Reflections on the Edmonton Women’s March for IWD 2018

I was invited to speak at the International Women’s Day Celebration organized by Chris Nielsen, MLA Edmonton-Decore, on March 9. I was asked to speak about my activism in the context of the Edmonton Women’s March. Here is my speech.

Thank you to Chris Nielsen for inviting me to speak today, and I would like to acknowledge that we are on Treaty 6 territory.

I was hanging out with a friend in November of 2016, when she mentioned that there was going to be a Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration, and asked if there was going to be any sort of action here in Edmonton. At the time I had not heard of anything, but went online and found that yes, in fact there were women organizing “sister marches” in cities throughout Canada and throughout the world, and I was connected with the women who were organizing here in the city. Together, we planned the Edmonton Women’s March and on January 21, 2017 4000 people showed up at the Alberta Legislature to proclaim that Women’s Rights are Human Rights.

One of the other organizers, Alison Poste, and I decided that we wanted to continue organizing as a grassroots team, and so we have been doing that under the banner of the March On Edmonton Collective. Most recently, we organized an anniversary event of the Women’s March, which had 1000 people come out again to the Legislature on January 20.

As someone who has been an activist for much of my adult life, I have been drawn to issues such as peace, social justice, human rights, Indigenous rights, the environment, and, of course, women’s rights. I think in some ways, many of these issues are interconnected. There is a saying in activist circles that if one person or group is oppressed, then we are all oppressed. I believe there is truth to that. And certainly, women have been at the forefront of social justice struggles throughout history.

Yet when it came to the Edmonton Women’s March, especially the first time around, we got a lot of questions about why we were going ahead with a march. After all, the Women’s March on Washington was directly in response to the election of #45. What did this have to do with us up here in Canada, in Alberta, or in Edmonton?

I responded then, and continue to now, that we have uniquely Canadian, Albertan, and Edmontonian reasons to march. In many ways, the election of #45 emboldened people who hold intolerant, racist, and sexist beliefs to feel free to spew their venom. We wanted to fight back against a trickle-up effect here in Alberta. We are seeking to raise the level of public discourse in our province, where women in politics and other aspects of public life are free from verbal abuse, harassment, and bullying. We are raising awareness and support for survivors of gender-based violence, as well as the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. And, of course, there is the issue of pay equity in the workplace, as Alberta is the only province in Canada that does not have equal pay legislation. These are all ongoing, important, local issues.

In the year since the first Women’s March, gender-based violence and harassment has come to the forefront in the news and social media. #MeToo has actually been around since 2006 – the term was created by an American activist named Tarana Burke. But suddenly, in the last year, it’s everywhere.I strongly believe that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement has become so prominent because women feel more empowered to speak up directly because of the Women’s March movement.

The Women’s March was the largest global protest in history, and we are seeing the ongoing effects of that. Women’s voices matter, and now that we have the ability to speak out and support each other through social media, the ability to organize and mobilize is easier than ever. The challenge now is to move beyond the hashtag and into concrete action.

What does that look like? Sexual assault centres are understaffed and underfunded. People who are seeking help often have to wait weeks or even months before they can speak to a counsellor. Private counselling services can be too expensive to access for many. We also have to acknowledge and deal with institutionalized racism that is endemic in our society. Women of colour and Indigenous women are far more likely to be victims of violence. Shelters that protect women and children need more support, as always.

We also need to see more women represented in public places. When it comes to public art, sculptures, monuments, murals, and even place names, women are woefully under-represented. Where women are depicted, it is often a fictional woman in a stereotypical role or presented in an unrealistic way (such as in terms of their body poses and proportions). Completing the Story is a grassroots initiative that started here in Edmonton and seeks to increase and improve the visual representation of women in public spaces. As a social media campaign, using the hashtag #CompletingTheStory, we point out examples of both good and bad representation, or where it is lacking, in Edmonton and throughout Canada. This is important because when a group is not visible, or not as visible as it should be, it is easier to marginalize that group. Representation matters. Girls need to learn from an early age that they can be and do anything.

And there is much to be hopeful for. Progress is happening. I applaud the government for its legislation clearing the way for renters to break leases in order to flee violence. The announcement this week of more funding for sexual assault centres is amazing and will have such a positive impact. I am encouraged when I see a provincial caucus and cabinet with gender parity, that this will inspire women to run for office or get involved with public life in other ways, such as government boards.

The fact that so many people came out to the Women’s March in 2017 and again in 2018 – crowds which included many people who don’t normally attend protests and rallies, and including not just women, but also men and boys – means that we’re dealing with issues that resonate with a lot of people from all walks of life. This is why we continue to proclaim that Women’s Rights Are Human Rights – because when it comes down to it, the issues that we are dealing with are all parts of working towards a safe, equitable society for everyone.