Choose to Challenge — IWD2021 Keynote for the Women’s Centre Grey Bruce
Thank you to the Women’s Centre of Grey Bruce for having me as their keynote for their virtual 2021 International Women’s Day event. Together, attendees, donors, and sponsors were able to more than triple the Women’s Centre fundraising goals for this event (to a total of more than $13,000). More than 100 women gathered for a ‘power hour’ and it was my honour to deliver the remarks below during a very different kind of International Women’s Day celebration at the one-year-mark of a year like none of us has experienced before.
As always, thank you to the incredible women and feminists who have shaped who I am today and who I will become. I owe everything to them.
As a researcher whose work focused on place, power, and policy, it is important for me to acknowledge the territory on which I live and work and invite you to do the same. I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg, Haudenasaunee and Métis Peoples. I acknowledge the Attawandaron people, on whose traditional territory the University of Guelph resides, and that we gather on the treaty lands and territory of the Missisaugas of the Credit. We offer our respect to our Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Métis neighbours as we strive to strengthen our relationships with them. We recognize the significance of the Dish with One Spoon Covenant to this land. The Dish with One Spoon Covenant is a peace agreement made between Indigenous nations before the Europeans arrived. It characterizes our collective responsibility to each other and Mother Earth — we should take only what we need, leave enough for others and keep the dish clean. The Dish With One Spoon Covenant speaks to our collective responsibility to steward and sustain the land and environment in which we live and work, so that all peoples, present and future, may benefit from the sustenance it provides. And, as it is International Women’s Day, I would like to connect this acknowledgement to a poem by Delaware poet Daniel David Moses, ‘Essay on the problem of Sky Woman.’
Now, I would like to congratulate the Women’s Centre Grey Bruce for more than doubling their fundraising goal for this event and to all of you who have bought tickets to be here, participated in the online auction, donated to the campaign with your time, money, and resources as volunteers, sponsors, and members of the community, and those of you who’ve shown up today simply because you are my friend and wanted to show your support. Your contributions mean that the Women’s Centre will be able to continue it’s critical work in our communities. Last year, they supported more than 1500 women and children, including preparing nearly a thousand safety plans and responding to women in crisis with thousands of texts, calls, and conversations. The work done by the staff, board, and supporters of the Women’s Centre Grey Bruce to support women in our communities is staggering in its depth and reach. The importance of the services provided by organizations like this one are urgent and becoming more and more critical as we navigate a confluence of crises that we’ve not experienced before — and yet, I don’t think it would be an overstep for me to say that the goal of organizations like this one is to put themselves out of business. Through your connections to this organization and the work done by this network, you have already committed yourself to confronting some of the more damaging and systemic challenges facing our society. I have great faith that you will tackle the work ahead with care and compassion.
And let’s be clear: there is so much work to be done.
I am honoured to be here this morning to offer you an invitation to recommit to the work ahead in advancing gender equality. I am always honoured to be invited to share space with women and with the people dedicated to serving the most vulnerable in our communities. To be serving as the keynote speaker on International Women’s Day is both a joy and a little nerve-wracking: much like the experience of being a woman in the world today. Preparing for this morning, I found myself trying to strike the right balance of inspirational and accusational, walking a tightrope between righteous and outraged.
In the end, I’ve decided to show up this morning exactly as I am: frustrated, hopeful, overwhelmed, excited, tired, resilient — and entirely committed to the cause of elevating women’s leadership in rural communities, in Canada, and around the world.
The theme set out for this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘choose to challenge.’ Those of you who have worked with me or walked alongside me at any point in my journey know that this is a fitting theme for me. I often joke that I am never better than when I have a fight to fight and colleagues know that the most frequent questions to come out of my mouth are “why?’ and “so what?”. And Carrie, bless her heart, has given me free rein to challenge the typical approach taken by too many International Women’s Day events. I am not interested in small talk or small thoughts, so I have no desire to be self-congratulatory today and share cliches about how ‘we’ve come so far’ — not when we know the fastest rising wage gap is not between men and women, but between white women and women of colour, and not when we only have one woman sitting as a first Minister in Canada (Caroline Cochrane, who took office as the 13th Premier of the Northwest Territories in 2019), and not when the 47 calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the 231 calls from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women continue to go unanswered. While the celebratory nature of most contemporary International Women’s Day conversations are absolutely wonderful, we must not forget that the day itself finds its origins in protest, activism, and advocacy for social, economic, and political change.
