by Jody Dallaire, from the Nov. 3rd Times & Transcript
Recently, the New Brunswick government announced that some women were being invited to the first women’s summit in provincial history. The summit is happening this week. Participants will discuss how women can have a voice in government.
Let me tell you what’s wrong with that statement. Then I’ll tell you what should happen.
You should first know that I sincerely hope the event goes sublimely well, that women express themselves openly, that the government representatives are open-minded and that great solutions are found and put into action.
First, why is this called the first women’s summit? There have been other women’s summits in New Brunswick, organized by the women’s community. Even if government did not attend, or does not remember them, they happened. This faux pas – calling it the first women’s summit – is an illustration of part of women’s – and the government’s – problem.
But also we must ask about the coming meeting:
Why “by-invitation”? Why so little notice? Why was it organized without input from citizens and women’s groups? There are actually two events, both at the Fredericton Inn: one happening tomorrow for groups and one on Saturday for individual women.
And since when is a quickly organized meeting called a “summit”? Where are the planning meetings, the discussion paper on the problem to be solved and the options?
While participants are there, I hope that they remind the government of a few things:
Like the community told the government seven months ago when it announced that it would be cutting all public funds allocated to the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, women are not asking for a “voice in government,” but rather for an “independent” voice, one that documents and informs everyone about women’s concerns. The independent voice can bring women’s equality concerns to the attention of the government and to the general public. Then women’s voices in government and society at large can work to achieve greater women’s equality. As it stands now, half of the equation is missing.
In the last year, the government has had many opportunities to advance gender equality. It could have appointed a fair number of women on boards and commissions. It could have used data that is broken down by sex when making decisions and could have published that data. It could have mandated the economic and social bodies that it created not to make gender inequality worse. It could have recognized that there are women’s issues other than providing services to victims of violence. It could have even expressed some concern about the lack of an independent voice on gender equality.
We must understand why the Advisory Council was abolished and what has changed since then.
New Brunswick women fought long and hard in the 1970s to obtain the arm’s length Advisory Council which the provincial government abolished last March, with a few days notice. As the Chairperson of the Advisory Council at the time said before closing the office: “It looks like we women are back on our own to bring about the full citizenship and participation of women in New Brunswick society. One generation of New Brunswick women, at least, had a publicly funded ally, in the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, in creating this fairer world.”
Given the public reaction to its abolition, the Council was respected and valued.
Currently, the government subsidizes no one to do what the Council did, especially to document and make known what women are concerned about and whether what the government is doing is helping or hurting.
Furthermore, there are no elected women in the opposition Liberals and women on the government side have said they think there is no problem.
Last spring, during the debate on the government’s decision to abolish the Advisory Council, one female MLA congratulated her government for having abolished the Advisory Council by saying that it was “a big change, but it is a good change. It signals the end of women’s issues being at arm’s length of the government.” She then compared the government cut to women obtaining the right to vote – not a popular decision but a necessary one. The website “Save Our Advisory Council” added this quote under the title “Priceless”.
The official reason given by the government to abolish the Advisory Council was that each department had to come up with cuts and so the minister cut the Council instead of cutting services to battered women. Since March the government has created new publicly funded commissions (on issues important to the government) and continues to fund other commissions set up in the past. I guess publicly funding achieving women’s equality was not high enough on the priority list.
Few people believed that official reason, because it made no sense and because it was more likely that the government had just seized the opportunity afforded by a financial “situation” to get rid of an independent voice.
Some might women should expect nothing for now, because the province is under a financial crisis. That reminds me of those countries where daughters are undernourished compared to their brothers because families value boys. Should those girls have to wait for the family income to increase before they get their share? To ask women to wait for equality in New Brunswick makes about as much sense.
* Jody Dallaire is a member of Dieppe City Council and chairs the Dieppe Advisory Commmittee on Equal Opportunity for Women and Men. Her column appears each Thursday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.