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The Equal Futures Summit Delivers

An image showing four panelists at the Gender Equality Summit 2022. All women.
(Advancing Gender Equality in Canadian Politics Panel, from left to right: Moderator Kylie Adair, Future of Good, Raine Lillifeldt, Interim CEO, YWCA, Debbie Owusu-Akyeeh, Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity (CCGSD), Fae Johnstone, Wisdom2Action, and Anjum Sultana, Plan International Canada.) Photo: pk mutch

Big tent gender equality events are high wire acts.

They involve juggling multiple feminisms plus deft handling of picky funders and powerful politicos in the room. It also requires mastering the aerial feat of balancing the needs and expectations of two distinct changemaking cultures—non-governmental organizations (NGOS) and grassroots feminist organizations.

The recent and first Equal Futures 2022 Gender Equality Summit, aced the first two. The latter? Not so much.

NGOs are insiders, researchers, and focus on mobilizing government. They prefer polite, parliamentary style interaction and connecting over LinkedIn. Grassroots feminist organizations are outsiders, revolutionaries, and work to mobilize people. They crave voice, action and prefer to connect in more informal ways—like a hot tub after hours.

Of the 10 leaders of organizations and student attendees interviewed, all agreed that the format and ambience was pretty institutional, meaning top down and polite, with little room for attendee-led discussion or debate. No action plans or collective next steps were co-created. Panel moderators did not make space for questions, comments or counterpoints from the lecture hall’s continuously seated audience, in which case, we could have saved travel costs, and simply watched the moderators and panelists talk among themselves on ZOOM.

However, there were bright spots.

Image of indigenous woman on stage speaking with a mic wearing black and white jumpsuit
Keynote speaker and workshop facilitator, Shaneese Steele. Photo: Equal Futures Network

On the second day, Shaneese Steele, a 28-year-old Mukaade Anishinaabe Kwe (Afro-Indigenous person) took to the stage to lead over 100 BIPOC, Black, Muslim, LGBTQ, Queer and White participants in a two-hour talk about how to be an Indigenous ally. Addressing the diverse crowd of predominately Gen+Z and Millennial folks, Steele began by presenting Canada’s indigenous history. 

Not long after her presentation began, a woman in the back (let us call her Justine) broke the Ted Ex flow and asked for the mic. “With respect” she said assertively, “I have to tell you your definition of Metis people is incorrect.”  Steele received the outburst as a gift. However, there were more gifts to come from Justine: A self-identified Alberta-based, Blackfoot, indigenous activist, traumatized mother of four, forty plus woman at the back of the room who made it clear that she didn’t just study the history with the intensity of a scholar; She had lived it–and still lives it today. Justine didn’t–wouldn’t– let anything slide.  Justine was not going to go unheard. Her interjections were just the kind of thunderclaps needed to change the energy in the room.

Just like that, the two-hour session transformed from being a institutional workshop—to a truly messy, emotional, interrogative feminist space. Many hands went up. Folks of all genders told their stories. Sometimes tears were shed. Steele embraced the flow and transformed from speaker to facilitator.

Indigenous history and the nature of feminist and ally work was not just learned that morning. It was felt.

You can’t get that stuff on ZOOM. It made attending in person worthwhile.

The rest of the summit was more conventional in format and experience.

It featured a stellar lineup of NGO CEOs and other organizational leaders, not one but two Liberal Ministers (The Honorable Marci Ien, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth (WAGE), The Honorable Harjit Sajjan, Minister of International Development) and a former WAGE Minister, Maryam Monsef. Monsef lost her home riding seat (Peterborough) in the last election. Her message was about rest and the impact of burnout on progress and the sector.

Hella yes to that.

Other bright spots included the incredible knowledge and insights shared by top tier panelists and keynote speakers. Key insights and calls to action include:

Erosion of democracy leads to the erosion of women’s rights

Panelist Meghan Doherty, Director of Global Policy & Advocacy for Action Canada for Sexual and Reproductive Rights says “We cannot rest easy.”

