Female Representation in Canada’s Parliament:
the Rural-Urban Divide from 2006 to 2015
By Miranda Sculthorp, WICI research assistant
Despite significant gains in equality for women over the last century, women are still underrepresented in elected governments around the world. In Canada, this is no different. The last federal election of 2015 saw a record number of women elected, but these 88 female Members of Parliament (MPs) are equivalent to only 26 percent of the total number of seats (CBC News, 2015). Women make up half of Canada’s population, and without this gender balance reflected in the elected-body, women face obstacles to participating in the democratic process. Women’s underrepresentation in government withholds their ability and power to influence Canada’s policies and governance.
Throughout the 1990s, Canada’s female representation in Parliament remained relatively stagnant at around 20 percent female MPs (Carbert, 2010). However, the last three federal elections (2008, 2011, 2015) did see a small uptick in the proportion of women elected to Parliament, increasing from 22 percent in 2008 to 26 percent in 2015. Following the Liberal Party’s win in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made headlines by appointing an equal number of men and women to Cabinet (The Globe and Mail, 2015). For the first time, Canada has a 50-50 gender split in Cabinet; however there is still progress to be made. In particular, Canada fairs poorly in female representation in comparison to other countries. For instance, despite being a socially progressive country, the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks Canada 47th in the world on their List of Women in National Parliaments (Equal Voice).
Unequal representation of women in Canadian politics is spatially correlated to differences in rural and urban settings. Specifically, some have said that a “metropolitan district is at least twice as likely as a rural district to elect a woman” (Carbert, 2010). Moreover, this rural-urban divide is observed across the country, regardless of political affiliation (Carbert, 2010). This pattern may be related to women’s ability to access education, services, community groups, employment and other opportunities in their district. For instance, in an urban area it may be easier for women to gain an education, employment etc., which can help women to develop the socio-economic characteristics they need to run for a federal election. The opposite may be said for a rural area.
My research project, completed in the spring of 2017, aimed to observe the rural-urban divide in women’s election to Canada’s Parliament over the last four federal elections to evaluate if this spatial pattern is still present, and how it has evolved over the last decade. Following, this research evaluated these gendered spatial patterns at a regional level and asks: What are the factors contributing to these findings?
Data was collected for the four previous federal elections of 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2015 from Parliament of Canada and Elections Canada. Census Metropolitan Areas (CMA) shapefiles were sourced from Statistics Canada for the census years of 2006, 2011, 2016.
Mapping the election results by gender shows the rural-urban divide, in which the CMA Boundaries can be used to identify which areas are rural (outside of the CMA boundary) or urban (within the CMA boundary). Note that while these maps are useful for a general visualization of the pattern, they are not entirely representative of women’s representation in Parliament. This is because some electoral districts are very large areas that occupy a lot of visual space on the map, but these large districts only represent one Member of Parliament.
Despite this caveat, there are some patterns that can be seen across time. In 2006, there are a few rural women-held districts scattered throughout the country. In 2008, more rural-women districts appear across the country. In 2011, again more rural-women districts appear particularly in the Atlantic provinces, Ontario and Quebec. By 2015, there are even more rural-women districts in the Atlantic and across Ontario, and the Prairies.
While it appears that the rural-urban divide has been lessening, the observed changes are likely related to the success of two women-friendly parties: the NDP and the Liberal Party over the last two elections. To take one example, Atlantic Canada has traditionally the poorest rates of women representation in Parliament across the country. In 2006, there are very few women who were elected. In 2008 there are more women-held districts, and even more in 2011. By in 2015 many women were elected across the entire region. Intersecting the 2015 election results with party affiliations, most of the successful districts were won by women of the Liberal Party. While this is a positive finding, this does not equate to significant changes in women’s representation. During this election, it is likely that Justin Trudeau’s leadership attracted more female candidates and these candidates were successful in part because of the Liberal Party’s success.
In conclusion, the rural-urban divide is still present in women’s representation in Parliament. Beginning in 2008, there have been more women elected in less-urban areas in regions across the country, but due to party effects, these results do not equate to meaningful gains for women. It is clear that there is still work to do to improve women’s representation in parliament, to give all women —regardless of where they are from— a voice in Canada’s democracy.
CBC News. (2015). “50% population, 25% representation. Why the parliamentary gender gap?” Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/women-politics/
Carbert, L.(2010). “Viewing Women’s Political Leadership Through a Rural Electoral Lens” K. O’Connor, ed.Gender and women’s leadership: A reference handbook.
Elections Canada. Official Voting Results (raw data). Summary Tables. Retrieved from:
Elections Canada. Canada’s Federal Electoral Districts. Population counts. Retrieved from: http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=cir/list&document=index338&lang=e#list
Equal Voice. N.d. “Fundamental Facts” Retrieved from: https://www.equalvoice.ca/facts.cfm
The Globe and Mail.(2015). “The Trudeau Cabinet” Retrieved from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/the-trudeau-cabinet-read-the-full-list-ofministers/article27095965/
Parliament of Canada. Members of the House of Commons (search tool).
Statistics Canada. Boundary Files. Retrieved from: https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2011/geo/bound-limit/bound-limit-eng.cfm