The following is a speech delivered by FFAW Staffperson Jessica McCormick on March 5 in St. John’s at the International Women’s Day Bread and Roses Brunch.
It is an honour to be here today to celebrate International Women’s Day with you all, to recognize that progress we’ve made and to come together to reaffirm our commitment to organize and take action.
There are so many people in this room that I admire. Feminists like Mary Shortall, women who have been mentors to me, who have made space for young voices, who help raise us up. What a privilege it is to be surrounded by so many people who are striving each day to build a more just and equitable society. Thank you all for the work you do every day for our communities.
Today our theme is rise up for change. And I can tell you, without a doubt, the feminists of Newfoundland and Labrador are rising.
Since being asked to speak at the Bread and Roses Brunch, I’ve been keeping notes on issues or events that I wanted to talk about today. It quickly became evident that there is so much happening in our community and in the world right now, that there is no way I could touch on everything.
Sexism, misogyny and gender-based violence are so pervasive in our society. Even just in the past two weeks, here in Newfoundland and Labrador, at times it’s felt like our shared goals are slipping further out of reach. It would be easy to feel defeated if not for the fact that each news story I hear has been accompanied by a call to action from our communities, a grassroots response from folks who share our commitment to equity and justice. Those are the stories that motivate me to persist and to resist.
As Mary said in my introduction, I work as a Communications Officer with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union. My job requires that I spend about 5 hours each day listening to talk radio on VOCM. The women here today who work with me can attest to the difficulties I sometimes have listening to Open Line and Back Talk every day. It can be rough. And while there are moments of brilliance, usually resulting from a call from Jenny Wright or another awesome feminist, there are also a lot of moments that cause me much despair and remind me of the work we, as feminist organizers, have left to do.
You see the reason I listen to so much talk radio is because those shows can sometimes provide good insight on where the general public discourse is at on a particular issue. While I’m usually more concerned with how the public feels about the fishery, and let me tell you they have some VERY strong feelings, I think it’s also valuable to hear the calls about other current events and topics.
Based on my not so scientific analysis provided by listening to hundreds of hours of VOCM, feminist organizers have our work cut out of us. While I won’t have time to outline everything that requires progressive action in our province and across the country, two issues that I would like to touch on are consent and islamophobia.
I’ll begin with consent. And I’d like to provide a warning that I will be discussing sexual assault in my remarks.
In the face of the gender-based violence that permeates our communities, too many institutions engage in victim-blaming and silencing tactics rather than supporting survivors and taking steps to prevent further violence from occurring.
When a police officer is found not guilty of rape, it’s a stark reminder of the tremendous amount of work that must still be done to educate on consent.
Research has shown that women and others who face gendered oppression don’t report incidences of sexualized violence because they fear they will not be believed or supported or that they will have to disclose the details of what was said and done to them. Many believe that there is little chance the perpetrator will be arrested or convicted.
So when I see a newspaper headline that reinforces that victim-blaming narrative or when I hear so-called allies try to defend a legal process that is unjust and unfair, well I get angry. I know many of you get angry.
Our movement does not need allies who feel compelled to defend a justice system that is so fundamentally flawed. We don’t need to be told how we should or shouldn’t feel. What we need are allies who listen to us and want to work alongside us to fight for systemic reform. Especially when it comes to how our legal system handles cases of sexual and gender-based violence.
So let me be perfectly clear:
Consent cannot be given when someone is intoxicated.
Don’t touch me means no.
I’m not interested means no.
We’ve been drinking means no.
Silence means no.
Rape is not respecting no.
And yes only means yes when it’s enthusiastic, freely given, ongoing and it can be renegotiated or withheld at any time.
Whether it’s the words used by our allies or the words used by politicians, the message and platform can have a significant impact on public discourse, both for better and for worse.
Unfortunately, it’s not just bigots and the Donald Trumps of the world that spread ignorance and hate when it comes to marginalized communities, particularly Islam and Muslim communities.
If we listen to some of the calls on talk radio or talk to our neighbors or even our family members, problematic, hateful views have permeated our everyday conversations.
As feminists, we acknowledge that systems of oppression such as racism, white supremacy and xenophobia are all compounded and often connected to gender-based violence. Islamophobia is a feminist issue. It’s a feminist issue because it is about taking away from the equality and equity of a group of people, and it’s spurred on by the systems of oppression I just mentioned. Islamophobia is about power. It’s about reproducing white and Christian privilege while silencing people and conversations that contradict that privilege. It’s something we need to challenge within our communities and within our organizations and movements. We must address white privilege when we see it. Islamophobia is just one of many oppressive expressions of white supremacy. It exploits the politics of fear.
The best way for us to challenge Islamophobia is to first learn about Islam and Muslim communities. Practice strong, well-informed allyship. Read about it. Cultivate friendships with Muslim folks.
It is not the responsibility of allies to speak for or over Muslim people. We must provide platforms for Muslim folks to speak for themselves, we must call out explicit racism and bigotry and call in those individuals, whether it’s your family or friends, who express anti-Muslim sentiment in an effort to change their perception.
Rising up for change means organizing on a community level to build a society that is free from violence and hate, by educating on issues like consent and challenging Islamophobia. But we must also rise up for change within our government and institutions.
So when our Prime Minister proclaimed he is a feminist at a time when backlash against gender justice and women’s rights is all too common, that sends a powerful message. But more than words are required to make a lasting, meaningful impact on gender equity.
Tomorrow, Oxfam Canada will be releasing a Feminist Scorecard. The report will track the action our federal government is taking to advance women’s rights and gender equality in Canada.
