Presented by Barbara Byers on Thursday, 18 November 2010
(check against delivery) Merci et bonjour. Thanks so much for your invitation to be here. I bring you greetings on behalf of CLC Executive Vice-President Sister Marie Clarke Walker, President Ken Georgetti and Secretary-Treasurer Hassan Yussuff.
Sisters and Brother, congratulations on hosting this wonderful conference. From just reading your brochure it is clear that I am in the presence of “Sisters in the Know” who are “Creating Our Future”.
Whenever I have the chance to meet with Sisters - and you know I do have a special place in my heart for my Prairie Sisters - I always have it reconfirmed that these are strong women; women ‘in the know’; and women who have made their mark on our past, are making their mark on our present and are creating the conditions for a strong future together.
How many of you know the image of ‘Rose the Riveter’? There are a lot of “Rosie the Riveters” in this room and, like Rosie, “We Can Do It!” if we learn the lessons of those Sisters who have gone before us, and if we are making every effort to create an inclusive labour movement where all Sisters voices are heard and listened to.
I firmly believe it was because of the struggle of women in our movement to create spaces and places for feminist, women activists we then became the strongest allies for creating spaces and places for others who not just felt excluded, they were excluded and their voices weren’t counted. Because of women in the labour movement doors were opened for workers of colour, Aboriginal workers, workers with disabilities, GLBT members and young workers.
As the ‘Sisters in the Know’ in Manitoba are creating our future at this conference and beyond, it is important to have a sense of how far we have come together.
There are thousands of women across Canada and around the world that can be inspirations to all of us. We all have our own “Special Sisters”. My list is way too long to mention them all tonight so I will give you an idea of just some of these women that give me courage when I feel down, that make me laugh when I want to cry and who, because of their work in the past, I feel responsible to create a better future for the Sisters who are younger than I am.
Women like Beatrice Brigden, from Brandon, Manitoba. In 1930, Sister Brigden was the first woman to run in the federal riding of Brandon. She ran for the Labour Party. She was a feminist, socialist, educator and supporter of workers. If you ever get to Hamilton, Ontario please go to the Workers’ Arts and Heritage Centre. You will see a display about famous Canadian activists and Beatrice Brigden is one of those displays.
Women like Helen Armstrong who I learned about at your last women’s conference when you played the documentary about her life “The Notorious Mrs. Armstrong”. Thank you so much for sharing with me the story of Helen Armstrong and her life of activism and principle. The story of women in the forefront of our struggles is so rarely documented so we need to celebrate their lives and their accomplishments for it is a celebration and honouring of all women engaged in the struggle.
Just a few more examples from my list.
Women like Helen Keller. You probably know her as the woman who was deaf and blind and mute and who was the subject of plays and movies such as “The Miracle Worker”. However, there is another Helen Keller that is less known; the social activist, feminist, socialist, supporter of the Match Girls Strike and advocate for a class analysis on disability rights.
Women like Viola Desmond, a black woman from Nova Scotia, who in 1946, while waiting for her car to be repaired in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, went to a theatre and sat in the area reserved for whites only and was removed from the theatre when she refused to leave the segregated seating. Ten years before people heard about the struggle of Rosa Parks in the USA, Viola Desmond fought segregation laws in Canada. She eventually won her case at the Supreme Court in 1954. She won and not just for her but for the future of all women and people of colour and for all those fighting for equality.
Women like Rosemary Brown, who ran for the leadership of the Federal NDP. She may not have won that leadership, however many women after her had the door opened for them because of what she did.
Consider the inspiration of Madeleine Parent, from Quebec, who took on organizing the unorganized; primarily women workers in the textile industry. Madam Parent did it with a fervor and passion that made men in the movement and employers take notice.
I am inspired by women like Ellen Gabriel, who was one of the First Nations leaders during the Oka standoff and is a tremendous spokesperson about what happened there and what has happened since to advance or frustrate the rights of all Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
Consider the strength of Alphonsine Lafond, from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in my home province of Saskatchewan. In 1960 Alponsine Lafond became the first woman to be elected Chief of a Saskatchewan First Nation.
And consider women like Monique Begin, who was the Federal Minister of Health and Welfare when major changes were made in the Canada Pension Plan and also when the Canada Health Act was implemented bringing medicare to everyone in Canada. She stood up against her own Cabinet, the Premiers, the Ministers of Finance and the Ministers of Health. She stood with the people who wanted and needed access to medical treatment based on need not on how much money you had in your bank account. And because she was brave, we all won.
I am inspired by women like Nancy Riche, who was a CLC Executive Vice-President and the Secretary Treasurer and always made it her mission to open doors and windows – and sometimes bust down walls and barricades – for women and equality seeking groups.
And women like Susan Hart Kullbaba and Darlene Dziewit who led this Federation with strength and determination to create a better future for all.