So I am not going to sugarcoat my challenge to you and leaders everywhere this morning. We do not have time to waste on “you’ve come a long way, baby” because, as civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer argued: nobody’s free until everybody’s free.
With this in mind, I hope that the last year has radicalized you. I hope that it has shaken you by the shoulders in a way you can’t ignore as we collectively grapple with a confluence of crises not experienced in several generations. The public health crisis of COVID-19 and the widespread reckoning with systemic and structural racism re-ignited through the resurgence of recognition for the Black Lives Matter movement are happening in the shadow of the growing threat of global climate disaster. COVID-19 has not been an equalizer and there has not been a singular, unifying experience of these tumultuous times — we are all experiencing the unique and particular consequences of these global crises differently depending on who we are and where we live.
To paraphrase both economist Betsey Stevenson and Emergency Room Dr. Dawn Lim: while women can do remarkable things in times of crises, like lifting a car off a loved one, that extraordinary response does not mean we get to call women superheroes and then leave them hanging, mid air and holding a car, and not expect the damage of that heavy lifting to take a toll. And the last year has extracted an incredible toll from so many people. It has also shown us that so many of our social, economic, and political “rules” are arbitrary, cruel, and just plain stupid — and often create bigger, wider barriers to supporting people when they need it most.
What we are experiencing now is a warning shot: if we do not identify, address, and actively fight the various layers of social, economic, and environmental injustice operating in our organizations and communities, the future does not get brighter. We are very much in the eye of the storm.
And while many men in power have used the language of war to describe efforts at managing the COVID-19 crisis, it turns out that an ethos of care is actually what has been most effective in helping us move forward during these unprecedented times.
Many commentators have highlighted the remarkable way that countries and communities led by women appear to have handled the COVID-19 crisis better than their male counterparts. Jacinda Aldern in New Zealand, the coalition government led entirely by young women in Finland, Angela Merkel in Germany — all very different women, but all remarkable leaders. There is an interesting ‘chicken and egg’ conversation to be had in analyzing these dynamics: due to the systemic and structural sexism that keeps many women to the sidelines, these women have had to be exponentially more exceptional than their male peers just to access their seats of power. Further, these women have largely risen to power in countries that value inherently feminst policy approaches such as heavy investment in childcare, healthcare, education, personal leave, equal pay, and strong labour protections. The protection of what both the suffragettes and the Labour movement named as “bread and roses” — the necessities of life as well as the richness of living — creates a virtuous cycle where women — freed from many of the burdens of caretaking and supported by the enforcement of protective legislation — are more easily recognized as leaders because they have the time, space, and support required to allow them full access to their power.
Here in Canada, we have developed an admiration and celebration of the mostly women Medical Officers of Health who are guiding us through this crisis — and I want to make special note of Dr. Nicola Mercer, the Medical Officer of Health in Wellington- Guelph-Dufferin, who instituted the first mask mandate in the country and who was recently recognized as Municipal World’s 2021 Woman of Distinction. Like their global counterparts, Generally, we have attributed their excellence under pressure to resilience, pragmatism, benevolence, trust in collective common sense, mutual aid and humility.
So, if women have shown, time and again, how competent and professional they are, especially under circumstances and conditions that no leader has faced in at least three generations, where are they on our boards, in our executive suites, and in our elected offices?
