Musings on the state of women's equality in Canada: Based on a true forum

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Amira Elghawaby and Steffanie Pinch at the Women's Forum. (Photo:

I've been asked to sum up the story coming out of the NDP's Women's Forum held a couple of weeks ago in Ottawa which I had the opportunity to live blog for rabble. 

In a word: bittersweet.

In an article: mostly bitter, with the sweet parts near the end.

Let's start with the ironic and unexpected backdrop to the forum -- the ludicrous statement the night before by presidential hopeful Mitt Romney that he had consulted a "binder full of women" to fill important jobs after becoming governor of Massachusetts. 

Sure, it gave people an idea for a Hallowe'en costume, but women everywhere let out a collective sigh of disbelief at his statement.  Surely gains in women's equality had meant that capable, professional women were not far from sight, that their names were not buried in a binder somewhere. 

To get a sense of the Forum, check out this Storify, 'Binder full of controversy,' created by my colleague Steffanie Pinch.

And although the line supplied comic relief throughout the day -- especially for the few guys helping out in the room -- it perhaps should have been a harbinger of things to come.

Professor Kathleen Lahey, of Queen's University Faculty of Law, did the honours of serving up the first wake up call. 

At one point, things were working out well for Canadian women, she explained. Pointing to previous international indexes, Canada had previously topped the charts on gender issues. Not anymore. Now, we're at number 21, according to the latest figures from the World Economic Forum's annual gender gap ranking!

Over orange juice, we listened to her explain how things have gradually shifted so that despite positive changes including women’s increasing participation in the workforce and growing presence in academia, overall conditions have not improved. 

For example, while more women went to work between 1997 and 2007, the total income they were taking home wasn't matching the trend.  In fact, they were working more hours, with the same level of unpaid work, with only some growth in incomes, somehow getting "stalled." The lack of an adequate childcare strategy helped explain part of that stall. So did the slashing of public programs and what Professor Lahey referred to as de-taxation (all of this before 10a.m., no joke).

And since the mid-1980s, women’s incomes have continually failed to keep up with men's.

But the real zinger in her lecture was when she pointed out that public tax expenditures, which she described as "a giant machine running in the background," leads to 60 per cent financial rewards for men, and only 40 per cent for women. She argued that if Canadian laws were "100 per cent equal, men would be $8.4 billion poorer, and women $4 billion richer." Did I mention she's an expert on taxation and tax policy?

The future isn't much rosier, concluded Professor Lahey, suggesting that Conservative plans on income-splitting will be devastating for women. 

See. Bitter.

The panel discussions were not much more upbeat. Let's put it this way, the "economy," a "constructed" thing that runs our lives more than we like admitting, bears a lot of blame on income inequalities. 

Robyn Benson of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Leilani Farha of Canadians Without Poverty, Katie Arnup of Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada had a lot in common.  They all believed that politicians could go a lot further to ensure that both men and women have an affordable place to put their children while they went to work, and that affordable housing should be available to all.

Even more depressing was Ms. Benson’s contention that a large proportion of women are losing unionized jobs in the public sector thanks to the government's recent cuts, and that their retirement savings are also at risk. She argued for more investment, not less.

Echoing the critique of the government’s priorities, Ms. Leilani pointed out that money spent on fighter jets and more prisons (despite declining crime stats) shows a real lack of vision. 

And no one will be left standing with a voice to oppose these alarming positions, argued Ms. Arnup, pointing out those funding cuts to advocacy groups means very few are able to collaborate and come up or present solutions. 

As an alternative, Ms. Arnup said she relies on social media to have conversations with social activists. That's where the important conversations are happening, she argued, pointing out that when Mr. Romney made that binder statement, misogyny and inequality were trending.

Social media, though, won't be enough, added Ms. Leilani.

She said she had little hope for progress if monitoring mechanisms continue to be "wiped out," pointing to the elimination of the National Council on Welfare.  One audience member later agreed with her, denouncing the government’s attack on public advocacy, arguing that Canadians need to demand funding for various groups so that it won’t be only the rich who have access and ability to control conversations and the focus of national dialogues. The voices of marginalized communities will disappear. 


And who's watching out for "racialized" workers (not a term I like, frankly, but bandied about quite a bit), members of Aboriginal and First Nation groups, and people with disabilities, wondered Ms. Benson. "We need to hold this government accountable," she said, quite grimly.

Would more women in the halls of power make a difference? That question came up both during the forum and among online participants of the live blog.

With Minister for  Status of Women Rosa Ambrose a no show at the forum, and, more controversially, her recent vote supporting a bill to discuss the beginning of life (believed as a backdoor attempt at debating abortion), having more women in the House of Commons offered no guarantee that women's equality and rights would be protected.