And finally, I receive inspiration from the thousands and tens of thousands of rank and file women in our movement who take on the struggle day by day, week by week, and never give up. They may not all have ‘made headlines’ but without them the other women could never have done what they were able to.
And what have we done together?
We have made some big gains and we need to celebrate them; as they give us strength for the struggles that we are taking on now.
Think about the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. It is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The Commission was launched by the federal government in 1967 as a result of pressure from over 32 women's organizations who threatened a massive women's march on Ottawa. The commission had a mandate to investigate and report on all matters pertaining to the status of women and to make specific recommendations for improving the condition of women in those areas which fell within the federal government's jurisdiction. It travelled the country over 6 months, holding extensive consultations. The 167 recommendations are the basis for many of the gains women have made in the subsequent decades. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women was founded to hold the government accountable to the Commission's recommendations.
Have we won everything over the last fourty years? No, however we are much farther ahead than if the Royal Commission had never happened.
If you want to know some specifics about how the recommendations of the Royal Commission changed the lives of women in Manitoba there is a great publication on the Manitoba Government website that shows the many significant changes that were implemented that made a difference to the economic and social equality of women in this province. Celebrate these victories because they form the foundation of creating the future.
We won the struggle for reproductive rights for women in this country. In 1970 women participated in The Abortion Caravan which converged on Ottawa to demand access to abortions for all women that needed them. Because of their work and the determination of thousands of women in places large and small the struggle for reproductive rights was eventually successful with the Supreme Court decision on January 28, 1988. Is the struggle over for access for all women? No, however we have that base to build on for today and into the future. And we must guard it.
We won struggles for pay equity and employment equity. Manitoba was in forefront of that work. Sisters here, working with the Manitoba Government, created the vision and the discussion that “We Can Do It”. I remember women from Manitoba coming to work with us in Saskatchewan on pay equity and what a wonderful learning atmosphere it was, because it also challenged our our gender biases on work.
I know our wins on pay equity certainly took a long time. The struggle of our Sisters in PSAC took 25 years before there was justice for their members. But there was economic justice for those women. And that economic justice is being threatened by the Harper Government with their phony-baloney Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act.
And the struggle for pay equity at Bell Canada took 15 years; during which time 18 % of the 4700 telephone operators involved in CEP's pay equity complaint died before seeing any compensation. But CEP made sure the compensation was made to their estates.
The struggle continues for pay equity and employment equity; but we will not go backwards. It is a matter of respect for those women who took up the struggle against great odds. And it is our commitment to women today and in the future who still struggle for the elimination of gender based wage discrimination.
We won paid maternity and parental leaves. CUPW led the way in achieving paid maternity leaves however their win was not just for their members. They won for their contract, and they created the challenge to other unions to do the same; and women led the way on those struggles – inside our unions and then with our employers. And non-union women won paid leaves too. We need to remember that what we win in our collective agreements becomes an expectation for other people as well. So it’s not “just about us”! It is about creating the future of equality for all.
The women in Quebec – labour and our allies - won a phenomenal child care program for workers in their province. It was $5.00 a day; and then it moved to $7.00 a day. And it is a model for all of us when we are advocating for affordable, accessible, quality child care for all children. Is it perfect? No it is not, and there are still children that need child care. Is it far-and-away better than anything else in Canada? Yes it is, and it is what we all need to be fighting for. It has benefited children and it has benefited their parents, particularly their mothers. Prior to the Quebec childcare program the participation rate of women in the Quebec workforce was the lowest in Canada. Ten years after the program was implemented the participation rate of women in the Quebec workforce is the highest in Canada. Do you think, just maybe, that change has to do with the comfort women feel in Quebec about their access to quality childcare that is affordable and accessible?
And most recently we won the fight to keep the long gun registry. On December 6th I will be back with you to celebrate and remember the lives of 14 women gunned down in Montreal at Ecole Polytechnique and the lives of all women who died because of violence.
When we gather we need to remember that one of the mothers of the Ecole Polytechnique women said that the gun registry was the monument to her daughter’s life and to the lives of all women affected by violence. We know that women’s lives have been saved because of the Registry. We know that the police, as workers, have another tool to keep their lives safer and to keep the lives of others safer in our communities.
Just consider that in 1989, the year of the murders at Ecole Polytechnique, there were 144 murders of women by firearms. In 2006, after we have had gun control for about 10 years, there were 33 homicide’s of women by firearms.
We know that the Conservatives used every dirty trick in the book to get rid of the Registry and we still were able to win the vote. They are not logical, they are ideological. We know the Conservatives have said they will not quit until the Registry is abolished. And we know that we are up to their next challenge. This is not about the right to own a gun. This is about one very important tool for keeping women and their workplaces and their communities safer.
We have won the possibility of women being elected leader of our unions, our Federations and at the CLC.
