Women win — province creates replacement for Status of Women Advisory Council.
by Jody Dallaire
In spring of 2011, the New Brunswick suddenly announced that it would be abolishing all funding to the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Two years and two months later, after constant vociferous lobbying by women’s groups, the Minister responsible for the Status of Women, Marie-Claude Blais announced the province will create an independent Voices of New Brunswick Women Consensus-Building Forum, composed of representatives from organizations in New Brunswick.
Just to recap: following the massive mobilization against the abolition of the Advisory Council, the Minister hosted a two-day forum on the topic in November 2011 and then created a working group to make recommendations on how to move forward. The Consensus-building Forum was one of the three possible structures recommended by the Voice of New Brunswick Women Working Group. The other two recommended structures were: a Voices of NB Board or a Voices of NB Women Roundtable.
This new structure is supposed to complement community organizations’ work and assist them in advancing their mandate, not to tax their already stretched resources.
To be an independent voice that provides advice to government on matters of importance to women.
To bring to the attention of government and the public issues of interest and concern to women and women’s substantive equality.
To include and engage women of all walks of life, women’s groups and society in general.
To be strategic and provide advice on emerging and future issues.
To represent the voice of all New Brunswick women.
To foster a collaborative relationship with government.
Now the task is to ensure the Consensus-building Forum is properly set up. Otherwise why bother, right?
Recently I participated in a roundtable discussion on this subject matter at the Regroupement Féministe’s Annual General Meeting. Here are some of the questions that I raised:
1) The Forum must have adequate resources. Minister Blais announced that $200,000 will be allotted to the functioning of this forum (both in-kind and in direct government funding) for fiscal year 2013-2014. This funding is fine for the start-up year of the Consensus-building Forum, but will need to be increased in subsequent years to allow adequate staffing for the Forum. Although community organizations already do incredible work with very few resources, they can’t be expected to stretch their budgets or workers to take on the new Forum’s work. This new structure is supposed to complement their work and assist them in advancing their mandate, not to tax their already stretched resources.
The Forum also needs adequate resources to catch up to where the Advisory Council left off, two years ago. Staff will need to come up to speed on various initiatives and renew connections with women’s communities.
2) The independence of this newly created organization is also important. The Voices of Women’s Consensus-Building Forum must have full authority to hire and manage its own employees, set its own priorities and manage its own budget. The Forum will need to be able to take positions on sometimes controversial issues that do not yet have public consensus, to spark social debate and highlight how certain policies or situations affect women. For example, male violence against women was not always considered a societal issue. Organizations like the Advisory Council on the Status of Women raised the issue and made it a public concern.
If properly set up, the Consensus-building Forum has the potential to do important work to continue to advance women’s equality in the province, thanks largely to the women who served on the Voices of New Brunswick Working Group to recommend how the government could replace the abolished Advisory Council. Several of these women are continuing on to define more clearly the structure of the Consensus-building Forum over the coming weeks.
Perhaps, once it’s in place, the NB Women’s Consensus-Building Forum will enable the David Alward government to finally meet its commitment to: “Actively engage with important stakeholder groups such as the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, Council on the Status of Disabled Persons and the First Nations of New Brunswick to enhance the inclusiveness of our government’s decision-making authorities.”
If you recall, this was the commitment made in the 2010 Progressive Conservative Election Platform. Time is running out for the government to meet its objective of consulting with the Voices of NB Women Consensus-Building Forum, which will replace the NB Advisory Council on the Status of Women. The 2014 New Brunswick election looms closer all the time – September 22, 2014.