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There’s nothing like a nasty old-school wakeup call for women in Canadian politics, just as two provincial elections are on the horizon.
In Prince Edward Island, the writ’s already been dropped, while in Newfoundland and Labrador, Premier Dwight Ball is saying there will be an election before the provincial school year ends — so, sometime before June 27.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the nation, female politicians and their staff are finding out that it takes years to change the hidebound policies of a provincial legislature.
In particular? What women are and aren’t allowed to wear. It’s 2019, people.
The British Columbia legislature’s sergeant-at-arms told at least three women that the legislature’s dress code required them to cover their arms and not wear sleeveless blouses; another legislature employee was told to wear a slip under her dress because her dress was “clinging to her legs.”
Imagine the furor if male legislature staff were quizzed about the propriety of whatever they were wearing underneath their clothing.
As Sonia Furstenau, the deputy leader of the Green Party and the MLA for Cowichan Valley, put it in a tweet, “Heaven forbid people realize she has limbs under her skirt! The women in this building are here to work, not dress for outdated rules.”
Even though there are also dress codes for men in the B.C. legislature — requiring jackets and ties — it’s important to stop and think about the precise message being delivered by last week’s intervention, particularly the requirement that a staffer needed to put on a slip.
Imagine the furor if male legislature staff were quizzed about the propriety of whatever they were wearing underneath their clothing: “Excuse me sir, your trousers are too revealing and you will need to don proper undergarments.”
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the rules are that, “Business attire is considered appropriate for House of Assembly sittings. The Speaker may choose not to recognize Members who are considered inappropriately dressed.”
Other Atlantic provinces follow the same general standard. Nova Scotia, thank goodness, has dropped the expectation from the 1850s that MLAs would wear top hats and “rise uncovered” to address the speaker.
In Ontario in 2003, Nipissing member Monique Smith argued in a private member’s bill that, “in the opinion of this House, members of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario should restore decorum and respect in the Legislature by wearing proper attire during routine proceedings in the legislative chamber, such that male members wear a jacket, shirt and tie as standard dress and female members wear equivalent contemporary business attire.”
Sad to say, it would take a lot more than just proper attire to “restore decorum and respect” to many of Canada’s legislatures.
It’s high time that women in politics should be able to expect that their words and ideas are what’s important, rather than whether their shoulders and legs constitute some sort of unparliamentary distraction.