Women and those who face gendered oppression need more than a Prime Minister who uses feminism as political currency. Because it’s 2017.
Political decision making by elites, combined with the continued under-representation of women in politics, results in policies and public spending decisions that do not incorporate a gender lens or worse, contribute to reinforcing gender-based economic inequality and social marginalization.
While it is clear feminists in the United States are facing an uphill battle against a sexist, misogynist President, we have our work cut out for us here in Canada as well.
In Canada, major federal funding cuts over the past decade have severely undermined the capacity of feminist organizations to mobilize, offer front-line services and tackle the root causes of discrimination and inequality. These cuts have a particularly severe impact on women who are poor and marginalized and on Indigenous women.
Tax cuts and austerity policies have resulted in significant cuts to public services across the country, including in this province. The austerity agenda has particularly negative implications for women. The public sector provides a source of good jobs for women and people of marginalized genders, who also tend to rely more heavily on public services and are more likely to fill the gaps when services are cut.
It’s long past the time for our federal government to prove exactly how feminist they really are.
It’s time for our Prime Minister to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
A truly feminist Prime Minister, and a feminist provincial government for that matter, would invest in public services in order to stimulate the economy and improve access to good jobs.
Nowhere in Canada do minimum wages constitute living wages. Prime Minister Trudeau sent a disappointing message to workers who struggle to make ends meet when he announced that raising minimum wages was not on his government’s agenda. Our provincial government has an opportunity to do things differently. Our current economic model relies too heavily on cheap labour, especially from women and people of marginalized genders. A truly feminist government would end the gender pay gap and end poverty wages by passing pay equity legislation with particular attention to the greater wage gap for women of colour, indigenous women and immigrants.
A truly feminist government would improve labour laws and occupational health and safety. They’d make it easier to join a Union and pass legislation that requires all employers to provide domestic violence leave.
If feminism is more than just a slogan to them, our government would protect the health, safety and human rights of sex workers by decriminalizing sex work.
They’d invest in universal, high quality, affordable child care across Canada.
And end continued over policing and intentional, increased incarceration of Black and Indigenous communities.
They’d waste no time in implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
A feminist Prime Minister would demonstrate that refugees ARE welcome here by immediately rescinding the “Safe Third Country Agreement.” Contrary to what photos in the media would lead you to believe, Canada doesn’t accept any asylum seekers who come here via the US because of this outdated law. The law prevents most people who are fleeing violence or persecution from seeking refuge in Canada if they land in the US first – which is deemed a “safe country” under the law. This must end.
There’s no shortage of work that needs to be done in order to build a more just and equitable society. The message I want to share today is that we need to stop working in silos. Efforts to advance gender equality must consider how multiple identities such as class, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity compound inequality and exacerbate marginalization.
We can’t have a single-issue movement, because we don’t live single issue lives.
Rising up for change must be more than a tagline. Real change requires action, and I mean fundamentally transforming the society we live in kind of real change – not the Justin Trudeau brand caffeine free diet real change. Fundamental change requires taking risks. It is not politics as usual. Rising up for change means being unapologetic. It means fighting for the rights of ALL, not just a privileged few.
One of my favourite authors is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. You might be familiar with her book “We Should All Be Feminists,” which is included in the lyrics to Beyonce’s song Flawless. In a speech Chimamanda gave in 2015 she said, “Feminism should be a party filled with many different kinds of feminisms. Because we each lead different lives. We each see feminism from a different perspective.” This really resonated with me. There is no prescribed way that we should perform our feminism. It’s not one size fits all.
Our approaches won’t always be the same. But they need to be inclusive and they need to be intersectional. Building solidarity within a movement is difficult and messy. We will struggle. And we will, at times, perpetuate the same oppressions that hold so many people back. What we must always remember is that our collective liberation is bound up together.
Racism experienced by women of colour cannot be separated from their gendered oppression. A trans person with a disability cannot choose which part of their identity is most in need of liberation. This is what intersectionality means. The term was originally introduced by critical race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. It is a lens that our movement must use, that recognizes the multiple aspects of identity that compound and complicate oppressions and marginalizations.
Many of us understand intersectionality as a concept and theory but it’s even more critical that it is put to practice. Just like the Prime Minister, we need to walk the walk and talk the talk.
We must be intentional. We must recognize who’s missing at the table and make space in our movements.
Value marginalized voices. Value and recognize knowledge and experience.
I read something that was shared on social media recently that sums it up well: “You don’t need to be a voice for the voiceless. You just pass the mic.”
I hope that the coming days, weeks and months when we are organizing events, holding rallies and speaking out, that you’ll all keep this in mind. Consider the representation within your organization or local union. Who is around the table? Who is not? How can we go beyond simply allocating a specific seat for a woman on our board and ensure the board is representative of the multiple identities that make up the groups of people we represent?
The business of building solidarity, of building a movement is rarely easy. It can be challenging and uncomfortable. But it’s always worth it.
Across our province and our country and around the world, feminists are rising up.
We’re rising up against income inequality and an economy that continues to work for the wealthiest few while leaving the vast majority of us behind.
We’re rising up against a legal system that has been far from just, especially for victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
We’re rising up against police brutality and saying it loud and clear: Black Lives Matter.
We’re rising up to build a more inclusive society, one that welcomes immigrants and rejects islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
We’re rising up for truth and reconciliation, for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Our communities are rising up.
For economic justice. For racial justice. For gender justice.
These are feminist issues. Going forward, we must continue to build solidarity with other movements and rise up together to fight for a more just and equitable society, where no one is left behind.
So I encourage you all to persist and to resist. If we rise up for change together, I know that we can win.