Halifax resident Laura Eamon spent her International Women’s Day glued to a computer, learning about Canada’s political institutions and the people who run them.
She represented her riding — Halifax West — as part of a group of 338 young women from all backgrounds participating in ‘Daughters of the Vote,’ an annual initiative of Equal Voice that aims to inspire and empower women to participate in systems of governance, and become community leaders.
It normally takes place on Parliament Hill, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought this program, and many International Women’s Day events, online.
It may be 2021, but Eamon said programs like this one are still critically important as the gender imbalance in Canadian politics remains “very evident.”
In Nova Scotia, about a third of MLAs are women, and in Ottawa, fewer than 30 per cent of MPs in the House of Commons are women.
“A lot of our policies are dated and from the some of the original government members,” said Eamon, a student of economics and environmental science at Saint Mary’s University.
“I think diversifying the politicians the elected representatives is really important so you can change those policies, bring them up to date and make sure we’re leaving no one behind.”
The lack of female contenders in February’s Nova Scotia Liberal leadership election raises serious questions about “the kind of culture we have” in the province, she added, noting the importance of improving diversity and reaching gender parity in government institutions.
“In the future I think that women will have a really strong hand in changing our economic system,” she explained. “In not constantly reaching for perpetual growth, I think that women are going to be able to make those kinds of changes, protect the people and the planet.”
The kinds of comments made by residents like Eamon help propel the work of Status of Women, a provincial government office that rarely makes news headlines in Nova Scotia, but works full-time to bolster women in leadership roles, support their goals in the workforce, and improve their access to services, including medical care.
The Advisory Council on the Status of Women, which includes that office and appointed council members from across the province, is also charged with leading Nova Scotia’s approach to gender-based violence, running campaign schools to encourage prospective female candidates, and making recommendations to the minister in charge, Deputy Premier Kelly Regan.
“Is there work to be done? Absolutely,” said Stephanie MacInnis-Langley, the council’s executive director. “We’re very interested in any opportunities that provide women with a voice at decision-making tables.”
This year, added MacInnis-Langley, the council is launching a research project examining the impacts of the pandemic on women in Nova Scotia, in an effort to support those re-entering the workforce after losing their jobs, or forfeiting them to care for their families.
Post-pandemic care is particularly important for Indigenous women, said Lorraine Whitman, head of the Native Women’s Association of Canada and a member of Glooscap First Nation in Nova Scotia.
Many Indigenous women have lost their businesses during the pandemic, she explained, while others have faced increased exposure to violence to due isolation in violent scenarios at home.
“We need to see and have something in tune that’s going to immediately be able to help recover (from) the violence that’s occurring, so right now that’s what we’re working on,” said Whitman.
“We need to support our women and sisters in no matter what country … they look at Canada as being a strong national women’s organization, which we are, but we need to give them the support to know they can be just as strong, they are not alone.”
On International Women’s Day, Whitman said she’s celebrating all Canadians who have listened and learned about reconciliation and Indigenous history in the country, and all the women who are lifting each other up against the odds.
El Jones, a Halifax-based journalist, professor and poet, said International Women’s Day’s roots are in the labour rights movement for women, and it’s an opportunity to recognize the hard work of woman all around the world — particularly during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected them.
“Women on the frontlines in health care, women in retail, women in grocery stores — that’s not excluding men, course, but we know so many of those jobs, the cleaning jobs, the high-risk jobs,” she explained. “So I think it’s a good year for us to remember that yes, this is a political day.”
Jones pointed out several labour and economic conditions that continue to harm women, such as unaffordable housing, a lack of universal basic income, and underrepresentation in decision-making institutions. These are conditions governments could fix “if they wanted to,” said Jones, but it’s a matter of political will.
“Who are we here to serve? Are we here to serve the richest people in society or are we here to serve everybody?” she told Global News. “Have some courage. All of these things are solvable. There’s no mystery to any of this. It’s not a head-scratcher.”
Jones said on March 8, she’s celebrating all the women who work behind closed doors, often for free, to prop up their communities — caring for each other’s children, for example, so their mothers can work or go to school.