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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 4, January/February 2007

Women's conference: Remembering our rights

by Jane Turner

The following is a compilation of many of the women’s voices who attended the Remembering Our Rights conference held in Creston, BC on November 10–11, 2006.

This was a wake-up call for me. It is not enough to simply know something is true and then to file it away. With knowledge comes a responsibility to act on that knowledge. Don’t just listen to my words, watch the way my feet move.

I was reminded to speak up and out on the issues critical to all women in this country and to undertake a plan of action in areas I am able to influence. It has become convenient to keep my head down, feeling like my own life is all I can manage. This conference has brought my head up, forced me to look clearly around, and having done that, I don’t believe I can keep my head down any longer. (Deborah Cappos, Princeton)

The women came from all across BC. They came to Creston in spite of rainstorms that cancelled ferry services and caused long flight delays. It was the Remembrance Day weekend and the women were there to participate in the aptly named conference, Remembering Our Rights. The conference was organized by the Status of Women Action Group of the BCTF Social Justice Committee. Many of the attendees were BCTF members but there were also many women from other trade unions and from community organizations. The conference had many aims. Three key ones were: (1) to gain an understanding of the history of women’s rights in Canada;

(2) to examine the current status of women’s rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and; (3) to develop networks of activists that would serve to defend women’s rights now and in the future. (Maeve Moran, VESTA)

This conference was an inspiring, educational, and moving experience. The feminist lawyers, the activist teachers, our BCTF leadership, the strong First Nations women, and the courageous women from Bountiful and elsewhere, both within and apart from their communities, were incredible! I was so fortunate to hear and meet some of them! Jinny Sims is wonderful! What a strong presence! She radiates the spirit of a dedicated, caring, brilliant, and hard-working teacher!" (Kathy Duley, Kootenay Lake)

The keynote speakers galvanized the conference by providing participants with a common base of knowledge that deepened the impact of the workshops and panel discussions. Mollie Bono, the president of the BC Native Women’s Association addressed issues that reflect the changing goals of native women—health, self-determination, an end to violence, and matrimonial real property. She spoke of how the isolation of many First Nations’ communities compounds these issues. Over and over, the issues raised in the first keynote of the conference were echoed by other speakers over the two days.

In speaking about the general lack of housing, vulnerability with marriage breakdown, powerlessness—both by law and culture—discrimination, custody battles, and the legacy of colonialism, Bono’s description of the situation for native women paralleled the descriptions heard for immigrant women and women living in the polygamous community of Bountiful. In the same way, the solutions Bono held out could have provided a template for all other marginalized groups of women attending the conference.

Solutions to women’s problems cannot be externally driven. Aboriginal women must determine how the laws need to be changed, communities restructured, and problems resolved. Having said that, Aboriginal women are seeking broad community support to ensure that Canada is a safe place for the next seven generations.

Marylou McPhedran, the co-director of the International Women’s Rights Project, reminded participants of the historic struggles for women’s rights in Canada. Women fought for the rights that were to make them equal partners with men in Canadian society. While women’s rights were enshrined in the constitution in 1982, those rights are rusting, according to McPhedran. Not because of lack of use, but because they have been rained on—they are getting watered down. If women are not vigilant, the rights they have fought for will disappear.

Mary Woo Sims, the third keynote speaker reinforced McPhedran’s message.

She detailed the provincial government’s attacks on human rights after taking power in 2001. Sims, the last chairperson of the BC Human Rights Commission, described the dismantling of the commission and its replacement, the Human Rights Tribunal. In addition to this cut to all citizens’ rights, the provincial government cut funding for child care, women’s programs, legal aid, welfare, and education retraining programs. Mary Woo commented that while the government was forging ahead with cuts to most programs that benefit women, it was boasting to the United Nations about the great strides BC was making in improving women’s rights. She also noted that while the government stated it had to make these cuts due to a weak economy, it hasn’t restored any of these services now that the economy is booming.

