Fewer than 1 in 6 of Manitoba’s new heads of council are women — a record high, organization says

When Tina Williams greets a gaggle of kindergarteners at the Virden daycare she works at on Wednesday morning, she won’t just be Miss Tina anymore — she’ll also be the town’s new mayor.

So far, Williams says the little ones don’t totally understand what it means when their parents congratulate her on her landslide victory over former Virden mayor Murray Wright last week, becoming the southwestern Manitoba town’s first female leader. But one day, she says, they will.

“And I think it’s important that kids see that it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, that you can do any job anyway. And I think it’s important for us adults too,” the two-term councillor and former deputy mayor said in a phone interview Tuesday, ahead of her official swearing-in as mayor later that evening.

Williams was one of just 22 women elected as heads of council across Manitoba’s 135 municipalities that had elections this year.

It’s a small proportion, with fewer than one in six of the positions now held by women — but it’s also the highest number Manitoba has ever seen, the Association of Manitoba Municipalities said in a recent news release.

Including council candidates, 22 per cent of this year’s winners are women, up slightly from 20.7 per cent in 2018, a CBC News analysis shows. That’s roughly the same proportion as the number of women who ran for positions overall this year, which was 22.3 per cent.

And with four of Virden’s seven elected seats now occupied by women — including Williams as mayor — the town is one of just six municipalities to have a council at least half comprised of female representatives, CBC’s analysis shows.

Williams said that’s not the only thing she thinks sets the town’s new council apart. At nearly 50, she’s also just about smack dab in the middle of its age range, with three incoming councillors in their 30s and the other three in their 60s.

“I’m really happy with the higher female content, but I think the age is as important when it comes down to decision-making,” she said.

“They’re talking to different people, so they’re getting different perspectives.”

Kam Blight, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, said he’s been encouraged by the shift toward more women holding elected positions across the province, however slow that progress has been.

“Those numbers are increasing and I think that’s a positive sign,” he said.

“It’s great when you’ve got people with different backgrounds, different experiences, different employment, different schooling, et cetera, sitting around the table. It just makes your council that much stronger.”

More positions elected by default

Blight said his organization has been working to encourage more people to put their names forward for council positions with recent efforts like a municipal elections resource hub.

But with the number of candidates elected by default creeping even higher this year, he said it’s clear that work will need to continue. 

Overall, 42.9 per cent of the positions on councils across Manitoba were acclaimed — up from 33 per cent in 2018, CBC’s analysis shows. 

On top of that, 18 municipalities saw their councils formed completely by acclamation this year, meaning residents in those communities didn’t get a chance to vote at all because there were no competitors.

That number is up from 13 in 2018, CBC’s analysis shows. It also includes the rural municipality of Portage la Prairie, where Blight is the longtime reeve.

Kam Blight, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, is also the longtime reeve of the rural municipality of Portage la Prairie. (Submitted by the Association of Manitoba Municipalities)

Factors like low pay that means the job isn’t enough to live off of and increasing nastiness toward elected officials in recent years could both be part of the reason more people don’t step up, Blight said.

But he said he hopes to also showcase the good things about the role.

“Municipal politics matter. We are the individuals that are the closest to the people. We are the boots on the ground. We’re the ones that know our communities the best and we’re held accountable by our residents every four years,” he said.

“It’s also a position where you can influence and affect the most change in your municipality rather than at the higher levels of government. And it can be an extremely rewarding position.”

Looking forward, Williams said she’s excited to continue taking a collaborative approach to her work, whether she’s implementing recommendations from the town’s recent strategic plan or colouring and building with Lego.

“I’m very big on the idea that the mayor cannot do any more and is not any more important than the rest of council,” she said.

“And I think I got a council that is ready to step up and be a really big part of that.”

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