Justin Trudeau promised in June that half his cabinet would be female if he was elected Canada’s prime minister. On Wednesday he got the job, and announced the women appointments – unconcerned about the bruised egos of a few experienced men who didn’t get the nod.
Asked at a press conference why he had chosen to appoint 15 men and 15 women to the cabinet, his answer was brief: “Because it’s 2015”, he said to cheers and applause.
Trudeau’s appointments included Jody Wilson-Raybould, an aboriginal lawyer from British Columbia, as minister of justice and attorney general; Chrystia Freeland, a former journalist, as trade minister; Jane Philpott, a first-time member of parliament and family doctor, at health.
“It’s a message to Canadian women – and young women in particular – that this world is about you,” said Jean Charest, the former premier of Quebec who put women in half his provincial ministries in 2007. “You have to move beyond the old boys network.”
Mr Trudeau’s “parity cabinet” is a first in a country where women started voting in 1916, four years before similar rights in the United States. It ends a centuries-old habit by leaders of large English-speaking countries, including Britain and the US, to name men to a large majority of government posts. France, Italy and the Nordic countries already have had parity cabinets.
Canada has been slower than others to elect women, ranking No. 50 last year in women’s government representation on the International Parliamentary Union’s list of 190 countries, down from 17th in 1997.
For Trudeau, 43, a self-declared feminist who won a majority government last month in part by saying he’d bring new voices to Ottawa, selecting a 50-50 cabinet wasn’t so simple. He chose from among 134 men and 50 women Liberals MPs, and some long-standing male legislators were left out, including retired Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair. The new gender division comes on top of existing cabinet-making criteria for regional, linguistic and ethnic representation, including the practice of selecting at least one minister from each of the country’s 10 provinces.
The other women in the cabinet include Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, an Ottawa human-rights lawyer; Carla Qualtrough, a para-Olympic swimmer from Vancouver in the sports ministry; and Maryam Monsef, a native of Afghanistan, as minister of democratic institutions.
In some areas – Alberta, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, the North – the Liberals elected only men. In others, like Manitoba, just one woman, MaryAnn Mihychuk, won a Liberal seat and she was named minister of employment, workforce development and labour.
Mr Trudeau’s cabinet is also smaller than that of ousted Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, who finished nearly a decade in charge with 39 ministers, 12 of them women.
“It’s a challenge, no doubt,” said Mr Charest, a former national leader of the Progressive Conservative party who took over the Quebec Liberals in the late 1990s and led the province from 2003 to 2012. “There are lot of people who legitimately feel they could sit around that table and they won’t be there.”
Deliberate action to promote women in power was critical to ”hurry history” and equalise female political participation, said Laura Liswood, who co-founded the Council of Women World Leaders, a network of female presidents and prime ministers, and is an adviser to Goldman Sachs on global leadership and diversity.
Mr Trudeau’s action sets a benchmark for his English-speaking Group of Seven colleagues. President Barack Obama’s 16-member cabinet is currently 25 per cent female; David Cameron’s British Cabinet is 33 per cent female.
“We’ll see what happens,” Ms Liswood said. “Number one that the sky doesn’t fall.”
What’s likely is that budget and policy priorities will further align with issues more associated with women, including family care and health, said Kelly Dittmar, who teaches political science at Rutgers University and studies gender in politics. “We know there’s a substantive impact of having women there – what issues get to the table and how they are talked about,” she said. “These conversations are often different because women’s experiences are different in day-to-day life.”
Female ministers also tend to support other women moving into political positions, said Susan Franceschet, a University of Calgary professor who researches gender quotas and parity cabinets. “They often find little ways to bring a gender sensibility into their departments,” she said.
Rachel Notley, who was elected premier of Alberta in May, has spoken often about her gender-balanced cabinet, which rose to 54 per cent female after a recent shuffle.
Mr Charest formed Quebec’s first parity Cabinet after a decade working to convince more women to run for office, he said. Once it happened, governing shifted. Women ministers tended to be more prepared and loyal, he said, although sometimes to their disadvantage. “They needed to manage their propensity to be perfectionists.”
The former premier cautioned that “if they have no parliamentary experience, it’s not always a service to them to put [women] in cabinet too quickly.”
Mr Trudeau, whose father, Pierre, led Canada for 15 years and whose mother, Margaret, had three sons as the prime minister’s wife, campaigned as a champion of women’s equality.
“I am a feminist and proud to be one,” he said in French at a women’s issues forum during the campaign. “My mother raised me like that. My father, though from another generation, taught me to respect and defend the rights of all.”
In his autobiography he goes further, suggesting his birth on Christmas Day in 1971 was something of a groundbreaking moment for Canadian feminism. The Ottawa Civic Hospital planned to bar Pierre from the delivery room, he wrote, the convention for fathers at the time. Margaret, furious, threatened to have the child at home, prompting the hospital to change its rules and let her husband witness the arrival, the book says. “I like to think that, along with my father, I helped my mother strike a blow against old-school patriarchal thinking,” he wrote.
Mr Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, a broadcast journalist and yoga instructor who works for women’s causes, have two sons and a daughter under age nine.
The parity cabinet was Mr Trudeau’s decision alone, and took some of his advisers by surprise, said Carolyn Bennett, an MP from Toronto since 1997. “Justin believes this is really important,” she said. Women, who make up half the population, need “their voice at the table where decisions get taken”.
“It’s not ‘father knows best’,” said Ms Bennett, who was named minister of indigenous and northern affairs . “It’s ‘get out there and listen’ to people with lived experience. That’s the only way we’re going to get good public policy.”