In the entire province of Saskatchewan, there are a handful of women who sit around a rural municipal council table, only seven per cent are female. Five per cent of those are reeves.
A new effort from the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities aims to recruit new women and support the ones that are currently siting on councils.
At the recent SARM convention in March 2023, Judy Harwood, Reeve for the RM of Corman Park and Division 5 SARM Director, took it upon herself to organize a group discussion with all the current female rural council members in the province during the SARM Convention. It was the first meeting of its kind and Harwood named the inaugural meeting SWIRL (Saskatchewan Women in Rural Leadership). This initiative was to discuss issues that affect women in rural leadership roles, how to support, encourage and discuss topics on how to improve and encourage more women to run for rural municipal office.
“Many women face the same issues when you’re dealing with a lot of men around the table. In rural Saskatchewan even more so, it’s very difficult for a women to break into a position in rural municipal politics.” Harwood said, “We have so many talented women, I think women process things differently than men, and I think that’s why it’s so critical that we have women and men around the council table.”
“I am impressed with how men support each other, and we have to do that as women for each other as well, be an inspiration for each other, raise each other up. Remember the only way we as women give up our power, is by thinking we don’t have any.”
Female rural councillors have a variety of experiences when deciding to run and be elected for their perspective council tables.
The Rural Municipality of Pleasantdale #398 is the only RM in the Northeast that has two women around the council table. Helen Meekins, councillor for division 5 and Jennifer Bushby, councillor for division 3, both decided to run for council for similar reasons. Meekins wanted to see more transparency and wanted to explore complaints in a more detailed manner. Bushby said she had concerns with how council was functioning and had been quite vocal about this. She decided to run to make a positive change and impact for her RM.
Veteran women on RM councils find their experience with trials and tribulations regarding their treatment of women. Jeanne-Marie de Moissac, Reeve of the Rural Municipality of Biggar, said she needed to grow a thick skin fast and power on in her own experience.
“We now have an amazing team of dedicated employees and a wonderful office staff who are all rock stars,” she said.
“Having another woman on council is a great asset for support from each other. I learned very quickly that the RM is about people and not just roads. Decisions can be difficult and the public can be very unforgiving.
For some women elected onto a RM council, their experience can be less than positive, especially at the start. As a newly elected councillor, many are excited to voice their opinions and guide their municipalities on future projects. In one councillor’s experience, when she reached the council table, some members expressed loudly that women, especially young women, should not be at the table. She felt she had no voice and no place at the table.
“Council is intimidating, running for council is intimidating,” she said. “Pioneering change is intimidating.”
De Moissac welcomed SWIRL, adding she expects it to be embraced.
“It could provide a safe place where women are supporting women. We can be our own best allies and should be. I would be interested in being part of that movement,” she said. “I’ve been working to change the culture of our RM and with an amazing team, it’s happening. There’s room for everyone around an RM table. Young, old, women, men. We all have a place.”
Bushby and Meekins see their council as stronger with more diversity and Meekins said men and women see the world differently and therefore have different strengths. Newly elected councillors are not required to complete any training on governance and/or council procedures. Education and training are mandatory for someone in Saskatchewan to become a hockey coach and the organization is fined if the training is not taken. In municipal government, councillors and reeves are not required to take any training. Harwood said the councillors that need the training, don’t want to take it and in some cases get re-elected and so there is no consequence for not taking the training that is available.
Meekins and de Moissaic both agreed most people don’t have a great understanding of what being a councillor actually means. Meekins said running for council is a big commitment.
“[It’s] lots of time and energy – and a very thankless job as you are the first contact when concerns and issues arise,” she said.
Bushby and de Moissac said having two women on council is a strength they both appreciate.
“Having men and women on council gives a more rounded council in my opinion,” Bushby said. “Men and women tend to view the world a little differently, prioritize things a little differently and value things a little differently. Both perspectives used to make sound decisions can only result in better decisions for the whole community.”
Meekins and Bushby were at the SWIRL discussion at the SARM convention and found it very positive.
”It really seems to me that a lot of the discussion was forward thinking and progressive in nature,” Meekins said. “It was nice to see that so many RMs are progressive and welcoming to women at the table but also comforting to know that we are not the only municipality that has faced challenges and hurdles.”
There were 33 women (approximately 20 per cent of the women who are on RM councils) who attended the first SWIRL meeting.
Laurel Feltin, SARM Director of Strategic Engagement and Advocacy, said SARM is excited to see where SWIRL will go and had received a lot of positive feedback from the first meeting. Feltin said that a survey was sent out to all of the participants and when that feedback gets reviewed, a plan will be discussed and the SWIRL initiative will take on more roles on what the future plans should be for the initiative.
Meekins applauded SARM as a great opportunity to network with municipal Councillors from across the province. “This is extremely beneficial for new and pre-existing council members as it gives you the opportunity to connect at the convention and ask questions.”
She looks forward to attending the next SWIRL meeting to see how women can make improvements towards a brighter future.