The panel on Health and Gender Equality cautioned participants not to underestimate the impact of this emerging double whammy: The weakening state of democracy coupled with the leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion regarding Roe v. Wade will ultimately erode women’s reproductive rights globally. That includes Canada. Citing Poland’s recent decision to create a pregnant woman registry as an example, panelists agreed the number of nation states providing access to safe, affordable, shame free abortions could be expected to decline. The panel reminded everyone that while abortion is a legal procedure in Canada, access can still be deeply undermined if political will was so inclined.

The recent occupation of Ottawa by the so-called, trucker led, Freedom Convoy and rise of the alt right in Canada shows that democracy is also subject to attack in Canada. History, past and present, shows that when democracy weakens, so do women’s rights and freedoms.

We need anti-hate legislation now

“I have been an LGBTQ+ activist for eight years now and I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared,” says Fae Johnstone, a trans woman, small business owner, feminist, writer, and Executive Director of Wisdom2Action, an 2SLGBTQ+ advocacy organization.

Johnstone adds “I don’t think we have fully opened our eyes to the degree of backlash that is coming in the very near future. We know there are far right groups who, today, specifically target school boards, lobbying for policies that are harmful to queer and trans youth.” 

Canada is home to 100,815 people who are transgender or non-binary, including 31,555 who are transgender women. As awareness of trans folks increases, so does trans hate. Panelists agreed that Canada urgently needs to monitor all forms of hate and move forward on creating strong anti-hate legislation.

Let’s shift the relationship between grassroots organizations and institutions

“Grassroots movements have forced us to think differently about policy and I think we need to give these groups more credit,” says Anjum Sultana, Plan International Canada.

Our decades old legacy civil society institutions were a part of our white supremacist, colonialist past, and today, are often still part of the problem. Working more closely with grassroots groups, investing in local organizations, and directly funding these organizations will help us identify, amplify and implement ideas that often don’t get enough credit. “

It’s all connected

“So, Ghana introduced an anti-LGBTQ+ “family values” Bill in August 2021. When you read it, you see right away that it wasn’t homegrown,”says Debbie Owusu-Akyeeh, a Ghanian-Canadian and Executive Director for the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity (CCGSD)

The Bill was, for all intents and purposes, a copy of a similar bill introduced in the U.S. “If this law can successfully pass in Ghana, considered a to be like a social justice golden child in Africa, this type of bill can be fair game for every single country on the continent.

Feminist groups in Canada need to pay more attention to happenings on the international stage because it informs what we may experience here.

An image of diverse women facing forward to hear a speaker talk at a conference
Attendees at the Equal Futuress Summit Evening Keynote Talks. Photo: Equal Futures Network

What happens next?

The Equal Futures Summit, funded and coordinated by Equal Futures Network (a project of CanWaCH)  may not have met everyone’s expectations, but Julia Anderson, CanWaCH CEO, was pleased with how it all went down.

“I was so energized to see how people didn’t just show up, they were truly ‘present’. To me, this is critical as the road ahead is going to require us to continue to work hard together through the ever-growing challenges,” says Anderson.

There will be more big tent events to come.

The Summit reminded us why rebuilding our capacity for effective feminist organizing and creating spaces for learning and dialogue in Canada is both medicine for what harms us today, and a bridge to the future.

The Gender Equality Summit was a strong, post pandemic lock down event where in addition to seeing each other’s feet for the first time in two years, we saw each other’s feet, and together, watch them take a first collective step.

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Categories
Activism & Action

Inside the Equal Futures Network: A Feminist Coalition Juggernaut in the Making?

An image of about 100 people, 90% women, at the launch of the Equal Futures Network in 2020.
The Launch of the Equal Futures Network. Centre, the former Women and Gender Equality Minister, the Honorable Maryam Monsef (centre). Photo provided.

