A slightly different version of this text was published by the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal on December 30, 2014.
This year’s election was notable in one respect: a women’s issue was an election topic. That does not happen often (understatement). The abortion issue determined whom some would vote for. I can only remember one other provincial election, in 1987, where the campaign included a women’s issue – pay equity – though that issue hardly played a deciding role then since all parties promised some version of it.
The Brian Gallant government has now dealt with part of the abortion access issue, but it had also made other platform promises to women.
The next issue it could address quickly is to create an independent advisory body on women’s issues – fix a problem inherited from the departed government. The Conservatives abolished the Advisory Council on the Status of Women six months after they were elected. (They wanted to govern in peace.) Then, a few months before the end of their term, they said they were re-establishing an independent agency, “Voices of Women”. Except that’s not what they did. “Voices” was not given a legislated, or even known, mandate and authority. Government gave itself seats at “Voices” meetings and provides a minuscule budget partly “in kind”. Many “Voices” members sit as representatives of groups that look to government for survival or support, so given how divergent those interests can be, they can hardly represent New Brunswick women and their group. More respectful and responsible structures exist which guard against such conflicts of interest and protect the integrity of the agency. In any case, about a year after its members were appointed – a very lively year for women’s issues – “Voices” is still invisible. Consider though that Voices may be working perfectly to plan: governments know how to create real “arm’s length” agencies, and it did not do it in this case. Nor, it seems, did it appoint members that know how to deal with such a situation. Government 1, women 0.
Pay equity was often in the news in 2014, but it did not factor much in the election campaign. Earlier in the year, though, the ever-tenacious Coalition for Pay Equity released an independent review that showed that pay equity evaluations done under the provincial governments’ stewardship were “deliberately distorted in order to reduce the cost to government”. Governments had « adapted » the accepted methods of doing a pay equity evaluation, and each adaptation reduced the chance of finding pay inequity or lowered the amount of pay adjustment for women’s jobs. Government 2, women 0.
The new Liberal government has promised to improve the pay equity methodology. It will also require organizations with more than 50 employees who do business with government to implement pay equity.
If there is any substance to Brian Gallant’s promise of “new politics”, he will also have to do something soon about getting more women into politics. New Brunswick is the worst in Canada*. Only eight women were elected in September, giving 16% of seats to that 52% of our population.
At the national level, the issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence against women received a lot of attention this fall. But not so much here. New Brunswick has some municipalities with high rates of sexual assault, and provincially we have very high rates of sexual offences against children. We are also way up there with our rate of family murder-suicides – but nothing is done about that nor are we ever shaken out of our stupor by local groups.
In the end, 2014 belonged to the young.
The university students who launched a pro-choice petition last winter. Later when it became known the Morgentaler clinic was to close, the hundreds of young women who protested with signs such as “My body is not a democracy”. The ridiculously young premier we just elected. The young women who recently protested being told what to wear with signs saying “If you’re distracted by my bra strap, that’s your problem”. The Green Party’s bill to allow 16-year-olds to vote – and what that means for your grandpa’s political party. The young women steering the Regroupement féministe du Nouveau-Brunswick. The Bathurst women aged 16 to 24 who worked all of last year to identify barriers to women becoming involved in politics. The evidence of push-back against rape culture coming from young women on local campuses and in local media.
I’m older and I’m pumped.
* January 1, 2015: Correction. Newfoundland & Labrador has ‘overtaken’ N.B. for worst province for female representation in the provincial assembly.