Two St. Albert-area women made history last week as they and 336 others took their seats in the House of Commons as part of International Women's Day.
St. Albert's Ranya El-Sharkawi and Sturgeon County's Habba Mahal sat as the Honourable Members from St. Albert-Edmonton and Sturgeon River-Parkland, respectively, in the House last week as part of the Daughters of the Vote conference.
The weeklong event brought 338 young women, one from each federal riding, to Ottawa to mark the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote in Canada and to encourage more women to get into politics.
In addition to attending policy forums and hearing speeches from the five federal party leaders plus former prime minister Kim Campbell, delegates got to sit in their MP's seat in the House on March 8 and communicate their vision for the nation.
It was the first time in Canadian history that women occupied each seat in the House.
It was a surreal experience, El-Sharkawi and Mahal said.
"Actually sitting down in the House was very awe-inspiring," Mahal said, as you normally don't get to do so without being elected. (She also happened to be seated in the chair of MP Rona Ambrose, leader of the official opposition.)
"It was very neat to be with so many other powerful women."
It was empowering and uplifting to march with the other delegates to the House prior to the event, El-Sharkawi said. Yet she also knew that there were many more women who were not represented in the House that day.
"It was almost like taking your seat for the women who weren't there."
About 30 delegates got to rise in the House and speak on various social justice issues, including mental illness, climate change, sexual assault and immigration, El-Sharkawi said. The unifying theme was that all of these issues disproportionally affected women.
The speeches really shed a lot of light on the different issues, Mahal said.
"There were very few dry eyes in the House."
Samantha MacKenzie, representing Sault Ste. Marie, called on the government to immediately bridge the funding gap between on- and off-reserve schools, noting that on-reserve schools received about 30 per cent less funding per student.
"Underfunding indigenous education is racial discrimination and it is not acceptable in this country!" she said, to cheers from the other delegates.
Fighting back tears, Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan representative Srosh Hassan gave an electrifying speech on Islamophobia.
"As a Muslim woman of colour in a time of overwhelming stigma, I fear being othered, profiled and killed in a country I call my own," she said.
All Canadians have a responsibility to challenge this growing culture of ignorance and to not justify xenophobia under the guise of free speech, she continued.
"This," and here she gestured to the remarkably diverse audience seated around her, "is my Canada, and there is no seat for hate here!"
More work to do
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, addressing the delegates, noted that despite making up about half of Canada's population, women occupied just 25 per cent of the seats in the House.
"It doesn't add up, and it needs to change."
Mahal and El-Sharkawi said women bring diverse ideas and experiences to the table that can help governments create better policy. They called on Canadians to encourage more women to run for office.
"We often hear that political change will happen when the time is right," El-Sharkawi said, but change won't happen without action.
"It is not just going to happen on New Year's Day. It's going to happen when people are politically engaged."
parlvu.parl.gc.ca has footage of the Daughters of the Vote session in the House.