Last week, the province’s Women’s Issues Branch renamed itself the Women’s Equality Branch, then followed up with plans for a new independent forum to advance the equality of women and girls in New Brunswick. The Voices of New Brunswick Women Consensus-Building Forum is slated to be active by the fall.
The plans for the forum are a direct result of two years of lobbying and advocating from women’s groups, social justice and labour organizations and individuals in reaction to the Alward government’s abolition of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. In the interests of disclosure, I was working for the council at the time of its abolition, was involved in the protest that followed and was a member of a subsequent ad hoc committee advocating reinstatement of the funding.
In March 2011, the Alward government announced a budget that included no funding for the council, effectively abolishing the entity. The council was created by legislation in the 1970s as an arms-length agency for consultation and study on matters relating to the status of New Brunswick women. It was tasked with advising government toward legislation and policies, increasing awareness of issues and services, facilitating networking among women’s groups, conducting research and disseminating information.
The abolition of the group came as a surprise, particularly since the premier’s 2010 election platform included a promise to consult with the council. The government reasoned that it had pledged to consult the council, not to fund it, and that its functions would be transferred to the Women’s Issues Branch (WIB) to save money and eliminate overlap. The minister responsible at the time, Margaret-Ann Blaney, insisted WIB could deliver the same services as the council and stated that the budget had come down to eliminating the council or 14 direct service outreach positions.
Women’s and gender-equity focused organizations decried the move, as did unions, professional associations, university associations, cultural groups and many individuals. Rallies were held in Moncton and Fredericton. The RebELLEs, a group of young feminist women, inspired over 60 people from all corners of the province to snap photos of themselves with their mouths covered with tape bearing the name Alward as a protest against the silencing of women’s independent voice in the province.
The main concern was that WIB was not independent from government and thus unable to provide meaningful a critique or express dissent. Additionally, there was opposition to the idea that women and girls in New Brunswick could either have direct service from government or an independent agency driving systemic change, but not both.
The outcry was so loud and sustained that government held a summit in November 2011 to bring together women from the province to discuss how to move forward. From that summit there emerged a group comprised of leaders of women’s groups, individual women and representation from the ad hoc committee. By the end of 2012, the working group presented the minister with a report detailing three possible mechanisms that could be implemented by the province to ensure an independent, publicly funded voice for women and girls.
The end result of the protests, the summit, and the efforts of the working group is the Forum.
According to the WIB, the Forum is meant to be a permanent, publicly funded entity working collaboratively with, but independently from, government. Like the council, it won’t offer direct service delivery to women and girls, but will focus on research, analysis, advocacy, advising government and public issues.
Its membership and leadership will look significantly different from that of the council, which had members appointed by government. It will be made up of representatives from women’s groups around the province, with the possibility of some members who aren’t affiliated with a group. The Forum will have a staff complement (to be determined by the budget) and two co-chairs. Forum leadership will speak on behalf of the group, but not for individual members.
Many details remain to be finalized, and a protocol must be developed to define the relationship between the Forum and government, as well as the criteria for membership. The WIB intends for this to be a collaborative process with women’s groups; WIB won’t unilaterally decide what the Forum looks likes come the fall.
The actions of Justice Minister Marie-Claude Blais, now also responsible for the status of women, indicate she is committed to working with women’s groups in a meaningful way. It’s admirable she didn’t divorce the announcement of the Forum from the context of the abolition of the Council. She acknowledged government had to rebuild relationships. “The women’s groups have lost trust, I can tell you . . . But I’ve made it my personal mission, and the mission of our government, to rebuild that relationship,” she said.
The Regroupement féministe du Nouveau-Brunswick has already come out to say that they welcome this move as a step in the right direction. Many of the women I’ve spoken with since the announcement are celebrating this as solid progress in response to two years of intense lobbying, while intending to remain vigilante.
Personally, I remain cautiously optimistic. I’m impressed that government has eaten crow and recognized the need for a publicly funded, independent entity to advocate for women and girls. I’m also aware that the funding for this Forum is less than half of the budget that the council had, amounting to 52 cents for every woman and girl in the province. While I’m happy to see that the politically appointed leadership hasn’t been reproduced, I’m also wary of how a membership based on representation of groups will operate; will this group be able to be more than the sum of its parts? Will its leadership be able to forcefully speak truth to power?
Last week’s announcement is testament to the strength of the women’s movement in our province. We must remember that collectively we are powerful, we can make ourselves heard, and we can drive progress. With that in mind, we must continue to work to ensure that this Forum meets the needs of the women and girls in our province.
Beth Lyons is the Associate Director of YWCA Moncton. This column first appeared in the Times & Transcript.