Women’s Forum/Forum Des Femmes Afternoon

by | November 4, 2013
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Politics

Uppala Chandrasekera and Gwen Haworth

Uppala Chandrasekera and Gwen Haworth

by Jarrah Hodge

The afternoon of Women’s Forum/Forum Des Femmes 2013, hosted by MP Niki Ashton in Ottawa, started out with a panel on “The Politics of Advocacy”.

NDP MP Mylene Freeman moderated the panel, which included Vancouver-based film director and screenwriter Gwen Haworth, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada activist Peggy Cooke, health equity advocate and social worker Uppala Chandrasekera, and Laurie Alphonse of DAWN-RAFH (Disabled Women’s Network Canada).

It was fascinating and inspiring to hear from four very different women talking about how they got involved with different issues in their communities. Gwen Haworth kicked off the panel talking about her work as a filmmaker (most notably on She’s a Boy I Knew, which documented her family’s reaction to her transition from male to female) and activist on trans issues.

She said for her, one of the biggest goals is for all of us to make room for LGBTQ youth in our communities. She is always looking for change that can happen from micro levels up to the level of overarching government policy.

“Bill C-279, which would add gender identity protections to the Human Rights Act, would go further than you know in helping end LGBTQ homelessness,” Haworth said.

On activism, Haworth said, “Activism rejuvenates me and activism depletes me.” She said she finds it more energizing to do things that are pro-active or front-line work rather than work that pits individuals or groups against one another.

Uppala Chandrasekera focused on the issue of mental health, noting that not addressing mental health issues has a human cost, but also an economic one. She also spoke strongly against the stereotypical and stigmatizing ways many people still think of mental illness.

“We have to move beyond characterizing people as being either mentally healthy or mentally ill anymore,” she stated, while also urging the audience to recognize “there is no one mental illness”.

Chandrasekera said her goal is making sure people with mental health issue have access to basic rights and dignity: social inclusion, freedom from discrimination and violence, and access to economic resources.

Laurie Alphonse and Peggy Cooke

Laurie Alphonse and Peggy Cooke

Next, Peggy Cooke talked about how realizing the restrictions on abortion access in New Brunswick made her deeply committed to doing what she could to help. She wrote a blog post on how to get an abortion in New Brunswick and it was visited by a quarter of the population of Fredericton!

Laurie Alphonse finished off by sharing her story about realizing she needed to become an activist:

“For me it started very early in life…when my parents fought to have me be a part of a mainstreaming experiment that would allow me to experience mainstream schooling with non-disabled children…That followed me but it also made me who I am, which is an advocate, a feminist, and an example to those coming after me.”

Alphonse said learning to accept her own identity and have others accept it too helped her realize that is something that needed to be open for others.

However, challenges definitely remain for people with disabiltiies. Alphonse noted that more women with disabilities than ever are graduating post-secondary in Canada, but the employment numbers remain low, which shows there are continuing barriers.

After the panel came my talk on “The News Media’s Troubled Relationship with Canadian Women” (find audio and synopsis here).

Catherine Voyer-Léger

Catherine Voyer-Léger

I shared the time with Catherine Voyer-Léger, une bloggeuse who writes at Détails et dédales.

I got to give more of a big-picture perspective, while Catherine got to fill in with her personal story of why she became a blogger and why online activism makes a difference.

So much of what she had to say resonated with me – from her discussion of how it can be more difficult to explain your work to family and friends than to strangers, to her acknowledgement that it can be difficult to continue blogging when so much of the work is unpaid and you have to occasionally put it aside for paid work.

She also had a point I want to conclude on, which is that for her (and me), being a feminist is more important than being a blogger. Blogging, she said, is just a tool. It’s important, but it wouldn’t mean much without the activist goals behind it.

After Catherine, I unfortunately I had to leave to catch a plane back to Vancouver, but if anyone has anything to report on the pecha kucha sessions that happened later on, I’d love for you to put that in the comments below!

For a recap of the morning’s programming, click here.

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