Leah Sarah Peer, a 3rd year, 26-year-old Montreal medical student and founder of the Peer Medical Foundation (PMF), a fledgling nonprofit that helps folx navigate the Canadian healthcare system, explains the meaning of her necklace: A Swarovski crystal pendant in the shape of a black swan hanging on a lightweight silver chain. Peer says “When I wear this necklace, I think about a swan who is constantly surveying and navigating a lake, having to face challenges, and overcoming obstacles generated by nature. It inspires me to work hard to make a difference while I am on this planet.”

Peer also knows that black swans are rare birds, famously othered in fables, whose survival depends on being part of a larger flock.  

So, when Peer heard of The Equal Futures Network (Network), a new pan Canadian initiative designed to connect, amplify, spotlight organizations working to achieve gender equality—she immediately signed up.  As did over 488 other organizations – in just over a year. 

Network is now arguably Canada’s largest ‘come one come all’ feminist organization since the creation of The National Acton Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), a powerful 700+ network of women’s rights launched in 1971 which served at the forefront of fights for rights for over 30 years.

But to what end? 

Is this just about flocking together? Or something bigger?

Julia Anderson, Chief Executive Officer for the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health CanWaCH, home of the Network initiative, believes the it has incredible change making potential.

“If we want to improve the lives of the most marginalized women, children and adolescents, anyone marginalized due to gender, protect their health and rights, we need to work together.”

Taking a ‘big tent’ approach, Anderson says any organization, business or nonprofit, big or small, working to advance gender equity and equality is welcome to join. Its diverse member list includes the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce, Next Gen Men, Groupe Femmes, Politique et Démocratie, Intersex London Canada, Women of Colour Thrive, Niijkiwendidaa Anishnaabekwewag Services Circle, the Northern Birthwork Collective, New Brunswick Transgender Health Network,  Shake Up the Establishment—and Queen’s University.

Presently, over 32% of members are based in South Western Ontario; an impressive 19.5% are based in Quebec.

The organization is hosting its first network summit in Ottawa on June 8-9th.  The Honorable Marci Ien, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth (WAGE), and award-winning, feminist author, Farzana Doctor, and Joanna Griffiths, Founder and CEO Of Knix, are keynote speakers. WAGE contributed $498K in grant funding over 3 years towards the development of the Network in 2021.

THE STATUS OF GENDER EQUALITY IN CANADA

Compared to countries like India, or the United States, especially in this moment, Canada looks like a gender equity mecca. So why fund a new coalition?

The truth is, we too, still have a long way to go. 

No matter what international gender equality index you look at, Canada is rarely the top 10. While Canada has moved up the UN Gender Equality Index ranks from #25 in 2015 to #16 in 2021, other countries with self-identified feminist governments like Norway, Ireland, Iceland, Germany, Australia and surprisingly Hong Kong China (SAR), still lead the global gender equality scoreboard. Especially when it comes to gross national income (GNI) per capita which compares how much a woman earns on average in each country. Using a USD based calculation that adjusts for differences in cost of living, the average woman in Norway earns $66, 494/year. A woman in the US earns $63,826. The average woman in Canada earns $48,527 (27-24% less). When an intersectional lens is applied, the earning gap is even greater.

Pay equity, despite a new federal law, is still not a reality in many sectors and spaces in Canada. Canada’s women’s entrepreneurship programs, world class and successful on many levels, continues to over privilege a small subset of 200 000+ women entrepreneurs with incorporated, scalable (read largely tech-based) enterprise ideas and dreams leaving the rest (62%), largely sole, self-employed, necessity-driven women entrepreneurs with a reported medium income of $19 999K/gross per year, vastly under supported.  

In addition, Canada still has uneven access to abortion procedures—despite legalization.  Women only hold 23.4% of corporate board seats as of 2021—a mere 2.2% increase over 2020. Twenty-eight per cent of women-led households struggle with the affordability, suitability or adequacy of their housing. This is almost double the rate of households led by men. Approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner (Statistics Canada, 2019). It costs taxpayers billions of dollars: $7.4 billion to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence alone. Egale, a LGBTQ+ advocacy group, reports 71% of trans people have post-secondary education, but over 50% earn less than $15 000 a year due to gender discrimination.

