Last Tuesday, the Government of New Brunswick slated the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status ofWomen for abolition by eliminating 100% of its funding from the provincial budget. If this defunding is carried out, the effects will be devastating not only for the women of New Brunswick, but for all Canadian women. This Council is an arms-length government agency that has been advocating for women since 1977 and is, frankly, irreplaceable.
Historically, the N.B. ACSW has been the gold standard in provincial/territorial Advisory Councils (there are 8 of these agencies in total). The Council published the country’s first brochure on battered women in 1979 and led the way in developing a system for gender-based analysis in Canada. As Dr. Wendy Robbins (Professor at UNB and co-founder of the institution’s Women’s Studies Program) explained to CBC, “They’ve done a phenomenal job, they’ve put issues on the agenda nationally, and they’re just a treasure trove of research, of outreach, of consultation; of everything that an agency does well, they’re a model of it. I’ve often suggested to other people that they look at this little gem we have in New Brunswick.”
History and praise aside, here are some other things that the Council does:
- Publishes a biennial statistical report on the status of women in New Brunswick, a document that brings together information that, in some cases, would be otherwise inaccessible and presents it in a way that is understandable to those who aren’t numbers-experts. The Council also pull smaller, more concise fact-sheets out of that report and updates them regularly to ensure that current numbers are available between publications of full reports;
- Hosts lunch and learn events around all regions of the province, often partnering with grassroots organizations that otherwise would not have the funding to present their work publicly;
- The Council’s chairperson has a weekly column dedicated to commenting on women’s issues in the Times & Transcript newspaper. In the past year, the column has discussed trans issues, abortion rights, pay equity, media coverage of women in politics, white privilege, pay equity, gender-based analysis, and dozens of other topics. A 2010 column, explaining Canada’s prostitution laws and examining the approach other countries take, gained international notice and earned the Council’s Executive Director an invitation to Sweden for a journalists’ tour. The Executive director the people responsible for the Sweden’s progressive legislation on prostitution and was able to talk to many front line workers about the law;
- Produces a weekly email newsletter that goes out to over 4 000 subscribers. This newsletter is a dense piece of work packed with information on events, amusing anecdotes, facts from reports, and excerpts from studies;
- Operates a toll free line that women can call to ask about services, bring issues to attention, suggest ideas, make complaints, and inquire about the status of issues;
- Offers advice to the government, consulting with them on decisions, policies and programs. Because the Council is arms-length, they can call bullshit when they needed to; their independent status gives them the ability to speak truth to power;
The Council did all this work with a whopping few hundred thousand dollars a year. Before the budget was announced, the Council operated on $418 000 a year. The Government of New Brunswick is stating that funding for the Council is being cut because the province is in dire financial straits, not as an attempt to “water down” the voice of women’s advocates. The Government is insistent that the Council overlaps with the Women’s Issues Branch in Executive Council, that there is duplication in services that must be eliminated.
It’s true that there is a Women’s Issues Branch within the New Brunswick government that works with the Minister responsible for the Status of Women. They do good work, though it tends to be on non-controversial issues that most everyone supports, such as providing services to victims of violence. In fact, the Minister responsible for the Status of Women has said that at the end of the day, the Government had to make a decision between cutting 14 front-line workers or cutting the Council, and that the Government chose services over than advocacy. The Government assures us that the functions of the NB ACSW will be absorbed into the Women’s Issues Branch and that no services will be sacrificed as a result. The Government tells us that two new positions are even being created in the Women’s Issues Branch and have been offered to ACSW employees (which also means that the savings from the elimination of the Council are not the full $418 000), while pledging that the Minister responsible for the Status of Women will act as a strong advocate for the women of the province.
It is, of course, patently ridiculous for the Government to suggest that these two bodies overlap simply because they are both focused on women. Though they are dedicated to the same group (that happens to comprise half of the population), these departments have very different mandates and focuses. In some ways, they are antithetical to one another: one exists to nip at the heels of government and one exists to do the express bidding of government. To expect a Minister and a branch of civil servants to be able to speak up and advocate for women in the same way that an independent agency does is ludicrous. For example, will the Minister and the Women’s Issues Branch be adopting a pro-choice stance and begin advocating for improved abortion access in New Brunswick? The Council holds a pro-choice stance and deplored New Brunswick’s reprehensible regulation that forces women seeking publicly-funded abortions to not only find two doctors to deem their abortion “medically necessary” but to then have the procedure performed in one of the two hospitals in the province that provide abortions, rather than a clinic. Will the Minister responsible for the Status of Women and the Women’s Issues Branch take on their anti-choice higher-ups? If they’re advocates, they should; after all, the Supreme Court of Canada guarantees a woman’s right to choose and the Canada Health Act states that abortions are to be publicly funded.
I think we all know that this cut is not about eliminating overlap in services; it is about silencing an agency that has been tremendously effective in advocating for women. As the blog Save Our Advisor Council says, “$418 000 isn’t enough money to make a difference in our provincial budget; it is enough to muzzle the pesky voices of New Brunswick women!” At the heart of things is the fact that the Council did its job all too well, so it had to be shut down. We will not see the Minister responsible for the Status of Women or the Women’s Issues Branch suddenly speak out on issues that are deemed to controversial or may cast the Government in a negative light, nor will we see them as involved as the Council is at community and grassroots levels. We will see them continue to tell women that they have to chose between services and advocacy and that the fight for equality is not the concern of government.