That being said, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair was sure to highlight to the crowd in his afternoon address that the NDP had delivered on its promise to achieve gender equity on the number of male and female candidates running in the last election. He also promised that "when" the NDP takes over government in 2016 that he would be sure to address structural impediments to women’s representation in the government and private sector, as well as provide universal childcare. To say his message was a welcome one would be an understatement. He received enthusiastic applause from a room that had been brooding only a few moments ago.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the conference was when Sheila North Wilson made an agonized plea to launch a national inquiry into the disappearance and murder of six hundred Aboriginal women and girls over the decades. "I consider myself a survivor, a thriver from this situation," explained a tearful Ms. Wilson to the audience. "But unfortunately six hundred others are not."  She renewed her calls on the federal government to help, "rather than hinder us."

"It's time for leaders across Canada to recognize that it's not okay for six hundred missing and murdered women to be gone from off the face of the earth," she said.

One online participant said had it been women of another background, the situation would have been treated as a "national disaster."

Ms. Wilson concluded with two videos on missing women that could only sink our already troubled hearts (though important for all of us to see, nonetheless). 

At this point, Kandace Hagen, organizer for PEI Reproductive Rights Organization, Marie-Eve Bordeleau, Quebec Native Women Inc., Bonnie Brayton, National Executive Director of the DisAbled Women’s Network of Canada, and Loly Rico, Co-Director of FCJ Refugee Centre took the stage to talk about women’s equality in society.  

Ms. Rico noted a change in tone towards women refugees over the years. "When I came 22 years ago, I was welcome here ... Now, when [other refugee women arrive] here, they face discrimination," she said, adding that government officials and representatives are not listening, nor acting on the problems facing refugees (although it should be noted that the government backed down somewhat on cutting healthcare benefits to refugees.)

An audience member asked whether women coming from Latin American countries, or other overseas countries, see parallels with the experiences of Native women here in Canada. Ms. Bordeleau agreed there are common issues, and Ms. Rico added that similar tales of oppression can be found in various places.

When it comes to challenges facing disabled women, Ms. Brayton had some good news to share: collaborative projects, including one which deals with elder abuse, have recently been launched. She expressed optimism about the future because she said she had noted a move away from working within "silos" among various groups. (Finally, some good news! Sweet!)

But she added that 1 in 5 women in Canada have been "forgotten" by the government and those are women with disabilities who are the poorest women in the country and face the highest rate of violence.

Ms. Hagen echoed earlier statements on the need for advocacy, "Advocacy calls attention to the social systems that are not meeting the needs of the people. Advocacy is about how we the people, govern [the governors]." Nicely said, I thought.

Wrapping it up, a feminist organizer, community artist and  founding member of the Ottawa RebELLEs, Maria-Hélèna Pacelli,  as well as Alexa Conradi from the Fédération des Femmes du Québec  and  Marion Pollack, President, Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women shared thoughts on equality in communities. 

Ms. Conradi and Ms. Pacelli both emphasized a need for real grassroots activism to get women involved in a transformation of society, including private industry and in the economy.  In fact, they both seemed to have more faith in the potential for change coming from below, rather than top-down from government.  

Ms. Pollack explained it's only through the support of her organization’s allies including unions, and women’s groups, that they have stuck around for all these years despite government cuts in 2007.  She maintained that it was always tricky to be critical of government while looking to it for financial support. But Ms. Pollack explained that her organization never shied away from criticizing Status of Women Canada, though they tried to hold on to a strong relationship (how that's possible is a bit beyond me!).  An audience member seemed to be thinking the same thing and prompted Ms. Pollack to point out that there are "wonderful women in Status of Women Canada." 

Final take-home message from Ms. Bordeleau: "Democarcy does not mean we just vote every four years. We can't simply stop here, even though we have accomplished a lot."

More sweetness. Some thoughtful spoken word and song accompanied our spinning thoughts, delivered by a talented young artist named Jenna Tenn-Yuk.  

MP Niki Ashton, the force behind the forum, wrapped up the event that got women of all ages and backgrounds frantically exchanging numbers and emails and planning on further collaboration and discussion. 

A final dose of sweetness came earlier this week, when loads of women in the U.S. election (whose names would doubtless fill countless binders) helped make it clear that their voices matter.  It's about time. Let's hope Canadian women have an equally positive impact on their social and political landscape.


Amira Elghawaby is freelance journalist, a contributing editor with and a human rights activist at the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations in Ottawa. She has produced work for a variety of media including the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Middle East Times and CBC-Radio. She is also a regular contributor to Prism Magazine.

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