The problem with quotas - The Orca

The problem with quotas

Dene Moore

Dene Moore: Quotas sometimes skip the work to get straight to the reward, and can cast an undeserved shadow over diverse candidates and leaders.

The nomination of former federal NDP MP Nathan Cullen to run for the provincial NDP in Stikine could have gone better.

A star candidate in an election with few of them, Cullen’s campaign has been overshadowed by the spectacularly awkward handling of the party’s equity mandate, which was ignored in order to secure the riding for Cullen over a former female Tahltan chief.

To be fair, the Skeena misfire is less awful than the equity mandate fail prior to the 2016 election, when it forced the outing of an NDP candidate as bisexual, in order to explain his nomination over a more visibly equitable candidate.

There’s a saying about the road to hell and good intentions that seems a propos here.

In Cullen, the NDP has a well-respected, seasoned politician running in a held riding.

He served as MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley (more or less the same riding) from 2004 until he announced his retirement from federal politics in 2019.

When provincial forestry minister Doug Donaldson announced in September that he would not seek re-election, it was no surprise that Cullen tossed his hat in the ring. If elected, his experience, will be welcomed in a party – possibly a government – where seven cabinet ministers are not running again.

But make no mistake: Annita McPhee, the woman who also sought the nomination, would have been an excellent addition to B.C. public life, as well. A former three-term president of the Tahltan Nation, she was awarded the Indigenous National Native Role Model in 2000 and is a director of the BC First Nations Justice Council.

She has served as an advisor or director on the boards of the Legal Services Society, Vancouver Board of Trade’s Aboriginal Affairs Committee, BC Hydro’s Strategic Aboriginal Engagement Committee, and the Minister of Aboriginal Relations Advisory Council on Aboriginal Women.

B.C. has – for now – sidelined and lost out on a potential strong female, Indigenous voice in the halls of power.

The NDP equity mandate, passed by party members, says that when a male MLA retires, he must be replaced by a member of an equity-eligible group, including women and Indigenous candidates.

And yes, more than half of NDP candidates in 2017 were women – a record for B.C. politics. Nineteen of the 41 MLAs elected for the NDP were women. Overall, 34 of 87 MLAs elected in 2017 were women.

The equity mandate is meant to boost the number of female and minority MLAs in the NDP caucus. It’s akin to a quota, and the problem with quotas is that they sometimes skip the work to get straight to the reward.

Too often, they are put in place because an organization has failed consistently in doing the leg work to empower overlooked voices and building a diverse organization from the ground up.

An analysis by the non-partisan advocacy group Equal Voice after the 2017 election found that women were more likely to be nominated in less-winnable ridings. So a quota for candidates doesn’t necessarily serve the end goal of increasing parity in the legislature.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a gender-balanced cabinet after winning the 2015 federal election, though women comprised only 27 per cent of the party caucus.

It is unfair, but not unexpected, that criticism of those female cabinet ministers hit a fevered pitch, with eminently qualified and competent women the target of unprecedented abuse, in social media in particular.

Women, BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other marginalized people must be invited to be involved in political life long before a writ is dropped. To skip that foundational step casts an undeserved shadow over the merits of diverse politicians and leaders.

Quotas do not overshadow merit. But they don’t expand the scope of it, either. For most of history being white and male was merit.

Unless it’s backed by mentoring and campaign support, an equity mandate is more about optics and less about overhauling a system that silences under-represented groups.

That needs to change.

Dene Moore is an award-winning journalist and writer. A news editor and reporter for The Canadian Press news agency for 16 years, Moore is now a freelance journalist living in the South Cariboo. Moore’s two decades in daily journalism took her as far afield as Kandahar as a war correspondent and the Innu communities of Labrador. She has worked in newsrooms in Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Edmonton. She has been published in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, among others. She is a Habs fan and believes this is the year.


  • Dene Moore last wrote about the growing divide between rural and urban BC – and wondered whether this campaign will start to address it, or make it worse.
  • Maclean Kay also looked at the mess in Stikine, and marveled how quickly Nathan Cullen went from star candidate to something of an albatross.
  • Last year, Puneet Sandhar argued the best way to encourage more women in public life is to understand and break down the barriers keeping them out.