Lower Mainland Women's Groups Meet with B.C. Premier about the creation of the Ministry of Women’s Equality (1999)

The creation of the Ministry of Women’s Equality was a groundbreaking and important move by the NDP. Women’s groups, academics, lawyers feminist and non-feminist across the country took notice, and continue to look to BC for leadership because of this important experiment about women’s equality.  Women in Quebec have engaged us about the differences, good and bad in the approaches of our two governments, both committed to the social contract.  Feminist activists, lawyers and academics looked for the ministry to set the standard for progressive government response to the concerns of half the population.

But we are at a serious crossroads with the experiment now.  We need for this ministry to live up to the expectations that were set.

The funding of transition houses and women’s centres through the Ministry was a good opening move.  But there have been a number of serious erosions of the Ministry.  The loss of 81% of its budget when the ministry of children and families was created, the streamlining of administrative staff with that of aboriginal affairs and the recent award of a transition house contract to a church are events that shout out that the ministry is in trouble.  There is a lack of development in crucial areas of the Ministry’s mandate.

1.  The current agenda of contract reform across government puts the Ministry in the position of regulating the behaviour and interfering with the daily operation of women’s groups.  Standardization is problematic because women’s organizations already have standards that are much higher than the ones currently in draft form for at least the transition houses.  You are essentially lowering our expectations for our organizations and for the Ministry of Women’s Equality.

The imposition of standards is the opposite of being a link between women’s interests and concerns and government decision-makers.  Instead, the Ministry is put in the weird position of keeping women’s centres and transition houses in line.  We are not opposed to accountability, but the methods proposed so far take precious resources away from our front line work and put it to paper work.  The other big problem is that in this structure, power is exercised from the top down only.  Our access and influence from the bottom up to the elected officials are curtailed.  We say exempt transition houses and women’s centres from this aspect of contract reform.

2.  The Ministry must be able to adequately fund services to support women who have experienced violence and to prevent violence before it happens.  You have made the connection between male violence and the inequal status of women, you fund transition houses through the Ministry. However, the Ministry can be much more active in its support of feminist anti-violence initiatives and should have more influence in the initiatives of other ministries dealing with male violence.  If these initiatives are required to put the question of male violence against women into the context of women’s status, then programs will likely to be more effective and progressive rather than simply pandering to public outrage about crime.

3.  I think it’s clear that we want the Ministry of Women’s Equality to ensure that issues relating to women’s equality are reflected in policy, legislation, services and programs throughout government.  You need to make it a reality that the Ministry has the authority and power to influence policy and legislation of other ministries so there will be a net benefit toward women’s equality.

We do think that there are people within the Ministry who are willing and see the responsibility to respond and do this.  However, women’s right’s activists, legal aid lawyers, and anti-poverty workers have experienced great resistance our pleas for this agenda to be carried out.  Those of us who are cynical about your agenda worry that it is because you have instructed the Ministry to take a "hands-off" approach to all other ministries, and others worry that there is a lack of understanding about the responsibility of the Ministry on this point - we don’t know.  What we do know however is that only about 2% of the Ministry’s budget is put to policy and legislation review and that a number of really important pieces of legislation were put in place without intervention from the ministry of Women’s Equality.

Cuts to legal aid, the replacement of GAIN with BC Benefits, regressive changes to BC Benefits, the diversion of family law cases from court to family justice centres continue without effective interference from the Ministry when the impact on women’s access to food, shelter, and legal counsel, essentially our human rights, are drastically affected for the worse.

We really need for you to ensure that this ministry has the power and support from you to be an effective advocate for women’s rights in cooperation with progressive women’s organizations.  If not, then the Ministry is only a cynical attempt at window dressing and we will be forced to reject it.

4.  If indeed the Ministry of Women’s Equality was shut out of decision-making about BC Benefits then it effectively prevented the analysis of women’s rights in relation to welfare.  It also left the Ministry in the ridiculous position of promoting that women buy rrsps as a method of achieving financial stability.  With so many women and children on inadequate government assistance, urging us to buy rrsps as a method to equalize women’s economic status is humiliating and confusing. The economic well-being of women in this province must be taken more seriously than this.

5.  We also want your commitment to the long term core funding of women’s equality seeking organizations.  As taxpayers we expect that our money will go to serve our needs.  It is unacceptable for you to off-load this responsibility to the commercial private sector which has very little interest in the promotion of women’s rights.

6.  The defence and protection of women-only space and methods of organizing also needs your attention.  It is not in our interest to be required to include men in our organizations, either as board members or as service providers.  Decision-making and control of our organizations must stay in the hands of those who make use of the services and those who have a personal investment in the social change agenda of the women’s movement.

We absolutely want for this Ministry to be strong, effective, responsive, free-standing and dedicated to the achievement of women’s equality rights.  The lawyers associated with the Legal Education Action Fund, the domestic workers groups, aboriginal women’s groups, university and college academics as well as those of us who provide services in transition houses and women’s centres are committed to the independent women’s movement.  It is we who have pressed for better working conditions for employees, pressed for redress to aboriginal people wronged by past and current institutions, pressured for adequate health care, fought against the right wing agenda and looked for the progressive interpretation of constitutional rights for everyone.

The NDP benefits from the work and alliance of the independent women’s movement because we fight to establish a culture that requires social responsibility and democratic practice.  We require the NDP meet its obligation to us.

We expect that you will at least double the budget for money to be delivered to front-line groups including women’s centres and transition houses.  And make the commitment of tax dollars to long term core funding of women’s equality seeking organizations not just to provide services, but to assure that a strong independent women’s movement can continue to press for crucial social reform - this work and these voices cannot be replaced by a government program or ministry.

We also expect that you ensure each piece of policy and legislation as well as programs and services is open to the scrutiny and direction of the Ministry of Women’s Equality so that adequate protection and representation of the needs and concerns of women can be made.