VOICES-VOIX is a non-partisan coalition of organizations and individuals defending democracy, free speech and transparency in Canada. CERA is one of the over 200 member organizations. CERA’s Executive Director has spoken at several press conferences and meetings on behalf of the coalition.
On the day before the Day for Democracy (April 6th) VOICES-VOIX held a press conference on Parliament Hill to draw attention to the demise of democracy as we enter the second week of a federal election. CERA’s Executive Director talked about the lack of access to information, the control of information and the demise of Democracy in Canada. At the Day for Democracy Rally on the following day, she spoke about the assault on women’s human rights and equality. Over 200 people attended the rally in Ottawa. Speakers included: Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International, Gerry Barr, Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for International Cooperation, MP Paul Dewar (NDP), as well as representatives from the Liberal Party of Canada and the Green Party.
Day for Democracy Rally – The Assault on Women’s Human Rights and Equality (Speaking Notes)
I am Leilani Farha, the Executive Director of CERA – the Centre on Equality Rights in Accommodation. CERA is one of the groups whose funding was slashed by the current government because we dared to protect women’s equality rights in Canada.
Not so long ago I spent the bulk of my time working across the country with low income women and advocates to protect the right to housing for the poorest women – disabled women, Aboriginal women, single mothers – to make sure they would have a decent place to live.
These days I spend my time giving speeches and attending rallies to talk about the assault on democracy and more specifically the erosion of women’s equality rights in Canada.
It still makes me shake my head. How did we get here? And by here I mean where voices are silenced, where information is controlled, where human rights and women’s equality are reviled, and as we saw yesterday, where the young and politically engaged are profiled and excluded.
I used to have pride in Canada as one of the most progressive democracies, and champions of peace and human rights. Now, Canada feels like hostile territory. Hostile to me personally as an Arab Canadian and to my work, particularly on women’s rights.
Am I exaggerating? Is there real hostility against dissenting voices and women’s rights in this country? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Let’s review some facts:
- The current government cancelled the national child care program and replaced it with a paltry taxable $100 a month payment to parents with children under 6.
- They scrapped the equality portion of the Court Challenges Program a program which made constitutional rights accessible to ordinary people.
- They attacked Status of Women Canada (an already fledgling department): they cut the research budget, they closed 12 of 16 offices across the country and they ceased funding any organization engaged in advocacy, lobbying, or law reform.
- They gutted pay equity legislation, and stripped it of its meaning.
- They introduced a stimulus budget which basically offered nothing of relevance to women and they
- Eliminated the mandatory long form census – which provided information for example on the extent of women’s unpaid work at home.
AND WHAT IS THE IMPACT OF ALL OF THIS?
There are real ramifications for these decisions.
Women’s groups and human rights groups are afraid to speak out – there is no national voice on women’s rights; women are not at political tables and our interests are not being represented or heard.
Because women’s groups across the country are basically decimated and because we have had systematic policies that have not considered women’s interests and needs – there are a host of social and economic repercussions emerging for the most marginalized groups:
– Increasing unemployment – official unemployment rates approached double digits.
– Fewer women than ever are able to qualify for employment insurance benefits in the face of job loss. And if you can qualify for employment insurance what you receive is 20% lower now than during the last recession in the 1990s.
– There have been dramatic increases in food bank and meal program use. In the last year we’ve seen an 18 percent increase. “the largest year-over-year increase on record” (Food Banks Canada, 2009: 1-2).
– Also, we are seeing increased use of bankruptcy and credit counselling services, and impacts on health services, mental health counselling, and suicide and crisis intervention programs.
There is only one thing to do in the face of a democracy under attack: take to the streets, BE LOUD and use our VOICES COLLECTIVELY TO RECLAIM Democracy as we know it.
VOICES-VOIX Press Conference
Speaking Notes: Leilani Farha
5 April 2011
I am Leilani Farha the Executive Director of CERA – the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, a human rights organization working with some of the poorest and most marginalized people in Canada. CERA is a member of the VOICES-VOIX coalition because we are gravely concerned with the demise of democracy in Canada over the last five years.
If the Government of Canada can’t get democracy right, who can?
In recent years one of the most direct attacks on democracy has been this government’s attempt to control information. Of course, access to information that is reliable, accurate, and non-partisan is one of the fundamental pillars of a democracy. Information animates democracy. Access to information allows us to hold our government’s accountable. Only with reliable, non-partisan information can we engage in healthy debate. Only with access to information can we develop policy that is based in real needs and experiences.
The recent curtailment of access to information and the control of information has been raised most loudly by journalists across the country, whose Access to Information requests often lay languishing on a shelf in some government office somewhere. And when the access to information request is granted, the information returned is often gutted of content.
But the control of information net has been cast much wider than this. It has been used, and I’d say used very effectively to mask what’s happening to some of the most marginalized groups in the country – specifically marginalized and disadvantaged groups of women.
This has been achieved with three swift moves:
- The Harper Government got rid of the research arm of Status of Women Canada. This was the only national research body whose mandate was to research and assess how women and different groups of women were faring in the country. Were women achieving equality in different areas: employment, housing, politics, on reserve, off reserve … The research arm of SWC had a national and international reputation for groundbreaking and important research on women’s rights and related issues.
- The change to the mandate of SWC banning the funding of groups who undertake advocacy, and the resultant elimination of a vast number of women’s organizations. Organizations like the National Association of Women and the Law; and the Sisters in Spirit Campaign. Organizations that engaged in research, generated information about women’s inequality, and then used that information to generate debate, and to inform policy discussions.
- The elimination of the mandatory long-form census which is widely understood as providing information on the socio-eco conditions of the most marginalized groups, information that would not otherwise be accessed but for the mandatory nature of the census. And the elimination of questions regarding unpaid household work in the household survey, which is considered a critical measure in revealing gender inequality.
Lets be clear about what happens when you eliminate this type of information from the public domain, information about women’s poverty, women’s earnings, legal barriers to women’s equality, when you muzzle information about Aboriginal women’s horrific experiences of going missing and being murdered.
What happens is the narrative is controlled; you get a pretty rosy picture of a land of milk and honey where there are no women’s advocacy organizations because women have achieved full equality in all realms.
But this is Canada, not Never Never Land.
We need a government that understands and respects the fragile nature of democracy, and that isn’t afraid to be judged by the light of day.
We need a government that will re-instate the mandatory long-form census, reform Canada’s Access to Information Act, and restore funding to women’s advocacy organizations.