It was standing room only in Ottawa City Council Chambers on Friday as close to 500 people came out for Jane Philpott’s keynote address on the importance of gender balance, delivered at an annual breakfast hosted by Mayor Jim Watson in celebration of International Women’s Day.
It was the mayor’s largest turnout to date for his annual women's day breakfast. Guests got the chance to hear from a woman who’s the real deal, especially when it comes to her principles. The Liberal MP for Markham-Stouffville resigned this week from cabinet, saying she’s lost confidence in the way the Trudeau government has dealt with the SNC-Lavalin affair.
“If you’ve come today hoping that you’re going to hear my direct comments on the political events of the past week, you’re going to be disappointed,” she told the crowd, drawing chuckles and applause from the audience. “I’m here today because it’s International Women’s Day, because the mayor has kindly invited me.”
She delivered an excellent address that made it well worth rising a little earlier than usual to be there. When she was done, the large crowd gave her a standing ovation. The event also marked the launch of the city's new women and gender equity strategy, with Bay Coun. Theresa Kavanagh serving as its liaison.
Canada still has a long way to go when it comes to achieving gender balance, said Philpott. “We need balance because it results in better outcomes. We need to hear a broad range of voices because each one has something to contribute."
Philpott spoke about her motivation for wanting to be at the top of the decision-making hierarchy, whether at a cabinet table or medical advisory table. “Here’s what I hope is true about what has driven me: I’m not at the table because it comes with a generous salary. I’m not there for the title. I’m not there to fill my resumé or expand my Rolodex.
“I want to challenge the status quo if the status quo is getting in the way of helping people. I want to ask tough questions. I want to speak up on behalf of people I’ve met who will never have the privilege of being around such a table."
Philpott worked as a medical doctor for 30 years, practicing medicine for her first decade in Niger, West Africa before holding the positions of chief of family medicine at Markham Stouffville Hospital and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine. She won her federal seat in 2015, and served as health minister and Indigenous services minister and, most recently, Treasury Board president.
She referenced several materials, from admired historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, to the 1996 report on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, both of which believe that every voice matters.
“Gender balance has to be about more than numbers; balance has a purpose,” said Philpott. “Gender balance by head count may be an important and powerful first step. For example, when our prime minister made the decision to have a gender-balanced cabinet, and acted on it, I believe he transformed our country, perhaps the world, in a positive way. He set a bar by which future governments, future councils, future advisory boards, and others, will be measured.
“But, when we seek balance — whether it is in a government cabinet, a corporate boardroom, a workplace, or elsewhere — it’s for a purpose. It’s because we know that the work of that organization will get a broader input. We will look at issues from more than one world view, be better able to predict the impact of the decisions we make. It’s the opportunity to demonstrate that kind of balance that sets Canada apart and offers us competitive advantages for social and economic success.”
Philpott referred to the severe gender discrimination she saw while living and working in Niger, which has some of the highest fertility rates and some of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world. The average woman has seven children yet a skilled birth attendant is only present for fewer than half of all births. “These statistics are about more than just women’s health. They have an impact on education, employment and other opportunities. In rural Niger where we lived, gender-based discrimination is real and it can be deadly.”
Philpott also told the room how she takes a broad view on gender balance, based on the recognition of her own privilege. “In my life, any disadvantages to the pursuit of my opportunities, career or life goals based on gender have been far exceeded by a large number of unearned advantages.
“I grew up white, able bodied, in a home free of violence, in a country with publicly funded primary and secondary education. We were not affluent but I did not go hungry.
“All of these unearned advantages paved the way for me to have a voice and a seat at the table.”