The starting point for dialogue is mutual respect: something which has long been lacking from Niagara regional council. Whether the consistent lack of decorum is a result of disrespect for the institution, contempt of the public, a lack of civility, or just plain ol’ privilege, is not for me to say… but it is incumbent upon us all to call out bad behaviours, particularly in governance.
As Niagara Regional Chair Jim Bradley stated in his Chairman’s address to council on November 14, 2019, “… your intent is not what members of the public notice. Instead, sometimes our offhand comments can be easily perceived as disrespectful and unprofessional”.
Chair Bradley’s comment was in regards to complaints that some councillors, usually male, banter across chambers with comments which, in my opinion, are blatantly sexist, promote an unhealthy work environment, reenforce outdated gender roles, model misogynistic behaviours to those watching (they think they are droll; they are not).
While this issue is not new, what is new is having this discussion in conjunction with a debate on whether it is a Charter violation to specify that preference shall be given to those with lived experience of female identity for membership to a women’s advisory committee.
The Great Male Privilege Debate of 2019, Niagara edition: Can men sit on a womens advisory committee (only if their wives let them).
I honestly didn’t see this coming; I thought opposition, if any, would be to the creation of the committee, not on its proposed membership.
Unlike so many of my friends, I did not study women and gender at university: I was raised to believe we are all equal regardless of whatever social constructs are placed upon us – and have long studied human rights (concepts and history (or lack thereof).
I assumed committee membership would be given to the most qualified applicants with lived experience and/or knowledge of barriers women face, such as child care, poverty, gender-based violence, with preference for those who identify as female, Two-Spirit, transgender, and non-binary; I would further hope Indigenous women and women of colour would be amongst those to sit at the table.
It seems simple enough to me… if not obvious. I was wrong. I was wrong when I went into these discussions touting equality; I was wrong about the complexity of the issue. I thought it didn’t matter whether or not men sat on a women’s advisory committee because I believe in inclusiveness and equality; but that belief is not incongruous with the acceptance that women are not, in reality, treated equally or given equal opportunity.
Because, let’s face it, most of the conversation had absolutely nothing to do with women or barriers faced by those who identify as female.
Why do we need to specify whether men are expressly excluded and discuss men’s Charter rights? Because the men made the discussion about them.
I don’t believe Mayor Redekop intended to incite such a lengthy debate when he posited the question of whether men could sit on a women’s committee during the November 6t Corporate Services committee meeting (Grimsby’s Councillor Fertich replied only if their wives let them).
With that, a debate was born – and make no mistake, it is an important societal discussion.
Some of the commentary during the November 14 council meeting include:
“My challenge is actually from a system perspective. If we have an all womens committee, if we go down that road, that we, in that sense, we’re bound somehow, if the committee makes a recommendation or suggestions, and I don’t know that scope, and then we turn it down, that council turns it down, that we create a polarization or that it goes out to the region that we are sexist somehow.”
— David Bylsma, West Lincoln (Mayor)
“I hear regularly that we should stay in our lane and I don’t think this is our lane…
I just don’t understand excluding people or how legal that is.”
— Gary Zalepa, Niagara-On-The-Lake
“I vote for the committee but excluding men feels like it exposes us to liability, I can’t support that.”
— Bob Gale, Niagara Falls
“I have one wife, two daughters, one daughter in law, and only one son in law to help me… I believe we need to go ahead with this project, if a male wanted to apply to sit on this, as discussions move forward, a male perspective can assist.
IT REALLY IS A WAY TO THE FUTURE, OF ALLOWING WOMEN TO HAVE MORE OF A VOICE TO WHAT THEY ARE SPEAKING AND CERTAINLY THE LADIES WE HAVE SITTING AROUND THIS COUNCIL MAKE SURE THEY DO.”
— Tim Rigby, St Catharines
What do we mean by Equity Versus Equality?
According to a report by the Canadian Ministry of Women and Gender Equality (WAGE), on roundtables held nationwide, the consensus from frontline workers, advocates, and stakeholders is:
• All solutions must be inclusive;
• Equity does not equal equality;
• Work with men and boys is urgently needed, but it must be in addition to ongoing, critical work with women and girls.
