in Prince Edward Island. But you'd be wrong.

"I don't think it 's realistic," says Callbeck, now a senator. "If you 're going to do it, you have to have a game plan." For Copps, her game plan is her goal: 50 percent. She points out that she was the Liberal who insisted on the 25 percent target in the 1993 election (after backing down from 33 percent).She says the party achieved that goal, so it can achieve 50 percent. "You must have a sales target," she says. "At least then you have something to shoot for."

According to Senator Sharon Carstairs, "She 's been very clever to say 'two elections from now.'" Carstairs, who became Canada's first woman opposition leader in 1988 when she led the Manitoba Liberal Party, adds, "But even that will be hard, because of male incumbents hang-ing on. Many have been there since (the federal elections of) 1988 or 1993, and they can 't hold on forever." In other words, the 50 percent goal could be unachievable because of the Liberals' whopping success in Ontario: most of the province's MPs are men who don't show any signs of retirement.

"The new leader won't necessarily want to talk about tossing those incumbents out," says Carstairs, government leader in the Senate, a job that puts her in the federal cabinet. Mobina Jaffer, president of the National Women's Liberal Commission, believes Copps' 50 percent goal is commendable, but questionable. Jaffer predicts that would translate into running women in unwinnable ridings.

"The party has done this forever, and I don't believe in asking women to run in ridings they can't win," she says. Jaffer adds that the new leader would have to appoint some women candidates in order to achieve Copps' goal.

"That leads to great discontent, so it's not an easy thing." Achieving parity in politics is no easy thing, however most Liberals agree that the situation will be better for women candidates in the next election because of the new campaign financing bill passed earlier this year.

That bill severely curtails corporate donations, which have always been seen as a hindrance to women, who don't enjoy the same business connections as men. As well, the new law finally puts major spending limits on costly nomination campaigns. Right from the start, Copps was an enthusiastic supporter of the bill and raised eyebrows when she confirmed that corporate donations do influence government decisions. She is highly critical of MPs who didn't vote for it, especially Paul Martin.

"He says he wants an equalized system, but he's reluctant to go ahead with a corporate ban," she says. Despite the new campaign finances bill, Copps still believes Liberal women face at least one more obstacle when it comes to achieving equality in the party: the heavily male-dominated executive.

She believes that the current executive is "very happy with the status quo "and describes party president Stephen LeDrew as an "old boy par excellence." The party has a group that 's supposed to even the gender balance, the National Women's Liberal Commission, but many women feel it simply marginalizes them. Established in 1981, the commission's primary goal was to achieve gender equality by 2000. Listening to Copps, it's not hard to figure out why the group hasn't succeeded.

"They don't raise a lot of money, they don 't recruit a lot of new members and they don 't make waves," she says. The commission may be a free pass for women to attend Liberal executive meetings, but Copps derides the group as "institutionalized tea pourers." She says that if elected leader she wouldn't abolish it, but she wouldn't encourage its growth, either.

Perhaps it's not surprising that Copps has such a negative view of the group. She's more used to tea throwing than tea pouring. During the Brian Mulroney years, she was a member of the Liberal Rat Pack and loudly condemned the Conservative government at every turn. Once, she jumped over chairs at a press conference to demand a minister's resignation. She famously denounced then fisheries minister John Crosbie in the House for calling her "baby." Then she topped it off by posing for Saturday Night magazine wearing a leather jacket and riding a Harley.

While Copps criticizes the commission, she may have underestimated its influence. And that under-estimation speaks volumes about why she is running second. The commission's constitution allows for the creation of women 's clubs in any federal riding across Canada and over the past two years, Paul Martin's team has been quietly setting up as many as possible.

It takes 25 women to form a club and each club is allowed to send one delegate to the November convention. Last year, there were 17 clubs in Ontario, now there are 97. Across the country, Jaffer estimates there are now 250 clubs, most of them established in the last few months. Brenda Kurczak, past president of the Liberal Party of Canada in Ontario, confirms that most of the clubs are clubs of convenience for Martin, so that he can beef up his slate of delegates.

"The skeptical side of me says that two years from now, all of these clubs will be disbanded or dysfunctional," she says. Copps organizers established about 50 of the new clubs, but only after Martin got the ball rolling. Sarmite Bulte, a Toronto-area MP, says Martin's organizational skills are awe-inspiring.

