By: Tyler Sommers on
Don Plett, Conservative Senator and caucus whip, in an interview on November 23, 2016
Women make up a smaller number and share of Conservative senators than other groups in the Senate. The Independent Senators Group has the largest number and share of women.FactsCan Score: False
In an interview last November, Frances Lankin, an independent senator and former cabinet minister under the Ontario NDPs, said she was impatient with the speed of change in the Senate, which is attempting to modernize its rules. Asked if the delay is a result of “an old boys’ network trying to hold on to power,” she responded that she would not use those words but, “I believe them strongly.”
On the “old boys” comment, Conservative Senator Don Plett said, “we’ve got just as many young girls in our caucus as any.”
Dropping “young” from our analysis (defining this isn’t necessary here), what is the gender breakdown in the Senate?
There are three political groups in the Red Chamber: Conservatives, independents who are part of the Independent Senators Group (ISG) and Liberals. Senators not part of a party and who haven’t joined the ISG are “non-affiliated.” More on this in a Senate backgrounder below.
We pulled data from April 2017 from the Senate website, when we first looked into this, but we also have external analysis using December 2016 numbers, closer to the November date when Plett made the comment.
Here’s what we found:
- 20 women who are Independents
- 13 women who are Conservatives
- 7 women who are Liberals
- 2 women who are Non-Affiliated
In April 2017, the Conservatives had neither the largest total number of women, nor the largest share. Independents had the highest total number of women, and the largest share, at 57 per cent of ISG senators. Liberal women made up 39 per cent of their caucus, and Conservative women were 33 per cent. The numbers are very similar today.
Source: Senate of Canada, April 2017
Plett’s comment came in November 2016, and the numbers have shifted with some retirements. Andrew Griffith, a former director general in the immigration department, researches diversity in government. His analysis uses December 2016 data, and shows that the ISG had the largest proportion of women.
Source: Andrew Griffith, Diversity in the Senate
What about women in Senate leadership?
Griffith also examined women in leadership positions. He counted the leader of the caucus or group, the “whip,” the caucus chair, and the speaker. Here, he found the Conservatives came out ahead.
Conservatives had gender parity, the Liberals had no women in leadership positions, and the Independents had one.
Plett’s statement is false. The Conservatives don’t have as many women in their Senate caucus “as any.” They have fewer women in number and a lower proportion of women than the Independents.
In one analysis, the Conservatives are ahead in the number of women in leadership positions.
A brief background on the Senate
Canada’s Senate is undergoing substantial change with an increasing number of senators in the Red Chamber who are independent from political parties.
The value of the Senate was discussed and debated at length during the last federal election. Conservatives and Liberals campaigned on reform, while the NDP has long wanted to abolish it. Reform is a difficult task because deeper structural change, including abolition, requires changing the constitution.
The Senate has historically been filled with partisan individuals appointed by the prime minister. In law, there are few criteria to qualify as a senator. For example, senators must be at least 30 years old and own property. Upon coming to power in 2015, the Liberal government introduced a more structured system of appointments that mixes merit and politics. Trudeau’s senators enter the Chamber as independents, and the majority have joined the Independent Senators Group, which is not a registered political party like the Conservatives and Liberals.
The Senate wasn’t built to accommodate independent senators. For example, selection for committees has been controlled by partisan caucuses and funding for research has been tilted towards them too. A recent report on modernizing the Senate included recommendations to broaden definitions to lessen the inequality between independents and members of parties.
The rules are changing. Recently the Senate voted to adopt a recommendation in the modernization report allowing groups of nine or more to form a caucus, which creates more equitable opportunities for other groups like the ISG.