New and invisible

This column first appeared in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal of July 19, 2014.

If you’re a small-c conservative government of the sort that New Brunswick perpetually has, what could be better than getting rid of an independent agency concerned with something you don’t give a farthing about – say, women’s issues? Getting rid of it and then coming back with a toothless version that you can still point to – such as at election time.

Even better than that would be if the media were to buy into that sleight of hand.

In 2011, Premier David Alward abolished the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, but then, due to the protests, promised a new version of an independent body on women’s issues. Finally, in 2013, the government announced it was creating « Voices of New Brunswick Women Consensus-Building Forum”, and, just over five months ago, appointed its 15 members.

However, to date, this new agency cannot be contacted by phone, email, or social media. It has no office, no staff, and, to my knowledge, has yet to be heard on any issue. Not abortion, not the feminist issues that should be part of the upcoming provincial election, not the treatment of prostitutes or prostitution law, not pay equity, not aboriginal women, not the many cases of violence against women, not International Women’s Day nor Mother’s Day. Neither has it said anything about its mandate, its vision, its resources and its independence.

So, unless this new “agency” does something worthwhile, soon, are we to conclude that government took advantage of a situation and replaced the independent Council with an entity so circumscribed and limited in its resources that it will be incapable of ever bothering government?

Here is why I’m not impressed yet:

The Advisory Council had been established by law.

Voices has no establishing legislation, no Order-in-Council, and no known mandate.

The Advisory Council was mandated by law to bring issues of concern to women to the attention of the public and government, to recommend laws and policies, to gather, research, and disseminate information, and to facilitate networking among women’s groups.

We only have a government media release to back this up, but Voices is expected to “promote equality for women and girls and improve their lives”.

The Advisory Council controlled nearly $600,000 in funding and access to services.

Voices, according to media releases, might have access, subject to some unidentified conditions, to about $200,000 in funds and services.

The first statement from Voices of Women should be a declaration that it wishes to function within a legislated mandate – something like the Act that created the Advisory Council on the Status of Women. It should also remind the government what is required to be “independent”: a clear and known mandate that includes authority to make its advice public, to choose its priorities and recommendations, to have autonomy over its budget and control over the hiring and management of staff. If Voices of Women doesn’t have these powers, then the government should stop saying that it has created an independent body, much less a replacement for the Advisory Council.

The 15 women appointed by the Minister to Voices of Women are excellent nominations. They are individuals or representatives of women’s groups. But, is their devotion to the cause being exploited? Many of us have thought “been down so long, this looks like up to me”. If that’s not the problem, then why the silence, when they have a job to do, when New Brunswick women fare so poorly in many areas, when they are in danger of being used and so, of doing more harm than good?

Over the decades, several of New Brunswick’s governments would have abolished the Advisory Council if they could. Year after year, the Council maintained feminist positions that irritated governments who found feminist positions irritating. The Council maintained its position in favour of access to abortions and to contraception, even emergency contraception; it insisted that women’s equality required changes not just in the social realm but economic, fiscal and electoral reforms, and it asserted that pay equity is a human right not words to be parsed in an election platform.

That’s why, before I say Brava, I will wait for Voices of Women to do something, anything, which puts the interest of New Brunswick women first.

Whatever happens next will depend in part on David Alward, Minister Marie-Claude Blais, the co-chairs, Kim Nash-McKinley and Phylomène Zangio, individual members Kyla Lapointe, Noëlla Richard, Paulette Sonier Rioux and Stephanie Beaulieu and representatives of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research, Moncton YWCA, the Urban Core Support Network, the Sussex Committee on Prevention of Family Violence, the Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre, UNB Women’s Studies, the Coalition for Pay Equity, the Regroupement féministe du Nouveau-Brunswick and the Association of CBDCs of NB.

What happens actually depends on all women of the province.

Better nothing at all than something that pretends to do the job.

Rosella Melanson was employed by the Advisory Council on the Status of Women for several years until 1996 and from 2001 until the Council’s abolition in 2011. She was then an employee of the provincial government until her retirement in 2013.

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