Supported by an Advisory Committee of activists and academics with diverse experiences and expertise, the National Association of Women and the Law convened, on March 22-23, a dialogue with 40 women for its Roundtable on Women and Politics 2003 at the symbolic location of Centre Block, Parliament Hill. Participants were drawn from groups comprising the Canadian Committee for the World March of Women, as well as provincial organizations who are mobilizing specifically on the issues of women’s political representation. Three main themes guided the discussions of the Roundtable:
- Theme I: Barriers and obstacles facing diverse Canadian women: Colonialism, Patriarchy, and Racism;
- Theme II: The links between women’s representation and women’s equality rights in Canada;
- Theme III: Strategizing towards the engagement of diverse women’s constituencies in a dialogue for change.
The Context of War
As a backdrop to our discussions, the war on Iraq highlighted women’s experiences of oppression, and was connected both theoretically and practically to the ways in which the participants understood formal politics and the power to oppress, coerce and dominate “the other” through hierarchical relationships of inequality both at the international, national, and local level. By signing the international trade and investment agreements, over the last two decades of neo-liberal dominance the Canadian state has proactively chosen to abdicate its responsibility and power to protect the well-being of Canadian citizens. As such, it represents a severely diminished locus of authority and site of social transformation in the 21st century. With the environmental, anti-globalization, feminist, and social justice movements mobilizing for peace worldwide, many asserted a preference for grassroots organizing, coalition-based mobilizing by women in civil society, and massive demonstrations of solidarity, as the most effective means of communicating with governments. Consequently, it was seen as crucial that we make changes in the agenda to ensure that our voices were present at the Peace Rally on Parliament Hill on Saturday, March 23rd, 2003.
Highlights of the Roundtable Discussions
Throughout the Roundtable discussions and indeed in the last strategizing session, it became clear that women understood the possibility for meaningful political participation as deeply connected to the struggles of the most marginalized women in Canada. Participants highlighted the intersecting oppressions of colonialism, racism, patriarchy, capitalism, and other forms of social disadvantage, as they contribute to limit the experience and meaning of “citizenship” and “political participation” to a subsistence level for too many women. A fundamental disillusionment with electoral politics was in evidence, as it consistently works to only advance the representation of middle/upper class, white men, and similarly situated women. Unless electoral reform could cause a fundamental re-distribution of power, it was not seen an issue that could be politically mobilizing, nor serve as a coalition-building issue for the autonomous women’s movement at this point in time. The participants were focused on raising the profile of the highly political issues of poverty, racism, colonization, disempowerment, violence against women, disability, heterosexism, and other oppressions that too many women experience in the absence of a genuine commitment by the Canadian government to uphold the rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The overwhelming analysis of electoral politics was that political empowerment cannot be addressed in a void. Regardless of possible future changes to the electoral system, one of the primary concerns of the women at the Roundtable was that governments in Canada understand and commit to upholding the indivisibility of social, cultural, economic, civil, and political rights, if they are serious about creating the conditions for meaningful “political participation”. Until this happens, the weak level of engagement by the vast majority of the population will likely persist, and the under-representation of their interests and realities in the House of Commons, provincial legislatures, and municipal councils will continue to exacerbate social inequality and reinforce the current crisis in political legitimacy.
Party elites seemed to be ignorant of the need to include marginalized voices as a means of grounding their party’s policy commitments. Given the kinds of hierarchical and exclusionary practices of formal politics, many women do not wish to invest their time, and thereby legitimate a system that functions on such undemocratic, racist, and patriarchal assumptions. Rather, participants were committed to investing in a grounded sphere of political activism that supports the representation of authentic voices for marginalized communities of women in Canada.
Over the course of the weekend, our discussions led us towards a broad consensus on the need for a political campaign for a “dignified guaranteed income for all”. Not only would this allow us to raise the very political nature of poverty in Canada, but moreover, a dignified guaranteed income would be an effective strategy for combating the oppressive situations affecting the most marginalized women in Canada.
Jackie F.P. Steele was Researcher/coordinator for the Roundtable Project; she looks forward to beginning her doctoral studies on gender-equitable governance at the University of Ottawa in September.