Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberal government campaigned on the slogan that a “new era” was necessary for British Columbia — an era, they argued, where the excesses of the social democratic governments before it had to be brought under control.
In the early days of his neo-liberal government, Campbell proved that it clearly was a new era, one that unmistakably catered to the rich, one of his first acts being a 1.5 billion dollar tax cut. From that day on, the Liberal government has continued on its cutting ways, eliminating services and the social wage on which all but the wealthy are dependent. Health care, welfare, education and legal aid have all suffered from Campbell’s special attention. Now it is B.C. Women’s Centres that are on the chopping block.
As of tomorrow, the Campbell government will cut 100 per cent of the 1.7 million dollars that was used to fund the 37 B.C. Women’s Centres. Breaking the figures down, each centre received approximately $48,000 per year for the basics like staff, rent and other expenses. This funding works out to be less than a dollar for each woman in B.C. for a year’s worth of services. These centres provide an array of services, ranging from crisis counseling, referral services and emergency shelters, to drop-in service or simply providing spaces for women’s organizations to meet.
Almost half the province’s women’s centres are preparing to close this week, with the majority of these outside the Lower Mainland, giving new meaning to Campbell’s frequently touted “strategies for the heartland.” Women living outside B.C.’s major urban centres have already experienced the effects of the “heartland strategies,” such as the cutting of public services, closing of hospitals, reduced or “flexible” education hours for their children, and a cutting of childcare spaces.
Heartland or not, it is women with the most limited options, specifically working class and poor women, who will feel the pain of the closures most acutely, because they used the centres as a life-line to access services such as transition houses, rape relief, and health services. In fact, women’s centres across the province have reported a 30 per cent increase in users since Campbell took office. Like any overused service, it makes some sense to shut it down entirely. At least then you can pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Women can always call the 1-800 number that they find on the government website.
With cuts this blatant, it should come as no surprise that Campbell is out of favour with women in the province. The latest opinion poll shows that a whopping 71 per cent of women disapprove of Gordo’s performance in office. This disapproval is a result of three years of explicitly anti-woman policies.
For instance, one of his initial moves as premier was to eliminate the Ministry of Women’s Equality. Women became part of a “super” ministry, ghettoizing a regular list of the oppressed: Aboriginal Affairs, Communities, Senior Citizens, and Women’s Services (apparently, even the term “equality” was too radical and feminist for the government). Surely this ministry of the uber-marginalized strikes fear into the hearts of Liberal MLAs; perhaps they stand around drawing straws to see who will be stuck as the minister, forced to deal with the complaints of this broad-based collection of the oppressed.
Unfortunately for the women of British Columbia, Lynn Stephens drew that short straw and was the first minister responsible for Women’s Services. Stephens, a self- proclaimed businesswoman, and not a feminist by any stretch, did nothing to fight against her government on the issue of scrapping women centres’ funding. In fact, Stephens herself vocally attacked working class and poor women in the province. When asked about the issue of pay equity, she absurdly stated that if women want to get paid more, they should “get a better job.” She implied throughout the interview that women make less money because of poor choices, asserting that the women in British Columbia, “are free to work where you wish, for whatever you wish.”
Clearly the minister of Women’s Servitude does not understand the nature of capitalism, which does not allow all women to be elite, upper class business women/government ministers. The majority of women in this system make less than men, and are concentrated in low-paid part-time, casual labour not by choice, but by circumstance. Stephens’ comments proved to be a public-relations blunder. Even Campbell himself rarely lets his ideology show this publicly.
Ida Chong, shuffled in to replace the embarrassing Stephens in January, 2004, has nonetheless toed the party line and refused to restore funding to women’s centres. The BC Coalition of Women’s Centres has stated that Chong is refusing to meet with them. This may be deplorable, but certainly not shocking, coming from a ministry that has just put out a pamphlet called “A New Era for Women.” This piece of taxpayer-funded propaganda features a smiling picture of Gordon Campbell (not his mug shot) and a disturbing made-for-television white upper-middle class, multi-generational female family sitting under an umbrella with tall glasses of lemonade in hand, with the bold caption: “[w]omen contribute to every aspect of our quality of life — owning and operating 37 per cent of our small businessesâe¦”
Ida Chong has echoed this ideology that women are only important contributors to society if we are business leaders, or we are otherwise ideologically aligned with the capitalist class. When pressed on the issue of reinstating funding to women’s centres, she stated that what is really important for women are jobs and fiscal responsibility, implying that funding feminist-driven women’s centres is a frivolous expense.
Part of Chong’s statement might be true, given that the majority of women want jobs. But we want decent-paying, secure employment, not jobs that are constantly under attack by the neo-liberal agenda of this government, as illustrated by the laying off of thousands of unionized women working in the Hospital Employees Union. And we do want our government to be fiscally responsible, by funding socially important institutions such as heath care, education, childcare and women’s centres, not by giving an almost two million dollar tax break to fish farmers, or by pouring billions of dollars into the Olympics, a vacation for the ultra rich.
The over-the-top nature of the Liberals cuts to women’s centres — they’re cutting 100 per cent of the funding, after all — has created at least one positive outcome, as we are beginning to see a renewed sense of activism and militancy in the women’s movement in B.C. Five feminist activists were recently arrested for voicing their protest against Campbell’s policies. And, this month, at an International Women’s Day rally in Vancouver, the main call was to “stop the attacks on women at home and abroad; restore funding to women’s centres.”
If you’re not convinced about the dire straights of B.C.’s Second (class) Sex, check out the picture that greets visitors to that website of the Ministry of Community, Aboriginal & Women’s Services. The first photo, when you open the page, is of four jubilant white guys in business suits, giving a cheesy thumbs-up about some new economic initiatives. In Campbell’s B.C., there’s nothing subtle about the attack on women’s rights.
It may be too late to save B.C.’s Women’s Centres but it’s not too late to give Gordon Campbell a piece of your mind. At Save Women’s Centres, you can help by adding your voice to the thousands who have already participated in the campaign to save the women’s centres.