"He was very strategic," she says. "By the time the others started, it was too late." In her riding, for example, the Martin-organized women 's club is so clandestine, she says she doesn't know who its members are. And that 's one of the main reasons Paul Martin is expected to win.

"It 's about organization," explains Carstairs. Martin has been oiling his political machine for years, ever since he placed second to Jean Chretien in the last leadership race in 1990.Copps may have entered this year 's race too late to catch up. Ironically, says Beth Phinney, a Hamilton MP and Copps supporter, Copps' loyalty to the party may have actually hurt her own ambitions. For years, Chretien forbade his ministers from campaigning to replace him.

Copps listened, but Martin didn't. "She was doing her job," says Phinney. Phinney and Bulte are the two most prominent female MPs on Copps' endorsement list. They both say her centre-left leanings and her outspokenness on women's issues are what attracted them. "Sheila is the only candidate who's brought up the word 'women,'" says Phinney. "She stands up for traditional liberal policies and values: a party that encourages people who have, to give more -and to help the people who don't have."

"The party has gone more to the right than I would like to see it," says Bulte. She believes Copps is the only candidate who can bring the party back to its pre-free-trade, pre-deficit-slashing roots. Copps is still fighting the rebel image she earned in the 1980's, even though she has moved on.

Many still sees her as a Rat Packer and Bulte feels there's an element of sexism in that, since no one talks about the 80's antics of the other three caucus members that formed the group: Brian Tobin, Don Boudria and John Nunziata.

"They 've been allowed to grow and age and no one goes back to their Rat Pack days." Her supporters note that the best way for Copps to counter her old image is by meeting Liberal members one-on-one. "When she can meet people, she can sway them," Phinney says. "I travel around the country so people can see me as I really am," Copps explains.

During last spring's leadership debates, when Finance Minister John Manley was still in the race, she let Manley do most of the Martin-bashing, while she struck a serious, prime ministerial pose. Nonetheless, Martin has already convinced most of the party's key women that he's best posed to lead the party.

Anita Neville, the chair of the Liberal women's caucus on Parliament Hill, believes that "he's got a good grasp of world economics and world politics and I feel he's committed to a social agenda." Senate leader Sharon Carstairs was originally backing Manley, but now supports Copps, partly because of her view that Martin isn't a very woman-friendly candidate.

In her memoirs, Not One of the Boys, she recounts the first time she met him, at a BC Women's Liberal Commission gathering in 1986: "He told his audience that when women enter politics they have to learn to think like a man. I challenged that view from the floor. I said that if women in politics had to think like men, then there was absolutely no point in our participating."

"I go back a long way with Paul," she says. "Maybe other women see an evolution that I don 't see." Neville says she has confidence in Martin 's commitment towards women 's issues and influence. "I didn't know the old Paul Martin," she says, "but I know the Paul Martin of today and he's respectful and he listens."

At a recent party gathering, Copps was approached by an elderly woman who whispered into her ear, "I'd love to see you as prime minister, but is Canada ready for a woman?" She says the woman was whispering because she knew that her remark was a challenge to the old boys' grip on the party.

Copps says that some of her closest friends are jumping on the Martin bandwagon, because they want to be with the winner. That, she says, has only caused her skin to become even thicker.

"You have to have guts in this business and I have guts," she says. Still, she must be frustrated that there aren't more Liberals with the same point of view as Beth Phinney: "Sheila doesn't want power for power 's sake. She's running to help people who need help." This November, Copps will once again face a Liberal leadership convention and try to convince delegates that she is the best candidate to lead their party. If she is unsuccessful, as most expect she will be, a decent showing will at least guarantee her a spot in a Paul Martin government.

It will also guarantee that Copps can continue to voice her strong opinions in the next cabinet, and strive to be a stronger leadership contender the next time around.

Kaj Hasselriis has a women's studies degree from the University of Manitoba and a journalism degree from Ryerson. He is a frequent contributor to CBC Radio and aspires to become the first male Lesbian Ranger. (See the Fall 2003 print version of Herizons to read about performance artists Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan and the Lesbian Ranger phenomenon).