Prairie Dog’s 2016 equity panel surveys the state of women

THE EQUITY REPORT by Sonia Stanger

On March 14, 1916 a bill granting Saskatchewan women the right to vote in provincial elections on equal terms with men received royal assent and became law. As of this month, Saskatchewan women have had the vote for 100 years.

A very specific group of Saskatchewan women, that is. Indigenous women couldn’t vote in federal elections until 1960, and most women of colour, including Chinese, Japanese and East Indian women, didn’t receive the vote until the late 1940s.

While I’d love to celebrate how far we’ve come, I can’t help but feel like this so-called success story is one in a long tradition of stories about the women’s movement not being inclusive. So I got together three smart, bad-ass women-in-the-know and asked them to reflect on the state of women in Saskatchewan.

Tria Donaldson works in the labour movement and is a long-time climate justice and indigenous rights activist. She’s one of the best dancers I know. Jessica Wood is a mother of two and lifelong feminist who works for the Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation. The way she raises her kids makes me less scared for the future. Eman Bare is a journalist with CBC Saskatchewan. She writes about race and politics for Teen Vogue and has identified as a feminist since kindergarten.

Let’s get this panel going!

Does Saskatchewan have a women’s movement today?

EB: A women’s movement? Nooo.

TD: There are the roots of things; there are spaces for training and things like that but as far as I can tell, there isn’t much of a feminist movement in Saskatchewan. Which is also reflected in the fact that there isn’t any coherent feminist movement in Canada.

EB: It’s weird, because I don’t think people understand feminism as being inclusive of anyone and everyone who identifies as being a woman — there are a lot of [situations where] it’s constantly the same women that are being celebrated and [there’s a lack of] understanding that your liberation as a woman should not be dependent on the oppression of another group of people, or silencing another group of people. So there are some people who might see themselves as being feminist who are pushing for quote-unquote women’s rights in Saskatchewan, but it’s not really the representation that we want.

Do we need a feminist movement in Saskatchewan?

JW: I feel like yes, but this is what I struggle with — how do you say that movement’s needed if it’s alienating others?

TD: Yes. I think one of the struggles in Saskatchewan is [that] a lot of people are in a place where there’s a sense of powerlessness, which I think is very counter to the idea of movement-building in general. I feel like there’s a lot of isolation. There’s been a lot of work on missing and murdered Indigenous women, which I think is the closest to a feminist movement that we have in Canada; it’s one of the actual movements that’s having some successes and building capacity, but in Saskatchewan it’s like three or four women that are doing all of the work on their own, and it’s the people whose family members have gone missing or been murdered. So thinking about that and amplifying those voices is a huge issue that I think feminism needs to encompass.

But the thing that I just keep coming back to in my head is those stories recently about the forced sterilization of those First Nations women in Saskatoon. If this was in any other place there would have been rallies in the street about that. Like, forced sterilization of women is happening in Saskatchewan today. And what are we doing about it? Nothing.

EB: I think though, also, a lot of the time those issues are separated, like, they’re seen as being indigenous issues and not seen as a feminist issue. Missing and murdered indigenous women is one thing and then feminism looks completely different, so I think talking about intersectionality and talking about how advocating for the rights of indigenous people, particularly indigenous women is so, so important. We don’t really vocalize how it’s all one movement at the end of the day.

Is gender parity and equal representation in electoral politics something that’s important to the three of you?

EB: Nope.

TD: Yes.

JW: Um, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. I think it is important to have more representation, because I do believe that women bring different skills to the table. But I don’t agree with the tokenism of it.

EB: There was a conference that I went to last year and Kim Campbell was a speaker. And in my closing speech, I said that as a black, Muslim woman, it doesn’t matter to me that we had a female prime minister. It’s made no difference in my life. She’s super conservative. It’s not someone who’s reflective of my values. I don’t care if they’re a woman; I just want someone with badass ideas and great values.

