The Canadian Woman Shaking Up Politics

Photo: Courtesy Liz Riley.
Liz Riley, a candidate for Canadian parliament, and Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
Update: Riley fell short in her bid to win a seat in parliament, but her party triumphed in Monday's elections. This piece, originally published on October 16, 2015, has been updated to include a statement from Riley on the results.

We Americans share a lot with our northern neighbors. We all care about our furry friends, daydream about Ryans (both Gosling and Reynolds), and have complicated feelings about Drake. We also don’t have enough women in politics.

Women make up a little more than half of the populations of Canada and the U.S., but the World Economic Forum reports that both countries have shamefully low numbers of women in politics. Canada ranked a dismal 42nd in the world, and the U.S. is 54th — well below nations including Iceland, Finland, Nicaragua, and Rwanda.

Liz Riley, who is running for federal office in Canada, wants to change that. Riley went from being a physiotherapist to a CEO, overseeing three different hospitals across Canada and caring for her son alone after her husband passed away suddenly in 2001. Now, she is running to represent her riding — or district — in Canada's parliament.

With Canadians getting ready to head to the polls on Monday, Refinery29 caught up with Riley on the campaign trail to discuss the importance of getting women into leadership roles, how Canada must help refugees, and her vision for her country.

You decided to run for office after retiring from a career in health care. What prompted you to enter politics?
"I was retired for about six months, and had a wonderful time doing those things that you imagine you’ll do when you retire — traveling, going to matinees, snowshoeing — but I decided to try and change things up in Ottawa, because I felt that we deserve a better government. I had many conversations with people who told me that they were looking for a strong Liberal candidate in my district to take on the Conservative incumbent, Bruce Stanton.

"I’m very proud of Canada and what we’ve contributed to the arts, sciences, technology, medicine, and sports, but lately I’ve been less proud. I’m concerned that our current government tends to divide us instead of unite us, pitting one segment of the population against the other.

"I’m ashamed that the United Nations had to rap Canada on the knuckles for how we’ve treated our indigenous people. I’m ashamed of our international reputation on the environmental front. We used to be seen as leaders, and now we’re the only country to have reneged on the Kyoto accords. I’m concerned about the way our parliament and democratic institutions have been disregarded. Our current government is suing our supreme court on a regular basis. It doesn’t add up."
Photo: Courtesy of Liz Riley.
Liz Riley with her mother and brother in 1960.
What in your personal and professional history has prepared you for politics?
"On the personal front, I had a very strong woman as a model. I was born and raised on a fifth-generation family farm in Muskoka, Ontario. My father was a World War II pilot, and my mother was a war bride. Coming from England and not knowing anything about Canada — let alone Canadian winters — my mother had to relearn everything.

"She supported my father in his decision to go back to school and get his agricultural degree when they already had four children. Seeing the effort it took for my dad to complete his degree with four kids running around...made me truly value hard work. Diligence, commitment, and the importance of education were all deeply ingrained in us. Your background and family roots are all a part of what forms you as a person. Having strong family values has been so important to me.

"In terms of my professional skill set, I realized this was my calling when I started to talk to people about what they look for in a political representative: integrity, gravitas, experience, the ability to build consensus, and the ability to listen to diverse opinions. Diversity is something I’m very proud of Canada for, and diversity makes for stronger decisions."

You are a mother and grandmother. How have those roles contributed to your desire to get involved in government?
"My roles as a mother and grandmother have been very important in giving me perspective. I want to see the country in good shape for future generations, because my children and grandchildren are going to be part of that future. I want the country to be as environmentally healthy and economically strong as possible.

"I’m very grateful to have the support of my family. A campaign like this involves everybody: my sons, my brothers and sisters, and my mother — God bless her — at 96. Having them close to me has been absolutely critical."

The bottom line improves when we have women on boards of directors and in senior leadership positions across the country.

liz riley, candidate for Canadian parliament
Why do you think it’s important for women to get involved in leadership roles?
"We have a very significant gender gap in our country’s government, but also among men and women in other leadership positions. The Liberal Party of Canada has pledged to have equal numbers of women and men in the cabinet. We’re coming close. In Ontario, 42% of Liberal candidates are women.

"It’s essential to get women in leadership positions. First of all, it’s important for getting our voices heard. Second, from a very pragmatic perspective, it’s better for economic productivity. Studies have shown that better decisions are made when you have diversity and a gender balance. The bottom line improves when we have women on boards of directors and in senior leadership positions across the country.”

What issues do you think are especially relevant to women in this election?
"One issue that is an important part of my platform is that of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. It has very deep roots, but our Conservative government doesn’t acknowledge it as an issue. The current government thinks that every case of disappearance and murder should be treated as an issue of law and order, investigated and resolved as such. As a woman, I agree with the majority of First Nations people who believe that there has to be an inquiry into why this keeps happening. What are the root causes? We have to find out what they are and then take action.”
Photo: Courtesy of Terry MacPherson.
Liz Riley greets voters on the campaign trail.
The disappearances and deaths of nearly 1,200 indigenous women truly is an ongoing national tragedy. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that the issue has been “studied to death” and that “we haven’t really seen anything that says there are actually knowledge gaps there." What specific action would you take to address this issue?
"A public inquiry would allow the voices of indigenous women to be heard, and they have to be part of the discussion. These women feel that studies to date have not acknowledged their points of view or experiences. We need something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [in South Africa], which has been an excellent forum for people to voice their perspectives and begin their own healing, as well as make wonderful recommendations as to what needs to be done. The solutions will take many years to implement, but they are concrete and very doable in most cases."