As Robyn Doolittle and Chen Wang have noted in their important ‘Power Gap’ series for the Globe and Mail, “The first equal pay legislation in Canada passed in 1951, making it illegal to pay men and women in the same job different salaries. Women overtook men among university graduates three decades ago. Today, women represent just under half of the workforce. And yet, men still dramatically outnumber, outrank and outearn women.” To be more pointed, there are more men named Michael leading Canada’s largest businesses than there are women CEOs. Only about 2% of venture capital funding goes to women entrepreneurs. Women occupy less than 20% of Mayoral seats in Canada and only 28% of council positions. When we look further into the representation of Back, Indigenous, and Women of Colour and LGBTQ2+ women service elected officials, the numbers become downright dire. Ten times more women than men have fallen out of the labour force during the pandemic, and our collective failure of imagination in terms of our responses to these facts threaten to undo decades of even marginal advances in women’s participation across all aspects of our lives. You’ll have to forgive me if I have a difficult time celebrating any of this as evidence of progress. Representation in political, economic, social and cultural institutions is an expression of power. Women still do not hold sufficient seats of power.
So, like many others: I’m angry. And if you’re angry, too: good. We have to remember that there is power in righteous anger over injustice when it is channeled effectively — to paraphrase American abolition activist and advocate Mariame Kaba, this knowledge is powerful fuel for radicalizing our leadership, rather than reducing us to despair. From Prime Minister Aldern to Dr. Tam to Autumn Pelletier’s climate activism to Stacey Abrams massive role in galvanizing mostly rural, Black voters in pivotal seats in Georgia in the US election to the powerful women leading the Black Lives Matter Movement (Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and others in the United States or Janaya Khan and Sandy Hudson in Toronto), we have remarkable examples of how women are channeling their anger into the compelling power required to organize and lead through uncertain times.
The challenges being addressed by these women, and the decisions we must make to reshape our future, have geographically and socially uneven consequences — rural and small towns across Canada have not been spared and are not exempt from tackling the work presented by these seismic shifts.
More than 3 million women live in rural or remote places in Canada, or just under 20% of the total number of women in Canada, and 47% of Indigeous women live in rural areas. The she-cession, as economist Armine Yalnizyan calls it, has hit these rural women harder than their male or urban counterparts. Analysis by Ray Bollman for the Rural Ontario Institute shows an employment gap of 9.3% for rural women compared to 7.2% for urban women — meaning almost 10% of rural women have dropped out of the labour force. These women are less likely to qualify for EI or other employment support programs because they tend to work part-time, seasonally, or be self-employed. Rural women already faced the risks of increased isolation from support networks before the pandemic — including the increased risk of gender based violence, poorer health and mental health outcomes, and limited pathways to education and investment in their futures. From the farm to the board room, the emergency room to the classroom, rural women face the same sexism as their urban counterparts, with an added layer of structural inequity due to their location.
As the UN has made plain, across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their gender. This is compounded by chronic underinvestment in rural communities and a lack of progressive, place-based policies to support rural Canada. If geography is destiny, we must work hard to make sure that rural women and rural communities are recognized as critical components to Canada’s future.
I have had the incredible privilege to build my life and career in the weird space that exists between the simmering rage that underpins my remarks this morning and an indomitable hope that, together, we can build a better future. Early in the pandemic, we saw just how possible it is to make necessary, radical changes in record time — we cannot let fatigue slow this momentum. We have a precious, small window right now where we have the opportunity to totally flip our decision-making tables, rebuilding them into totally different configurations that don’t recreate outdated power dynamics about who gets invited to sit with us, who decides on place-settings, and what will be served there. This is important work — because if we only think about ‘inviting different people to the table’, we are simply reinforcing that someone has the power to decide who is invited and who is not. More critically, just putting different people into broken systems doesn’t fix the system in question, it breaks the people fed into that machine.
More than a decade of work leading and researching future-oriented rural policy and community development has shown me that no one really cares about something until it directly affects them in some way. Too often, we allow the pain of others to go unaddressed until it becomes our own pain — whether that’s in terms of our health, our wallets, or our fundamental human rights. While the Women’s Auxiliary may have been the heart of rural communities fifty years ago, we have yet to find ways to formalize the incredible influence rural women have on their families, friends, and communities. A new group here in Grey-Bruce, ElectHer, has noted that only 33 of 119 elected positions across the two counties are occupied by women. I’ve heard that they’ve received both support and suspicion, in equal measure — with some so-called leaders in our communities reacting with outrage that ElectHer members have had the audacity to point out the obvious: our local decision-making tables are due for a makeover. We’re one year away from the next municipal election — if you want those decision-making tables to look different than they do right now, this is the time to seek out and champion women candidates.
