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Rights + Justice
Federal Politics
Election 2021

In Northern BC, Women Candidates Are Challenging the Status Quo

From Indigenous rights to poverty and health care, these political hopefuls bring lived experience to tough issues.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 14 Sep 2021 |

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

Adeana Young sits on Government Wharf in Masset, B.C., eating takeout from one of the village’s exceptionally large selection of food trucks and gazing out over Masset Sound. Seagulls play in the silvery light cast on the inlet by overcast skies as Young talks about the upcoming federal election.

Young, whose Haida name is Kuun Jaadas, grew up several kilometres from here in Old Massett, a reserve at the northern tip of Haida Gwaii. She’s spent most of her life in this archipelago off the northwest coast, sitting on the local band council and as a school board trustee. Several years ago, she also landed a leading role in SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife), the first feature film entirely in the Haida language.

Young’s current role is Green party candidate for Skeena-Bulkley Valley. She is one of six women running in three federal ridings across northern B.C., a region that has yet to elect a woman or gender-diverse representative to Parliament.

While the women represent just one-third of the region’s total candidates — well below the national average — they embody a wealth of lived experience.

Young says she chose the Green party because it allows her to represent the diversity of her riding. “I hear how important certain things are to different individuals. I hear the stress and the concern that people have. I hear the excitement when things are working for people,” she says.

“Party lines will always interfere with individual interests, but a Green will always speak up for humanity. When we’re talking about humanity, we are talking about the livelihoods. We’re talking about social justice. We’re talking about ecological wisdom.”

According to polling website 338Canada, the ridings of Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies and Cariboo-Prince George, in the province’s Interior and northeast, are safe Conservative wins for incumbents Bob Zimmer and Todd Doherty.

In the northwest, Skeena-Bulkley Valley NDP MP Taylor Bachrach is also expected to regain his seat, which has been held by New Democrats since the riding was formed in the early 2000s.

But women and gender-diverse candidates appear to be making small gains this election, with Equal Voice, an organization advocating for parity of women in politics, reporting that it is — just barely — the most gender diverse election in history. Forty-three per cent of the five main party candidates are women or gender-diverse individuals, up slightly from 42 per cent in 2019.

Each party has increased the number of women candidates, though some by a slim margin. The NDP has the highest percentage of women running: 52 per cent (up from 49 per cent in the last election). Next is the Green party, which is running 44 per cent women candidates. In the Liberal party, 43 per cent of candidates are women, while in the Conservative party it’s 33 per cent.

The Greens' Young is one of three women running in Skeena-Bulkley Valley, representing half the riding’s candidates. She is also the only Indigenous person running in a riding that is one-third Indigenous. She says representing the tight-knit community of Haida Gwaii and a riding split over pipeline development makes it even more important to advocate for everyone.

“I commit to being the voice of the people,” she says. “Within our riding, that means I am the voice of the people who are working for oil and gas. I am the voice of the hereditary leaders. I am the voice of the employees of the logging industry. I am the voice of the land defenders who are saving old-growth forests. I am the voice of commercial fishermen.”

In a political climate where Indigenous women have spoken about the personal toll of working within the colonial system, Young says her four children are both her motivation to run and what keep her centred.

“One thing that’s healing or grounding to me... is using the little bit of Haida language that I know with my kids,” she says. “Those are some of the things that I think help me.”

Among Young’s opponents in Skeena-Bulkley Valley is Conservative candidate Claire Rattée, a tattoo artist and business owner in Kitimat who also ran in the last election. Rattée has spoken about her struggles with addiction, using her experience as a springboard to talk about the opioid crisis and the need for more mental health and recovery resources.

Rattée did not respond to The Tyee’s requests for an interview.

The Liberal party also did not respond to requests to interview its candidate for Skeena-Bulkley Valley. Little has been publicized about Lakhwinder Jhaj, who lives in the Lower Mainland and has not attended local debates.

In the province’s geographical centre, Cariboo-Prince George NDP candidate Audrey McKinnon says politics isn’t the path she originally envisioned for herself.

“I think a lot of women don’t think they’re going to get into politics, probably for that reason — we don’t see ourselves represented in people who are making decisions on our behalf,” says the former CBC journalist, who now does communications for the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council.

582px version of AudreyMcKinnonNDP.jpg
Audrey McKinnon, running for the NDP in Cariboo-Prince George, said her experience with poverty inspired her to run.

