Office of Councillor Jeff Leiper, Kitchissippi Ward, Ottawa | (613) 580-2485  |
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Supporting a women's bureau at City Hall

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Recently, I was taken to task online for supporting a building that has little parking on the grounds that some people need cars. The commenter wrote of my vote that it was “clearly a male ableist view that you are imposing. Women, immigrants & families need cars for more reasons than you can justify for your own life and purposes.”

My response was that the increasing amount of traffic in our ward (and across the city) likely has disproportionate impacts for women, immigrants and families. Diminishing safety for cyclists and pedestrians is just one example that likely affects these groups more than others. The gendered effects of climate change are another.

I concluded our tweet exchange by noting that inclusive policy-making is rarely tidy. It turns out, it was a timely discussion.

The conversation is very much on my mind as we consider a motion brought by Councillors Deans and McKenney to establish both a Council liaison for women, and a woman’s bureau at City Hall.

At our next Council meeting, I’ll be supporting their motion, the “action” part of which reads,

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT Ottawa City Council recommend that the Mayor and City Staff look at including the role of a Council Representative Special Liaison for Women’s Issues and a Women’s Bureau to provide a gender lens on our policies and practices in the 2019 Governance report.

There’s been some strange discussion in the past few days as various interpretations have been made by politicians and the media of what’s under consideration. To be clear, the motion doesn’t suggest hiring quotas or efforts to elect more women.

Rather, it suggests that we need to pay special attention to how women’s issues are considered in policy-making, and to ensure that there is a member of Council who will take on the role of ensuring that consideration always takes place.

Some of this discussion was likely sparked by news that Sweden has recently adopted a gender lens on snow clearing with one outcome being a re-prioritization of operations to favour pedestrians over cars. The federal government’s recent budget adopted an explicit gender lens and I was watching the effort by some Toronto city councillors to do the same there.

It’s no news to any Council-watcher that just 4 out of 23 city councillors are women. That’s not good. In every sphere of the City’s activities, our decisions have profound implications for women that we are likely missing. (There are more questions around residents who may be racialized or LGBTQ or gender non-binary, for example, that I can't delve into tonight.)

I should note, first, a little about how this Council works in practical terms. The heavy lifting of debate and discussion tends to happen at Committee. We can have raucous debates at the Committee level over the course of long days, informed by public delegations who come to speak to us. Where staff recommendations are amended or even overturned, it’s likely that will happen at Committee. By the time a recommendation from Committee to Council moves forward, it will almost always pass. We do have long and exhaustive debates on Council when citywide issues of importance are highly contentious, but rarely re-hash the work done by Committees on most issues.

Given the importance of Committee work, the paucity of women on Council is even more keenly felt.

Of the three major Committees on which I sit, Transit (a Commission with four citizen members), Planning, and Environment, each has a sole female voting member. Consider for a moment what that means for issues that have implications that can at times be experienced very differently by men and women (and by those who don’t identify as either). Transit, for instance, is likely experienced very differently by a mom or by a female student, and by women in general. How we plan our cities, the built form of it, has consequences for safety, transportation, parks and housing. Environmental sustainability has been well-shown to have gendered consequences.

On Community and Protective Services responsible for social services and community safety, there is only one woman (its chair, Deans). Only on Transportation (of the major committees) are there more than one female councillor (Deans and McKenney). On the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, there is none.

It is always open to any councillor to attend any committee meeting, and many do. Since it’s where the action is, I am a regular attendee to many of the other committees on which I don’t sit. But, Council’s work is divided among committees precisely since councillors can’t possibly be prepared to engage in in-depth debate on every single issue that comes forward. We need to trust that Committees will get it right when we’re not hearing directly from our own residents, and getting it right depends on a diversity of opinion and perspective around those tables.

Without gender parity around the Council table, it’s highly questionable that the different experience of our city that women have is being taken into account. The Deans/McKenney motion would ensure that on important issues, someone is asking and answering the question “what does this mean for women?”

I don’t believe that, for everyone’s good intentions, that question is being asked nearly enough. When that results in policy-making that doesn’t think through the implications for everyone, the consequences hurt everyone.

I don’t want to be unfair to my male colleagues. There are certainly ways in which women’s voices are heard and taken into account even if Council is lopsided. I’ve taken my responsibility to listen and learn seriously. I’ve championed the embedding of sexual assault training into our special events processes. I’ve advocated for the adoption of the Philadelphia model of sexual assault case review. When I’ve launched significant consultations on parks and the Rosemount library, I offered child care to attendees and held duplicate sessions to make those more inclusive. The effort to have the anti-abortion flag removed at City Hall was among the most intense few hours I’ve spent in that building. On issues of housing, planning, transportation, and social services, I've listened hard to the groups advocating on behalf of women.

And, we’re fortunate in Kitchissippi that our community associations, NGOs and other citizen groups are more often than not led by fierce, strong women. At the end of the day, though, for all the advocacy they do, only councillors can vote, and there are too few women on Council to ensure we’re never trapped by our blind spots. We have no assurances that the next election will redress that.

As a member of this Council, I want to be honest about its shortcomings, and to address those in a meaningful way. Supporting the Deans/McKenney vote is one easy step I can take to do that.

Posted March 9, 2018