One of my favourite things to show visitors to the B.C. legislature are the “class photos” of every parliament that are hung in the second-floor corridors, as they illustrate the changing demographic makeup of our elected representatives.
The photos, which date back to 1952, show that for well more than 35 years the legislature chamber was the domain of proverbially older white men, dressed in dark suits (and invariably short or non-existent hair!). Few women and even fewer people of colour are present in them.
Things slowly began to change in the 1990s and have really picked up momentum in the last decade or so.
The current “class of 2020” photo has not taken its place in the corridor just yet (there literally is a shortage of wall space), but it shows a makeup of a B.C. legislature that was perhaps unimaginable even back in the 1980s.
Of the 87 MLAs, almost 40 are women and more than a quarter are from ethnic or First Nations communities. When I point out these changes to visitors, they are almost always deeply impressed by the positive changes.
The NDP has a decided edge in the diversity department, as more than half its caucus are women and there are slightly more women (15-13) than men in its cabinet (which includes ministers of state). The B.C. United Party, the Official Opposition, has a long way to go on the diversity front, but its caucus is much smaller in number so there is plenty of room to grow (and keep in mind this party’s predecessor chose a female leader, Christy Clark, who became B.C.’s first ever woman to be elected premier).
I make these observations to highlight the emergence of two more strong female voices in the B.C. legislature.
On the government side, Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma’s public profile skyrocketed this summer as she emerged as the government’s chief point person dealing with the worst-ever wildfire season.
While second-guessed from time to time about firefighting techniques and priorities or evacuation orders, Ma has stuck to her guns and, more importantly, has backed the staff expertise within her ministry and the ministry of forests (particularly the B.C. Wildfire Service).
That appears to have cemented the relationship between a politician once perhaps best known for partisan activism while in Opposition and a civil service known for its professionalism in government.
The NDP can already boast of key front-line ministers who are women (e.g. Finance Minister Katrine Conroy, Attorney General Niki Sharma, Tourism Minister Lana Popham, Energy Minister Josie Osborne, to name a few), and Ma is the latest addition to a long list.
On the Opposition side, rookie B.C. United MLA Elenore Sturko has emerged as arguably the party’s most effective communicator and policy critic, regularly firing broadsides at the government over drug addiction policy and, more recently, education policies.
B.C. United, which is struggling mightily in the polls, would be wise to give Sturko even more face time when the legislature resumes sitting next month and the daily question period — the Opposition’s main launching pad for attacks on the government — returns.
I have a feeling Sturko’s and Ma’s photos will be part of many other “class photos” of future parliaments. And who knows? When either of their leaders eventually step aside, both would likely be names bandied around as potential successors.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.