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Not all voices are equal at Daughters of the Vote

A U of T perspective on exclusion of Indigenous, trans people at the federal summit
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Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau struggles with technical issues when using Zoom. That’s just one of the things I learned on March 5–8 as a Daughters of the Vote 2021 delegate. The other is that although this year was distinct given its virtual format, we faced many issues from previous years surrounding adequate representation of marginalized communities and political controversies. 

Daughters of the Vote is an initiative that was created by Equal Voice, which equips participants to get involved in politics and other community activism by creating connections between them and current members of Canada’s political institutions. The program had its first iteration in 2017 and was created to celebrate the anniversary of — some — women gaining the right to vote. 

Each year, one delegate is selected to represent each of Canada’s 338 ridings, and in normal years, they all come together in Ottawa for a leadership summit. For obvious reasons, this year’s program was held online. Though watching Trudeau and Erin O’Toole struggle to unmute themselves and perfect their camera angles was funny, many of the other experiences and issues raised by delegates were less than lighthearted. 

As a white cisgender woman, I recognize that these political spaces are much more accessible to me than to some of my fellow delegates. I spoke to them at length about the crucial issues that they felt this program neglected, and how we can make politics more inclusive for all.

Past issues and protests

To understand the issues this year’s program faced, we must look at the event’s recent history. All of the delegates I spoke to over the course of the program were aware of the controversies surrounding Daughters of the Vote. In 2019, following Trudeau’s removal of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Liberal Caucus during the SNC-Lavalin investigation, around 50 delegates turned their backs during Trudeau’s speech in the House of Commons. 

Others walked out of Andrew Scheer’s speech. Several delegates who protested Trudeau, Scheer, and other politicians said that they faced backlash both from other delegates and online. 

Chloe Dallon, a Conservative delegate representing Fundy Royal, felt that the 2019 controversies might have contributed to how tense some of the other delegates were. Kyrstin Dumont, an Algonquin woman and delegate for the Ottawa–Vanier riding, confirmed that her prior knowledge of 2019’s events made her go into this year’s program with a determination to make her voice heard. 

Julia Hutlet, a Métis representative of Winnipeg North, also wrote in a written interview with The Varsity that knowing what Indigenous delegates had experienced in 2019 made her want to “show up” for Indigenous women across Canada. Another delegate, Alexandra McLean, a U of T student and the current vice-president equity at the University of Toronto Students’ Union, representing the riding of Nepean, said that they would not have applied for the Daughters of the Vote program had they known about the 2019 events before applying. 

This year’s program, though all online, was not without controversies of its own.

Online delivery undermined Indigenous delegates’ experience

Frankly, despite Equal Voice’s best efforts, I felt that the program was nowhere near as impactful as it would have been if it had happened in Ottawa, like past programs. The other delegates I interviewed echoed these sentiments. We would normally have been sitting in the House of Commons and walking Parliament grounds, but instead we were instead sitting behind our laptops, the same way we have been for a year now.

Though Equal Voice is at no fault for the fact that the Daughters of the Vote program was online, delegates were disappointed with the methods in which the program was delivered. For the majority of the four-day program, delegates could interact with speakers only through a question-and-answer (Q&A) function, which the speakers could not even see directly. 

Effectively, we watched a live stream of a Zoom call. Hutlet wrote that the delivery of the events made her feel like she was “selected from [her] riding to watch Youtube videos,” and I can’t disagree.

The online delivery method included a chat, which delegates characterized as both distracting and problematic. Hutlet pointed out that the chat function was being used during the prayer of an Indigenous elder, which she considered disrespectful to her and to other Indigenous delegates.

Furthermore, issues surrounded the Q&A function, through which delegates could write questions to speakers. Other delegates could then upvote the questions that they found insightful or important. However, over the course of the program, delegates began to notice that highly upvoted questions centred around Indigenous topics were not being asked. 

Dumont expressed discontent that her specific questions, which centred around issues affecting Indigenous peoples, were not answered, even when other delegates upvoted them and asked them again. 

According to Dumont, when one of her questions was finally asked to Lisa Raitt, former member of Parliament and deputy leader of the Conservative Party, Raitt “blew over the question,” showing Dumont that her voice wasn’t valued. To my memory, Raitt gave an answer that circled the question without actually answering it, choosing instead to redirect to something she was more comfortable talking about. 

In a statement, Equal Voice wrote that the selection of the questions that were asked were left to moderators, who chose to “select questions in a variety of different ways, and for different reasons,” prioritizing questions that brought up issues that had not already been touched on by speakers. They also noted that upvoting did not guarantee that a question would be asked. 

Indigenous delegates’ response 

Indigenous delegates like Dumont and Hutlet, whose questions frequently went unanswered, did not accept Equal Voice’s explanation and felt that their voices were not valued. At the virtual parliament simulation, Hutlet spoke of the underrepresentation of Indigenous women in politics, while Dumont spoke of the oppression Indigenous peoples have endured. Dumont said that Indigenous issues were not the issues of her people, but of Canada as a whole. Both women used their voices as best they could given the circumstances of this year’s program, but still left disappointed. 

Several delegates from marginalized communities expressed that, in general, Daughters of the Vote did not feel like it was made for them. Hutlet and Dumont both expressed that, as Indigenous women, they were aware that Daughters of the Vote was not created for them. 

While both felt this was palpable over the course of the program, Dumont expressed that it was important for them to be present so as to “continuously take up space in colonial… institutions,” and Hutlet wrote that “[she] wanted to be there to show the Indigenous women across ‘Canada’ that they can be too.” 