Equity is not the same as equality – equality assumes we are all equal, while equity acknowledges historic disenfranchisement and the need to address inequalities to achieve true equality.
Just as it is not enough to be “not racist” and must actively engage in anti-racism behaviours, to ensure equality, we must actively work to breakdown gender-based barriers.
It is not about excluding men, rather, it is about ensuring women are included in politics, engaged in our community, and safe to debate the merits of programming and services without being interrupted, without being triggered and without being made to feel barriers.
That should have been the conversation…
Instead, the debate flowed over from committee to council; lines were drawn, sides were picked, and rather than be about empowering women in Niagara and ensuring inclusivity, the men made the discussion about them.
Is it legal to exclude men from a women’s committee?
Yes, it is legal to exclude men from a women’s committee. Further, it is compatible with the Charter of Right and Freedoms to frame the requirements for the executive of said women’s committee to only be open to those who identify as female.
In case you are wondering, the reverse is not true.
While Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants Equality rights to all, Section 15(2) specifically allows for laws and programs aimed at improving conditions for disadvantaged groups – including women’s equity.
This concept of equity over equality has been consistently upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) when it’s purpose is to eliminate barriers to full participation by historically disadvantaged groups.
— Eldrich v British Columbia (Attorney General),  3 SCR 624
Equality for people with disabilities – equality does not mean identical treatment for everybody. Disadvantaged groups may need more services or programs and governments must consider the need to eliminate barriers to allow for their full participation in society.
— Vriend v. Alberta,  1 SCR 493
Discrimination based on sexual orientation – discussion of how even human rights laws may violate equity rights when they fail to protect individuals who have been historically discriminated against.
— R. v. Kapp, 2008 SCC 41
SCC found no discrimination by allowing Indigenous communities fishing rights because the special priviledges were granted for legitimate purposes of assisting those disadvantaged communities.
Government can, and should, seek to improve the lives of historically disadvantaged peoples by passing laws and creating programs intended to help them and further recognized these programs are entirely compatible with equality protections under the Charter.
The Uncomfortable Truth: What Privilege Really Means
Just as white privilege is not related to socioeconomic status and, rather, refers to the unearned privileges that white people experience, often unconsciously, because they are not subjected to racism, women’s equitable treatment is not about equality.
Equity seeks to take the work further by acknowledging we do not all start from the same place and providing advantages through programming and services to ensure we all have what we need to be successful.
And, there, dear readers, is the crux of the issue.
No one is arguing that anyone is better than anyone else – the issue at hand is whether those who identify as female have equal opportunities for success through current institutional structures in the Region of Niagara.
The starting point for dialogue is mutual respect: how does this council model respect for female opinion and leadership?
By “allowing” women their seat at the table?
A few final thoughts, taken from my email conversations, with various councillors, in the days before sitting down to write this for you; thank you all who took the time to engage.
Lincoln’s Mayor Sandra Easton has been a vocal supporter of including men, going so far as to insinuate those who do not agree, hate men. In a follow-up email, Mayor Easton did relate:
“I know we are not entirely in synch on the matter of Committee membership, however your comments have raised my antennae on group dynamics that create barriers to women’s expressing themselves.”
While Port Colborne’s Barbara Butters had this to say, “I truly wish, as a society, we were more advanced on this issue, but the reality is we (collectively) deal with the inequalities and the either disguised or outright misogyny on a regular basis. Some more than others, some less. Bottom line, it exists….
I still believe in the power and strength of women and the need to change our society. To be included, respected, our opinions, our choices, our lives valued, whatever they might be. So do men need to be on this committee to accomplish great things? No. Should we exclude them? No.”
St Catharines Councillor George Darte replied: “I feel all things about the committee are proper now. It would be wrong to exclude men the opportunity to be in the committee… Keep in mind that I grew up with 4 sisters, so to me, I have never even thought there is inequality as I never grew up thinking that way. I believe like many, that we were all created equally”.
Or, as Councillor Kelly Edgar so succinctly wrote me: “I think that men have been advising women for long enough and it’s been my experience that if a woman wants my advice on equality then she will ask me for it.”