When we apply an intersectional lens, things are typically worse for racialized , disabled, immigrant women, plus queer and trans folk on every metric examined. According to Census and Statistics Canada Canadian Income Statistics data on average annual earnings: Indigenous women face a 57% gender pay gap, women with disabilities face a 46% gap, immigrant women face a 39% gap and racialized women face a 32% gap.

That said, there has been watershed progress in just this past year. For example, universal childcare, a 50 year+ body of activist work, is now an implementation- ready policy reality in this country. And, new Canadian polls that show that 90% of Canadians want to see gender equality achieved and that 57% of women (and 40% of men) today identify strongly as feminists, plus a feminist government.

Overall, we have indeed made progress, but progress is still unevenly distributed. 

Furthermore, as the recent attack on U.S. Roe v Wade and the implosion of women’s rights in Afghanistan, shows progress unattended, is progress denied. Rights won through hard, decades-long struggle and lives lost easily comes under siege when economic conditions worsen and when political power shifts. Patriarchy is a hydra. Cut one limb off and another one grows in its place. Progress for women, gender equity and social justice requires constant vigilance. 

History shows the antidote, is to be and stay organized. At present, we are not. Not like we used to be. And perhaps that, is the piece of the puzzle that keeps us from getting to the top. 

THE POWER OF FEMINIST ORGANIZING

In financial circles, Black Swans refer to an unpredictable event or set of forces that suddenly coalesce, rise up and remake the world. An example is Brexit or closer to home, the 2008 financial crisis. One could also argue that the creation of a new pan Canadian feminist coalition could be another. 

Does the Network have the potential to be this era’s feminist Black Swan?  

Nora Loreto, activist and feminist author, gives it a maybe. 

Her concern? In this neoliberal age of individualism, women have excelled at organizing empowerment-oriented networking events but seem to have forgotten how to organize, mobilize and wield political power where and when it really counts. 

In her book, Take Back the Fight, Loreto argues we have lost ground as a result and believes the key to avoid further backsliding is to re-skill, fund, and build large  diverse feminist coalitions capable of both defending and moving gender equity and rights forward. Loreto sees the emergence of the Network as a positive step forward. But will wait to see if this network has a required political spine. 

Reinforcing the importance of organizing for political power, Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter (US) and author of The Purpose of Power, writes, “Most people when they think about power are actually envisioning empowerment. Those things are related, but different. Unless empowerment is transformed into power, not much will change about our environments.”

CanWaCH/Network understands the need for and power of organizing, having served as coalition for change builders since its inception. 

INSIDE EQUAL FUTURES NETWORK – WHO ARE THEY? WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Simply, the Network is a project of the CanWaCH organization. But few women’s organizations outside of the health space know anything about CanWaCh.

How did a small, international, women’s health nonprofit based in Peterborough become the lead, pan-Canadian convener, a cross sector, all-call gender equality initiative?

For starters, this modest, 17-person, pan Canadian virtual organization has quite an impressive big-dog-in-the-park track record.  Their achievements include:

  • Serving as the driving force behind a $14 billion-dollar Canadian initiative to deliver and advance reproductive, maternal, child healthcare rights around the world.
  • Playing the role of lead mobilizer and convener for Canada’s participation in Women Deliver 2019, a huge, bi-annual, global conference which attracted 2500 organizations, 8000 in person attendees and another 200 000 participants online to Vancouver; It was the first time the now 12 year-old-event was ever held in Canada. 
  • In 2021, CanWaCH played a leading role in the development of a Foreign Policy by Canadians which involved convening and working with over 400 people. One of the recommendations was that Canada needs to do more to on the home front. Anderson says, you can’t just advocate elsewhere, “You also need to be addressing the roots of inequality where you are in your own backyard.” Plus, if we want other countries to advance women, they must see it, to be it.