Conservatives have cut funding to many women’s organizations and service providers (including rape crisis centers). What would the Liberal Party do to restore support for women’s issues and services?
"The fact that so many essential services have been cut to achieve the Conservative government’s ‘balanced’ budget is the reason that the Liberals are saying it’s not sustainable. A Liberal government would allow the country to go into a deficit for two to three years while we restore a lot of the essential programs that were eliminated, and rebuild Canada’s social infrastructure.

"For example, we will develop and implement a comprehensive national strategy for dealing with gender violence. We will increase investments in growing Canada’s network of shelters and transition houses for those fleeing intimate-partner violence."

I’m ashamed that the United Nations had to rap Canada on the knuckles for how we’ve treated our indigenous people.

Liz Riley, candidate for Canadian parliament
On the foreign-policy side, what should we be doing in response to the global refugee crisis?
"Canada has to do more. We have to expedite the whole process, which is part of the tragedy. In my riding [district] of Simcoe North, there are many community and church groups that are willing to sponsor families, and yet have been told that it would take 18 months to get through the whole process. That’s just unacceptable when every day we see people suffering.

"We need to keep contributing humanitarian aid, and we need to step up the process of bringing in eligible families. Of course, we should not in any way diminish the security checks — those have to happen, but they also don’t need to be exaggerated... People definitely should be screened, but we must not use that as a reason not to help refugees. The Liberals have committed to taking 25,000 refugees."

A Pakistani immigrant recently won the right to take her citizenship oath wearing the niqab, a traditional veil that covers the entire face.
This happened shortly after Stephen Harper claimed the niqab was “rooted in a culture that is anti-women” and said he would consider banning all public servants from wearing it. Where do you stand on this issue?
"Clearly, it is a woman’s right to wear what she wants in our country. These women are not being forced, and Zunera Ishaq made it very clear that neither her father nor her husband forced her to wear the niqab — even the Quran does not require it. It is a person’s own choice. Why should we be telling this particular woman — or any other woman who wants to cover her face for religious reasons — that she can’t do that? It makes no sense to me whatsoever. To deny her citizenship on the pretense of protecting women’s rights is a complete farce.
"To me, the niqab is not something that worries me whatsoever. This is a completely fabricated issue for the purposes of evoking certain emotions and fears in people. This is the true definition of a wedge issue: to distract us from real concerns of the economy, the environment, and First Nations issues. Just imagine: They’re willing to spend all that money on a court case over a wedge issue, and not willing to spend money on an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. This is not about women’s rights at all."

The voter turnout for the last federal election was an abysmal 58.5%
. Why do you think there is such widespread apathy among voters, and what can be done about it?
"I have had many conversations with young people who have never voted and older people who have never voted. Typical answers are: ‘It doesn't change anything; they all promise the moon and do nothing; I haven't been following and don't know who to vote for; I have never voted and won't start now.’ It seems to me that they do not see how voting is relevant to their daily lives.

"What encourages me, especially with young people, is that after a five-minute discussion explaining how the government impacts all of our lives and especially their futures, they often get interested and promise to vote. The personal conversation is very powerful. As you knock on people’s doors and have conversations, you learn what’s important to them. We say that the eyes are windows into the soul, but the doorstep is a window into somebody’s way of living.

"We often talk to the people who are closest to us — our colleagues, our family, our friends — but we don’t always get a chance to talk to total strangers who are in different spheres than we are. It’s such a privilege."

A campaign like this involves everybody: my sons, my brothers and sisters, and my mother — God bless her — at 96. Having them close to me has been absolutely critical.

liz riley, candidate for canadian parliament
What advice do you have for women who aspire to become leaders?
"My advice to young women is to know yourself, believe in yourself, and take calculated risks based on your skills, abilities, and interests. ‘Know yourself’ equates to having emotional intelligence. Knowing how we impact others, and having insight into how others perceive us, helps us choose a path that leads to success.

"We must take calculated risks to get ahead, go where others fear to tread, be confident, be brave, but never arrogant. Stay humble and grounded. Always remember to look after yourself. You are no good to your loved ones, your employer, or yourself if you burn out. Be resilient by knowing what it takes to keep balance in your life and bounce back from inevitable setbacks."

Update: Liberals won a majority in parliament in Monday's election, handing a victory to Justin Trudeau in his bid to replace Conservative Stephen Harper as the country's prime minister. Despite the party's success, Riley lost her campaign to Bruce Stanton of the Conservative Party of Canada, according to local reports. Riley released the following statement on her Facebook page on Monday morning:

We didn't quite make it over the top in Simcoe North, but we ran an effective and positive campaign, and Justin Trudeau...

Posted by Liz Riley Liberal Candidate Simcoe North on Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ed. note: The author has volunteered as a graphic designer for Liz Riley's campaign. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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