TD: I think there is a huge problem when our leadership doesn’t reflect the population. Historically, it has always been the case that the majority of politicians are white men. I come from the labour movement, and there’s this saying that our leadership is pale, male, and stale. Obviously not all women are going to be allies of women: look at Sarah Palin or Margaret Thatcher, or Kim Campbell is a great example. But if none of those people from different backgrounds are ever going to be in the halls of power, that’s a huge problem. For the first time in BC there’s been a First Nations MLA elected. And it was so powerful, as an indigenous person, seeing somebody be drummed in. Those spaces have been so colonial. Even if you get one person elected, it [makes] such a huge difference for people [to] see what’s possible.

EB: I grew up [in Saskatchewan] during the civil war in Somalia, and I always associated my identity with poverty and war, and just not being enough. I felt like I came from a group of people who constantly needed aid. And now there’s a Somali MP. I don’t like his politics, but it’s really amazing to see that he also came from a marginalized group and he’s capable of doing that. So I agree: I don’t need to agree with your politics, but it’s inspirational to see someone who’s faced similar struggles to me being able to achieve something that 20 years ago would not have been possible.

TD: And there’s not enough of that.

JW: But I do agree with Eman’s first point that isn’t just the categories that you’re ticking off: it has more to do with your politics. Both of those things equally. We’ll get further if, when a new politician comes in, regardless of their [gender], they’re a feminist. That’s what I wish the movement was: the understanding that we are all feminists regardless of whether we’re women or not.

Do you think that Saskatchewan is a place where people are politically empowered enough for us to see meaningful feminist change on an electoral level?

TD: One thing that I was just thinking about our current context [is] voter suppression and how voter suppression plays out, specifically with marginalized folks. So, yeah, women can vote now but if you’re indigenous and poor, or if you’re trans and the gender that you present doesn’t match the stupid little thing on your ID, they won’t let you vote. And there were huge issues in the last [federal] election around marginalized groups not being able to vote. That’s something that really still concerns me. It’s that continued kind of making it harder for people that are marginalized to have a say.

This is an aside, but women take so much more convincing to run for anything and to put themselves out there and consider themselves leaders… there are really credible women who are awesome for leadership roles that don’t necessarily believe in their own potential unless it’s pointed out to them by a white man. And I think that’s a pretty big problem that speaks to why there aren’t as many woman CEO’s or women elected or in any leadership positions. Which I think continues to be pretty disheartening.

That lack of empowerment is one of the quiet ways in which, I think, sexism and misogyny pervade, and it remains largely invisible to many people. People don’t see those things but they absolutely exist for everyone. Thoughts?

EB: I talk about microaggressions with race a lot but there are definitely those microaggressions with sexism that we don’t pick up on, and it comes from all sides. I get it from male coworkers, I get it from classmates, I get it from partners, and it’s so normalized, right? It’s not seen as being problematic. I think it’s about watching what we say to little girls, or even grown women. Watching what we say to all women.

TD: It’s interesting, because one of the political movements that’s been really articulated here is trans rights.  And I think that is something in itself that is very powerful and that a true intersectional feminist movement needs to reflect on. For me, part of why feminism isn’t necessarily the primary lens through which I see the world is because of a lot of feminism is not inclusive, specifically to women that weren’t born with a vagina. And it’s super problematic. And it’s interesting, coming from more queer-based politics, [trans rights] being sort of a non-issue in certain communities and then suddenly butting up into other spaces where there are self-proclaimed feminists who see trans women as such a problem. And for me, that’s so vicious and mean and horrible. That fight is one that the movement needs to embrace. Because our whole concepts of gender that are so harmful to men and women in terms of gender role are even more harmful for anyone that doesn’t identify with the binary spectrum. It’s so harmful for so many people, no matter what your genitalia is.

So what does the future hold? Where do we go?

TD: The kind of movement I want to see in Saskatchewan is one that is building bridges to strengthen the communities that are the most marginalized and to amplify their voices and to have each other’s backs. It’s a lot bigger than any one of our struggles and we’ve been in silos for too long.