“We have demonstrated we have the skill and experience” says Anderson, who has been involved in membership and coalition-based organizations her entire career. “We are also good at attracting resources. We figured that if we managed to create a track record of success internationally, why not leverage our capabilities domestically.”

Is this another association? 

On that, Anderson is crystal clear.  “No. We don’t serve the membership; we serve the impact.”  

CanWaCH, as the host organization is taking a “leaderful” approach to this project.  Which essentially means they don’t see themselves as out in front (traditional leadership), or stepping aside (servant leadership). Instead, they plan to work within, collaboratively, compassionately, trust the process and support network members. The only guard rails are the projects stated values and desired outcome–more gender equality.  

BIRDS OF A FEATHER?

Can anyone join? The answer is: The Network “defaults to inclusion”. Any organization, anywhere on their feminist journey will be welcomed as members as long as they are aligned with stated core values which include: A commitment to intersectional feminism, listening, learning, using power, privilege to challenge oppressive norms and systems, working to advance decolonization and overall, move mountains and help smash the patriarchy.

This means larger pro-capitalism women in business networks who rarely, if ever, show up at a protest with organizationally identified placards will find themselves shoulder to shoulder with grassroots, Marxist feminists who actually organize them -without pay.   

However, organizations we spoke to were excited to be rubbing elbows with each other, no matter what their political stance.

TWO NEW EFN MEMBER ORGANIZATIONS

THe logo for the The Canadian Coalition to Empower Women (CCEW) was founded by The Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW)

The Canadian Coalition to Empower Women (CCEW) was founded by The Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW)—a group that has been operating in Canada for 90+ years (read Colonial times) as a founding member of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women International. Both the CCEW and the BPW recently signed on to the Network.

Co-founder and Project Liaison to coalition’s latest venture, the IDEAS4GenderEquality Project, Sheila Crook says, “When we saw the Network, we said this is an organization we need to connect with. It’s an opportunity to see who’s out there and what they are up to.” Crook was impressed by the organizational diversity of network members—everything from business to civil society, nonprofit, university and union organizations.”

Crook adds “For me, the Network’s existence and uptake acknowledge the fact that there are thousands of organizations in Canada working to advance gender equity in one way or another.  This network will open the door, help us build bridges of understanding and form partnerships that can drive real, systemic change.”

Canadian Women's Chamber of Commerce Logo/Ad

The Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Director, Nancy Wilson, agrees.  “We recently joined the Network network as well.  We represent and advocate for equity for women entrepreneurs, particularly those who operate micro-enterprises or are precariously self-employed. We see this network as a chance to learn and add our weight to any initiative that works to improve gender equity in Canada.”

Wilson and several members of her team will also be attending the June conference. 

CanWaCH CEO Julia Anderson speaking to a group on behalf of Equal Futures Network
Julia Anderson, CEO of CanWaCH, speaks to Equal Futures Network members and CanWaCH members attending an event in Vancouver on May 5, 2022.

IS THIS THE BLACK SWAN EVENT WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR?

Frankly, it’s too early to tell. 

Critics of efforts like this talk about the challenges associated with bringing diverse viewpoints and agendas together in hopes of chiseling the mess down into a tower of power scale political force.  All too often, political differences, histories, egos, cancel culture tactics and lack of resources to participate fully in a big coalition for small organizations undermines the intent: The collaboration tax is real. Systems-generated trauma, often the source of unintended harm and disagreement, is also real. Fostering a true “I have your back; you have mine” sense of solidarity comes with the opportunity to battle-test each other over time-and survive. In other words, it’s slow and messy.

However, right now, Network members seem unified and enthusiastic in their belief that when birds of a feather flock together, good things will happen.   

However, critics say that in order truly dismantle the gender oppression and marginalization mountain, Network members will need to do much more than party once in a while like its 2019 in a big tent.

Black Swan events are known in financial circles for being unanticipated and having gale force impact.

Black swans in nature are also known for having the longest neck, among other species of swans.

Let’s see how far this diverse coalition is willing to stick its neck out to help Canada leap forward and achieve true gender equity and equality – once, and for all time.


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