When I ran into Alexa McDonough a few months ago at a women in politics gathering in Ottawa, she was back to her old self - relaxed, passion-ate and witty. This was the McDonough I remember during the debate over the Charlottetown Accord, the one who wiped the floor with Pat Carney on The Journal, arguing with wit and humour that 50 percent of senators should be women.
Ten years ago, women’s representation in a proposed elect-ed Senate became a topic of national interest. But today, the abysmal under-representation of women in politics is as much of a dead issue as the Triple-E Senate. At the end of March, the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL) sponsored a round table to try to restart the debate about improving the number of women in Parliament through proportional representation. PR, as it is known, is a system in which parties are given seats according to their percentage of the vote, rather than by our method of winner-take-all in each riding. PR is used by most of the world’s democracies.
McDonough and I were there with a representative array of women’s groups and individual women interested in the subject of women’s political representation. NAWL’s intention was to develop a feminist position on PR. But what happened was dra-matically different. At least half of the women there had little interest in discussing electoral politics. They wanted to talk about the survival of the women’s movement and, even more urgently, about the literal survival of the women they represent.
"In British Columbia, by the end of the year, it will be next to impossible for abused women to access welfare," said the leg-endary anti-violence worker Lee Lakeman. As in Ontario, the B.C. government plans to restrict welfare so much that Lakeman says it will collapse the province’s shelter system, with profound con-sequences for women. "What are we doing about it?" she asked.
"We’ve lost hope," said Joyce Green, an aboriginal academic from the University of Regina, adding that "a full measure of cit-izenship is not expected nor experienced [by aboriginal people]." This reminded me of a recent speech delivered by Catherine Frazee, a former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Frazee, who herself uses a wheelchair, called the experience of marginalized people "precarious citizenship." She said "the social contract ideas in which we have invested so very much faith are premised on the fiction that we are, as John Locke argued, ’free, equal and independent.’"
Frazee noted that, in our neo-liberal world, the old social contract is pretty tattered. Instead of a true democracy, as Locke envisioned, we are creating a large underclass of people who don’t even expect a minimal level of income support and social services. The policies of the past fifteen years (cutbacks, privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts) have significantly widened the material gap between the middle-class and poor women, able-bodied and disabled women, and white and aboriginal women.
PR is an important reform, but the idea that more women in Parliament could change this reality is hard for women on the margins to see. What we need is a change in the system-eco-nomic and political. In the battle for equal treatment, we really need a new beginning. The fight is not just about women’s inequality. What’s needed is a frontal assault on the idea that a privileged elite can run society in its own interests with little care for those who get left behind, the collateral damage.
The women’s movement, I was reminded at the round table, though on its knees, understands what needs to be done. The anti-war movement, vital and active, needs to expand its mandate to include opposition to inequality and injustice. Peace is not just an absence of war, it is a presence of justice. We are a long way from peace.
Judy Rebick, columnist, Alternatives Newspaper