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2017-05-25: Reflections on the History of Women in Canada

This past winter I participated in Women in Canada: 50 Years of Change, a study group on the history of women in Canada from 1967 to 2017. The study group, co-hosted by the PEI Aboriginal Women’s Association and the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women, met five times in March and April in the Confederation Centre Library. Ten to twenty wonderful women took part in each discussion circle to reflect on the advancement of women’s equality decade by decade over the last 50 years. Each discussion began with Mi’kmaw ceremony led by Elder Judy Clark. The women who participated came from a variety of ages, cultures, and backgrounds, with some of us Island-born, some from “away,” and some relatively new to Canada and PEI.

During each session we covered one decade, sharing our knowledge of significant events for women at the time and our personal memories and reflections. We started our exploration of women’s equality with 1967 because on February 16th of that year the government of Canada launched the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.

As our discussions unfolded, I learned new information about the history of women’s equality in Canada and PEI and also remembered many women and events that I had all but forgotten.

Some examples of what study group participants remembered: In 1969 the Canadian Criminal Code was changed so that it was no longer an offense to disseminate information on birth control; in 1975 the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women was established by the government of PEI as an order-in-council; in 1983 Lyle Brehaut led a committee that researched needs and obtained funds to open the first PEI Rape Crisis Centre; in 1995 Nora Bernard of Millbrook First Nation took the first steps that led to the class-action lawsuit for compensation for 79,000 survivors of Indian Residential Schools that was settled in 2005. These are just a tiny sample of the multitude of events and groundbreaking women we discussed.

As group participants shared personal reflections, I was amazed at how differently we each experienced the changes occurring in society for women, depending on our age, our cultural background, and our economic position in the community at the time. Since each group included women from multiple generations, in any given decade some of us were young girls whose mothers never worked outside the home. Others were single women raising children on their own while also holding down a full-time job. Day-to-day survival made it hard to connect with women and women’s movements. As one woman remembered a time of parenting and studying, “It was all a blur.” Almost all participants described at least one decade when the challenges of life meant their recollection of history was “all a blur.”

Some women had mothers who were feminists who taught them that women should have the same rights as men. One woman remembered her mother saying to her male partner, “I’m changing, and you can come along or not!” An Indigenous woman recalled, “In 2005 in the eyes of the government I was Indigenous again!” but also said that “discrimination persists.” Another woman and her partner raised their two boys together and were finally able to marry after being together for almost 30 years when same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada in 2005.

We have had victories for women’s equality and also some disappointments. A senior woman called the new Women’s Wellness Program that began in January 2017 to provide a full range of reproductive care, including abortion care, to PEI as the “accomplishment of the past 10 years.” Another participant reminded us that we used to have more women MLA’s in PEI than we have now. On the other hand, it was an emotional time for women to watch the new federal ministers being sworn in in 2015 and to see that 50% of them were women!

Women reflected on women’s spaces that existed during the 1970s and 1980s that eventually lost their funding and support. One woman remembered that in the late 1980s a small group of women established a Women’s Centre at UPEI after a series of sexual assaults on campus. Unfortunately, the UPEI Women’s Centre is no longer there. Neither is the women’s issues magazine, Common Ground, once published by Women’s Network PEI. Women remembered the Women’s Festival that also no longer exists. As one participant pointed out, a barrier to true equality was a general belief women were “equal enough.”

Through the five weeks, it was clear to us how easily women’s history can be lost or forgotten. Women of the past, even just the past fifty years, disappeared behind their husbands’ names. Their public accomplishments disappeared from their obituaries. Their images disappeared from the public record because they weren’t in as many public roles or as many photographs. Their contributions to oral history were passed on anonymously or not written down.

During our final session participants agreed that women have made many advances towards equality since 1967, and they expressed appreciation for all of the intergenerational sharing of experiences and memories in our study group. We also know that we still have work to do and that we are not yet “equal enough.”

As one woman so eloquently said: “We have a lot to do, but we have done a lot. It’s our torch, we need to keep it going for awhile, burning bright.”

~ Mari Basiletti is the Chairperson of the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women

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