Mary Woo called on conference participants to protect, defend, and advance women’s rights, not just for women in Canada, but for women the world over. If our rights are sabotaged and eroded, what hope will women in the developing world have of gaining rights for themselves? She called upon women to "Rise up and be indignant" (Nellie McClung) and bring women’s issues to the fore. (Jane MacEwan, VESTA)

Since 1974, the Vancouver Status of Women (VSW) had published, Kinesis, a vehicle for information sharing and a forum for debate within the women’s community, locally, nationally, and internationally. In March of 2001, VSW had to stop the production of Kinesis due to financial constraints and insufficient women power to ensure continued quality writing and editing in keeping with the standards women expected from this newspaper (vsw.ca/ Documents/vswherstory.doc).

I subscribed to Kinesis. It kept me well informed on issues for women. It gave me the feeling of being connected. It gave me options for connecting to the women’s movement. These days, I receive e-mails on various issues but I no longer read a publication that pulls interconnected local, national, and international women’s issues together. (Donna Clark, Burnaby)

We need to be writing letters to our MLAs, to our MPs, to the Premier, and in all cases sending a copy to the Opposition and to the newspapers. We need to educate each other! (Kathy Duley, Kootenay Lake)

Generally, polygamy presents a power imbalance. The male has the power over the families, over the women, over all of the decision making that is significant. The women are "assigned" to the male with no regard to their feelings or thoughts or wishes. Women are not marrying multiple husbands in these communities. Women are not marrying multiple husbands under fundamentalist Islamic law either, to look at another example.

Women may choose to be in a polygamous relationship and it is obvious that the women from Bountiful who spoke, feel strongly about their right to choose a polygamous relationship. The women of Bountiful have been raised from birth to believe that polygamy is right in God’s eyes. They have known this way of life from birth and they are not as familiar with the way of the wider world, nor do they trust that world. Carolyn Jessop (a former polygamous wife) said, it can be very difficult to find support if women do decide to leave. There is the fear of being caught by their husband. There is the isolation inherent in planning an escape when it must be planned while the woman is still residing in the home. There is real danger. There is the question of the second or third wife’s legal status, particularly outside of the community. There is the fear a mother has when she worries that she may end up losing her children if the courts decide to give the father custody. There is the question of how she will support her children. There are far too many cracks to fall through for a woman thinking of escaping with her children.

There is a parallel to women living in abusive relationships. They too, often feel strongly about their right to choose to return to their abusive relationships. I remember what it was like before transition houses helped women escape from abusive relationships and I am well aware that many women still have no way of escaping. They have no way of analyzing their situation and realizing it is oppressive or abusive and because of this, they often blame themselves for not being able to make it "work." They accept the reality being thrust on them by their husbands as being more "true" than their own perception of reality. During the time that transition houses were coming into being, we came to understand some of what held a woman in an abusive relationship. Internalized oppression, the repeated hammering of a false reality into a woman’s mind while keeping her isolated, can have the effect of having her come to believe the false reality. The damage to a woman’s self esteem, the demoralizing effect of living with fear on a daily basis, the real struggle to reject the husband’s reality and embrace her own are overwhelming obstacles. We came to understand what support was needed and knew it was never simple. Information provided on outside services, support to name the abuse, being believed, physical protection, financial support, counseling, a safe place to hide, money, bridges built to the outside world—all are part of the support system needed to help women in abusive relationships.

I haven’t any answers here but I believe that polygamy as we see it practiced in the closed community of Bountiful oppresses women. It is a patriarchal institution that solely benefits a few powerful men in the name of religion. (Catherine Alpha, Sooke)

Did you know?

December 10, 2006 was the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Instead of celebrating this historical milestone, women in Canada mobilized to ensure that governments honour and respect their international and domestic human rights commitments.

In Canada:

  • Women still earn 71 cents on the male dollar, making Canada 38th in the world in wage gap ratio.
  • Racialized and Aboriginal women earn significantly less than white women.
  • Although 70% of mothers are in the paid work force, we do not have a national childcare program.
  • There are over 10,000 children on wait lists for subsidized child care in Toronto alone.

Our federal government has:

  • Cut 40% of Status of Women Canada’s budget.
  • Eliminated 12 regional Status of Women Canada offices.
  • Decided not to adopt an improved federal pay equity law.
  • Eliminated all funds for the Court Challenges Program.
  • Removed the goal of equality from the mandate of Status of Women Canada,
  • Prohibited the use of federal funds to engage in advocacy, lobbying, and research for women’s equality at any level of government.

Compiled and edited by Jane Turner, assistant director, BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division.

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