McKinnon’s struggles with poverty as a single mother motivated her to run for public office. She says she wanted to give back and effect change, having put herself through school only to experience firsthand the difficult decision of whether to return to work — and pay for child care — or stay home and barely scrape by on income assistance.

While she says the causes and effects of poverty are complex, the solution is simple.

“I think we overcomplicate it so much,” she says. “Politicians are afraid to say, ‘The reason that people are poor is because they don’t have enough money.’ And there are simple solutions to that. We’ve known them for a long time — universal basic income isn’t a new concept.”

McKinnon’s Green party opponent in Cariboo-Prince George, Leigh Hunsinger-Chang, has been balancing her campaign with a family medical practice made busier by the pandemic. The former emergency room physician says treating wildfire evacuees in Prince George several years ago motivated her to address the climate crisis.

“I just remember how distressed people were and how many mental health concerns I was seeing in patients, because there was so much uncertainty,” she says. “And it’s not just wildfires, when we look at all these other disasters that are happening around the world and the health effects.”

For Hunsinger-Chang, who’s been in Prince George for a decade, it is also her first foray into politics. Like Young and McKinnon, she says she was motivated to run by her children, in addition to the UN’s recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

“We have to look long into the future for our children and our future grandchildren,” she says. “The writing’s on the wall.”

As the introduction of vaccine cards takes place across the country, becoming a major election issue and overshadowing issues like climate change, the physician says both are important. “It’s such a challenge, because people are obviously feeling pretty strongly,” she says.

“From my perspective, I think the vaccine passport is a public health measure. It’s an alternative to a lockdown to me, and I’d much rather have a vaccine passport than to be in a lockdown situation like we were. I think we’ve all really tried to contribute to the end of the pandemic, and this is one way that people can: getting vaccinated.”

In the northeast, where Green candidate Catharine Kendall is running for election in Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies, safety concerns related to protests over vaccine cards have resulted in debates being cancelled or moved online.

“There’s so much animosity,” says Kendall, who decided to run for the Greens because she didn’t believe any other party was truly addressing the climate crisis. “I think that the concerns around climate change are huge, and they’re things that we’re not even really talking about.”

She says politics felt like a natural fit to carry on her existing community work, only at the federal level. “As opposed to thinking that the 10- and 20-year benchmarks that we’re making to create change are good enough. They’re not good enough. We actually have to educate people and get them literate in climate change issues to come,” she says.

The riding has traditionally been a conservative stronghold, with Conservative, Alliance and Reform party representation in Ottawa dating back to the early 1970s. From 1993 to 2010, it was represented by Jay Hill, who came out of retirement last year to become leader of the Maverick party (formerly the Wexit Canada Party). The party is also running a candidate in the riding, one of just two in B.C.

But Kendall, who ran for the Greens in previous federal and provincial elections, says there’s also support in the region for environmental issues.

“It wasn’t until I got to the polls and started watching the numbers come in that I saw how much support I had,” she says about the last federal election, where she landed more than six per cent of the vote, roughly the same as the Green party’s national standing.

“I was almost in tears because I didn’t see it [coming],” she says. “I was really amazed. I’m hoping that that is going be growing substantially with the issues that are at play right now.”

Kendall adds that having more women and gender-diverse people in federal politics brings a greater diversity of perspectives to the discussion. “I definitely think it brings a different perspective to politics. I think that women can tend to have a very unique perspective, no matter what party they’re bringing forward,” she says.

McKinnon agrees.

“I think that we’re conditioned differently. We’re conditioned to be more emotional,” she says, adding that a well-meaning relative suggested she may be too sensitive for politics. “I think we need more sensitive people in politics. I want to see my politicians feel, because when you feel and when you’re sensitive, it means that you’re empathizing.”

Back at Government Wharf, Young wipes away tears as she talks about the history of her people, the impacts of residential schools and what it means to be an Indigenous woman in politics. After the meal, she tours the community, pointing out her childhood home that looks over the inlet, a tent where a totem pole is being carved and, across the inlet, where SGaawaay K’uuna was filmed.

There’s a genuine sense of pride and emotional connection.

“I’m just a kid from the rez. I’m running in a government that put me there,” she says, and that has “only prepared me to be resilient.”  [Tyee]

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