I take all of this very personally, and you should, too. If we are going to move forward with championing the full spectrum of human experience in order to build a just future for everyone, we’re going to have to get serious and strategic about where we invest time, money, and votes. There is no room for neutrality and we cannot allow space for debate when it comes to recognizing each other’s humanity.
We must actively work against the dangerous encroachment of narratives that say we have to allow people in positions of power to debate and diminish the fundamental human rights and lives of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, LGBTQ2+ rights, or the merits of gender equality in the name of ‘open debate’. To do otherwise is an insult to our intelligence and shared humanity and there cannot be room for this at our decision-making tables.
The shocks we’re experiencing now did not break our social and economic systems — they have just highlighted the ways in which they were already broken. At the same time, these overlapping crises have made people and processes visible to us that, perhaps, were beyond our field of vision before. We are also seeing just how large the gaps have become between individuals and the institutions that were meant to take care of us. The ideal path forward is one where we invest in a broad range of social and economic policies and programs that not only prevent harm, but promote justice through equity. Allyship is not enough, it’s time to become accomplices. Amidst the chaos of crisis, caregiving and simply navigating being imperfect human beings in these tumultuous times, we have to constantly ask ourselves to look deeply into the ways we have been complicit in creating the mess we find ourselves in today.
We must learn to treat being held accountable for making change as an act of love, the greatest manifestation of an ethos of care that we can share.
As a recently viral tweet by @june_lastname points out: A safe space isn’t a conflict-free space — in fact, a conflict free space is an unsafe space. So we must seek out challenges and challengers. It is our shared responsibility to follow the lead of the queer women, the sex workers, the rural women, working class women, and the Black, Indigenous, and women of colour who have been blazing the trail at the forefront of this fight for generations.
Arguably, the inspiration we draw from women’s leadership during challenging timesis a reflection not of their gender but of what has been demanded of them by the communities they represent. Reducing these accomplishments to gender dynamics alone obscures the more challenging work of ‘walking the walk’ in terms of putting the things we claim to value into action. The challenge is not that we don’t have Jacinda Alderns or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezs here in Canada — because we do, and some of them are here with us this morning. It’s just that, broadly speaking the evidence shows that we don’t elect them. We don’t hire them. We don’t put them in positions of power. Whether it’s in agriculture — where more than 70% of the major industry organizations have *no women* on their boards or the evidence that women in rural and remote areas of Canada face lower employment rates, and higher poverty rates, the pipeline to power is full of holes. As we look to the future, it is our job to collectively close the gap between the leadership we claim to admire in other jurisdictions and our social and economic commitment to following that same leadership at home.
It’s not enough to ‘empower’ women and girls. We must enable them. We must elect them, hire them, pay them, promote them, and champion imperfect women leaders — and we must plug the holes of harassment, misogyny, and racism that force women to reduce or abandon their ambitions before they even get started.
I spent most of the first decade of my career in local government and the last few years in academic research, and have experienced first-hand and often written about the way women in these fields have to contort themselves to fit our existing systems of power and influence. Two of the most read articles I have ever written for Municipal World were largely fueled by my own experiences with this struggle and tackle the issues of authenticity and speaking truth into power. While I love that these pieces have been popular, it’s not enough to say the words if we don’t put them into action. We must move from the authenticity-slogans of the women’s empowerment movement — the ‘live-laugh-love-ification’ of feminism — to the more powerful exercise of agency through accountability.
The choices we make today will shape our society, economy, health, and climate for decades to come. Let’s make intentional choices. Let’s have the courage to lead — and the humility to follow. Let’s confront the systems and structures that we have incorrectly assumed are the only way of forming a society. Let’s stop begging to sit at tables we should be flipping. Let’s choose to challenge ourselves, each other, and anyone who tells us it can’t be done.