Equal Voice wrote that it recognized the unique barriers faced by Black and Indigenous peoples in politics, and that it “organized two forums, one for Black delegates, and one for Indigenous delegates.” 

However, for many delegates, this was not enough. Hutlet expressed feelings of tokenization, and “[she wanted] Equal Voice to know that they need to give better supports to [Black, Indigenous, people of colour] delegates” — specifically, social and cultural supports. On the other end of the spectrum, Dallon wrote that she felt that some of the training given to delegates was “very leftist,” and she felt uncomfortable with some of the statements made. 

Somewhere in the middle, Aiman Akmal, U of T student and delegate for Burlington, was encouraged by the inclusive politics panel, particularly as a Muslim, because of the presence of Aasiyah Khan from the National Council of Canadian Muslims. 

Partisan tensions and a lack of accountability 

Issues of partisanship reached a head on Friday night, and Eleanor Fast, Executive Director and National Spokesperson of Equal Voice, spoke to some Conservative delegates, which was reassuring according to Dallon. However, clashes between delegates with different political viewpoints continued over various platforms throughout the weekend. 

Every delegate I spoke to expressed a very similar sentiment to one expressed by Akmal, who felt that tension was bound to happen when mixing political views. Despite this, Akmal, like most of the other delegates I interviewed, agreed that, on the whole, delegates were open-minded and willing to engage in discussion. 

While disagreements between delegates died down over the course of the four-day program, there were more vexing moments on Monday when delegates participated in a House of Commons simulation. The leaders of each of Canada’s five largest political parties gave remarks to delegates, but there was no question period this year for any of the leaders, including the prime minister. 

When asked why there was no Q&A session with federal leaders, Equal Voice cited time constraints. 

Dumont expressed disappointment in the lack of opportunity to ask leaders questions, particularly because that lack of opportunity made it seem as if Equal Voice had not considered how Indigenous delegates would receive O’Toole, given some of his past comments on residential schools. Hutlet shared Dumont’s view, because a question period “gives delegates the opportunity to hold the prime minister accountable.” 

I was also disappointed in the lack of opportunity to question leaders, or even to speak to them directly. I can watch Trudeau give statements any time I want, and this event felt remarkably similar to that. The only difference was that, this time, we were all treated to Trudeau’s distinctly dad-like usage of Zoom rather than a polished press conference. 

Transgender and gender diverse youth need space in politics 

The party leader whose remarks sparked the most outrage on Monday was Yves-Francois Blanchet, the leader of the Bloc Québécois. In his opening remarks, Blanchet said hello to “ladies… and some gentlemen as well.” 

Immediately, many delegates called out what they saw as transphobia. In the days since, delegates have questioned exactly why Blanchet chose to open his statement that way — did he say “gentlemen” in recognition of the other men party leaders? Can it all be chalked up to an error in translation? 

For Anna Murphy, the delegate from Calgary Centre, who is transgender, Blanchet’s remarks, whether “intentional or not… [were] a slight. It was… blatant transphobia.” 

McLean was disappointed that there were no gender-diverse speakers and expressed that they did not really feel more empowered to enter politics because they didn’t see anyone like them. Equal Voice claimed that “equity and inclusion are embedded in all of [its] programs,” and it did provide a range of supports, but that didn’t compensate for the lack of representation and the hostility that were felt by many delegates. Equal Voice also noted that it hopes to be more inclusive of gender-diverse delegates in the future.

Murphy, like McLean, also said that she has rarely seen transgender people represented in politics, but that she feels empowered to be part of that movement. Murphy is changing the narrative for transgender and gender-diverse youth so that they can see themselves at the table. “I’m here, I’m proud,” she said. “This is who I am.” 

Celebrating the role of delegates 

Murphy’s passion to blaze a trail for transgender and gender-diverse youth is just one example of the incredible initiative taken by delegates at Daughters of the Vote this year. While Equal Voice is an organization with admirable goals, operating under difficult circumstances, there is still plenty of room for growth, which delegates and Equal Voice both recognize. In any area over the weekend where I felt Equal Voice was lacking, delegates stepped up to fill in the cracks. 

After Blanchet’s remarks, Murphy started a group dedicated to writing a letter to express the hurt that Blanchet caused to transgender and gender-diverse delegates. The aim of this letter is to make Canadian politics more inclusive and to encourage everyone, regardless of party lines, to do better in the future. 

Muslim delegates started a LinkedIn group to discuss and combat Islamaphobia, which was a well-known issue at Daughters of the Vote 2019. Indigenous delegates have also banded together to write an email addressing their experiences. 

Delegates created Facebook groups, held Zoom calls, and forged friendships. On Sunday morning, Dumont pushed back when her voice was not heard or valued, and shared information with a portion of delegates about the cultural practice and significance of smudging. Delegates changed Zoom backgrounds to highlight missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

What many delegates expressed, which I certainly agree with, was that it was the delegates who made Daughters of the Vote incredible. By far the most rewarding part of my experience was making new friends and connections across party lines. Delegates certainly clashed, but everyone found support from at least some segment of the delegation. 

Would I participate in Daughters of the Vote again? Absolutely. I loved meeting other delegates, hearing from inspiring women, and watching it all happen while wearing pyjama pants. But again, as a white cisgender woman, spaces like the House of Commons are not entirely foreign to me, and Daughters of the Vote as a program was made for people like me. 

Equal Voice and the Canadian government need to do more to make space for women and gender-diverse people of all identities and intersections so that programs like Daughters of the Vote can be wholly positive experiences for all of their participants. 

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