You may have heard that Shirley Carr died last June. She began her activism in CUPE. She became a Executive Vice-President of the CLC, then Secretary Treasurer and then the President of the CLC. In that moment she became the first woman to lead the CLC and indeed the first woman to lead a national labour central anywhere in the world. Don’t ever let it be said that Canadian women can’t do it. Yes, we can do it, and we have done it. Our challenge in creating the future is that there are more women – and particularly women from equality seeking communities – elected to all kinds of positions in our labour movement.
But now is not a time to rest on our laurels.
We have so much more to do – on pay equity, on child care, on violence, on the Aboriginal women that are missing and presumed murdered, on pensions, on reproductive rights, on poverty, and on so many more issues.
Now, more than ever, women in unions need to be active and engaged in the struggle for equality. Because with every victory comes a redoubled effort to take us back even further.
There is a man in Ottawa who is the Prime Minister. He has engaged on a war on women. He wants to drive back our equality not just years, but decades.
Consider Harper's legacy.
Just since his first election in January 2006 he has attacked women’s social and economic equality without shame and without stopping. The list is too long to state everything however just consider some of the attacks.
He and his government attacked Status of Women Canada and closed 12 of 16 offices across the country.
He attacked women's organizations by removing core funding. Providing no funding for research or advocacy means women's organizations s have been effectively silenced. The latest attack is within the last week on their slashing funding for Sisters of Spirit who have done so much to bring attention to the missing Aboriginal women. I call on each of you tonight to, as soon as possible, go to the Native Women’s Association of Canada website, NWAC.ca and sign on to their letter protesting the attack on their work. Do it personally, and then make sure your local, your provincial or regional organization, your national organization, your labour council and your Federation are also signing on and distributing the information to others with the same call to action.
Harper’s government eliminated the Court Challenges Program and by doing so removed an important tool for enforcing the Charter. The Court Challenges Program was important to equality rights for women, disability rights activists, people of colour, the GLBT community and everyone seeking justice under the Charter.
The Harper Government is an international embarrassment for their failure to act on international obligations regarding equality rights such as the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. (CEDAW)
And now Harper and his band of ‘regressive conservatives’ are using Private Members Bills as a way to attack the long gun registry, abortion rights, and other equality advances. Since when does the government include references to a Private Members Bill like they did with the long gun registry? The Conservatives attacked the Liberals for ‘whipping the vote’ however refused to see the contradiction that every one of the Conservative MPs voted for eliminating the long gun registry. Surely, there had to be at least one of those MPs who had heard from their constituents that the Registry needed to be saved and in fact improved.
Now, more than ever, we need strong leaders, strong women involved in our unions.
We know we've made a difference and helped shape our movement:
We have challenged our unions' governance structures, ensuring that women and members of equality-seeking groups have a ‘seat at the table’ and a voice in the decision-making process.
We have had to push our way in the door and we have made sure the door stayed open for those coming behind us. We have not been satisfied when union publications and statements give feminist issues a line or a paragraph. We have stood strong in stating that passing reference does not equate with a feminist analysis.
We've helped some of our Sisters make the transition from union work to elected office at every level of government. You have a provincial bi-election now and a Federal bi-election coming up soon. You have a provincial general election in October 2011. We need to make sure that feminist Sisters from the labour movement are involved and active in all aspects of those elections.We have worked hard to organize workers in female-dominated jobs and workplaces.We have brought our bargaining issues forward and fought to get them to the bargaining table and fought to keep them there – whether it's child care, anti-harassment language, pay equity. Our gains have benefited women and men, their families and their communities. Our gains have gone on to benefit those outside of union membership.We have pushed for the labour movement to take on a range of broader social issues – bringing a more inclusive approach to defining what is a “union issue”.
We have built coalitions with women's organizations and a range of community allies; and we have stood beside them when they were taking on the Harper government. We have helped our movement become a more inclusive, effective force for equality and justice. We have taken up the challenge to create change in the Canada Pension Plan, the Guaranteed Income Supplement and to develop Pension Insurance. I know you will be hearing more about this tomorrow at lunch however I want every one of you to commit to taking up this issue in the only way I know you can – with energy and passion and determination to win. It is a way to create a better future for everyone, and especially for women who are much more likely to live in poverty as a retiree. This is an issue for our futures, and one that could truly benefit many Sisters whether they are retired now, are going to be retiring soon or are just entering the workforce now.
Sisters, let us be reminded of the struggles, in the past and in the present. Let us be reminded of all the women who inspire us to act.
Sisters, like Beatrice Brigden and Helen Armstrong, and the Famous Five; and like your grandmothers and mothers and sisters and daughters and nieces and friends … We have done it, We can do it, and We will do it!.
We are the women of the union and we make the union strong.
We are “Sisters in the Know … Creating our Future”.
Thank you. Merci Beaucoup.