Ahead of a planned study of women’s health that’s set to kick off public hearings this month, a parliamentary committee is in the process of ensuring it has more women involved.
Currently, men take up all but one spot on the 12-member House of Commons health committee, including as the chair and both vice chairs, a fact that sparked social media criticism and questions last week when hearings for the women’s health study were first scheduled.
That’s about to change, the Liberal chair of the committee says.
“Everyone within the Liberal caucus was acutely aware that it would be inappropriate to have a committee dominated by males studying women’s health,” Charlottetown MP Sean Casey told Global News in an interview.
“The pressure on social media and elsewhere, you know, reinforced that urgency. But it was something that was going to happen anyway.”
Casey said one regular Liberal member of the committee, Nova Scotia MP Darren Fisher, will be replaced by New Brunswick Liberal MP Jenica Atwin. Other Liberal men on the committee are arranging temporary trades with women caucus members, he added, which is being “encouraged” by the party whip in charge of approving such trades.
Chairs and vice-chairs of committees receive salary top-ups of $13,200 and $6,500, respectively, on top of their $194,600 salaries as MPs. Regular members of committees do not receive pay top-ups.
Notably, Fisher responded to one social media critic earlier this month by agreeing there was a “clear lack of gender diversity” on the health panel and other parliamentary committees, writing that he has “brought this issue up” with the Liberals.
Casey said his party has a tougher time filling committee seats with more women because of the Liberal government’s gender-balanced cabinet, which includes parliamentary secretaries.
“We have 58 female members; 19 are in cabinet and therefore can’t take on committee responsibilities,” he said. “One is on medical leave. … There are 13 parliamentary secretaries so they can do some committee work, but they have a pretty substantial workload … and one is the chair of National Caucus.
“So look at those numbers and consider the fact that there are 22 standing committees. You’ll see why some trades have to be made in order to make it work. And that’s what’s happening.”
Atwin will join fellow Liberal Sonia Sidhu, who up until this month was the only permanent women member of the committee.
The Conservatives and NDP told Global News they also plan to temporarily swap out their members for women for the purposes of the women’s health study.
“As is standard practice, the Conservatives will exercise our ability to substitute members on the committee with female members of our caucus,” spokesperson Sebastian Skamski said in an email.
NDP health critic Don Davies, who introduced the motion at committee to launch the women’s health study last year, said he is asking women in his party to take his seat for the hearings.
“While the NDP has only one seat on the health committee, I have invited women MPs from our caucus to sit in my place for the purpose of this study,” he said in a statement emailed by the party. “I have also submitted a list of witnesses for this study, 100 per cent of whom are women.
“The NDP looks forward to seeing this long overdue study on women’s health unfold in the coming weeks.”
The Bloc Quebecois, whose member Luc Theriault serves as vice-chair of the committee, did not respond to requests for comment on whether he will give up his seat for a woman MP from the caucus.
Casey said he will continue to chair the meetings throughout the study.
He explained that preparations for the study, including memberships, couldn’t begin until dates were set for the women’s health study hearings.
The first meeting, which is set to hear from Health Canada representatives, was then repeatedly pushed back by other committee business, and is now scheduled for Nov. 27, Casey said.
Davies said he sought to launch the study due to “the historical lack” of one ever having been conducted by Parliament.
“This will allow Parliamentarians to hear from experts on women’s health and advise on the policy changes needed to ensure Canadians get the care they need,” he said.
The committee has so far received 18 briefs from a variety of experts and advocacy groups for the purposes of the study. The submissions range from calls for better mental health resources for women, to improved breast cancer screening and gynecological services, to protections for LGBTQ2 women in Canada.
Casey agreed the study is “long overdue.”
“The way we decide what to study basically comes forward from the members,” he said. “The NDP raised it, made a compelling case, and the committee agreed to dedicate time to it.”
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