The following are speaking notes delivered January 17 by the Honourable Kathy Dunderdale, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, at the Ovations: Applauding Accomplishments of Women in Our Communities reception in St. John’s.
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Women have shaped the character of Newfoundland and Labrador from the beginning, and Newfoundland and Labrador has, in turn, shaped us.
Our experience living here has made us strong and resilient, able to adapt to challenges and opportunities. It has honed our talents and skills, preparing us and propelling us to get things done. It has nurtured in us empathy for others and motivated us to reach out to others in need, even at times when there was little to give.
I am absolutely thrilled to welcome all of you to the launch of Ovations. This event is about bringing together women from across Newfoundland and Labrador to recognize the accomplishments of those who came before us, to celebrate the achievements of those among us now, and to explore ways to encourage and uplift one another as we achieve even more.
A Legacy of Determination
Celebrating women here at this time of year, in the middle of January, when the bitter North Atlantic winds lash our coasts with freezing spray and bone-chilling cold, one can only imagine the hardships of surviving winter here in the early days, with next to nothing to shelter or feed you and those you love. But thousands of women did just that.
Centuries ago, in makeshift shelters beneath the Torngat Mountains, in the frigid Labrador interior, along the sea-swept Great Northern Peninsula and down along the south coast and up the Exploits River, Aboriginal women plied age-old skills, passed mother to daughter, to keep the family fed and warm.
Ten centuries ago on the long boats, Norse women travelled the seas to L’Anse aux Meadows where, with primitive tools, they dug caverns like wombs deep in the soil, covering themselves with sods to brave the worst that nature could heave their way.
From Ireland, Britain and France, on vessels large and small, they danced across the waves with bright hopes and dreams of plenty only to find a wealth of hardship and deprivation daunting enough to crush all but the hardiest of souls.
But these women were not crushed. They were strong and resolute, resourceful and resilient. The more that nature unleashed its worst, the more determined they became to weather the storm. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their fathers, husbands and brothers, building their communities and working for survival. These women were full partners in the effort, struggle and toil to make a life here in this harsh environment.
When the men set sail for the fishing grounds or the ice floes, the women held their own, working – as women so often do – collaboratively. Together they were the backbone and sinew and muscle and heart and soul of the community. They were all the things they needed to be to survive. They were the builders of community: cutting wood, hauling logs and building homes; they were providers of food: making fish, keeping gardens and hunting game; they were nurturers of family: cooking, cleaning, patching clothes and healing wounds. They were midwives and morticians and everything in between. They were anchors in every storm. Without these women, every community ever built on these shores would have perished.
One of my favourite books of all time is Random Passage by Bernice Morgan, and I’m so delighted that Bernice will be reading an excerpt later this evening. Let me tell you why this book had such a profound effect on me. It is because it speaks to the character of who we are as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and depicts the history that has shaped us. Random Passage shows a hard-working, resilient people who struggled to survive and did backbreaking work, only to see their rightful share of resource riches go to build fortunes of others. Despite this imbalance, people fought for survival and women were equal partners in that struggle. However, women had the additional struggle for equality and social justice. To that fight they brought distinct characteristics and an indomitable spirit.
No one captures that spirit and the spirit of this conference more poignantly than Bernice’s character Mary Bundle, a survivor in circumstances most can scarcely imagine. Assaulted and abused, framed and blackmailed, hunted and scorned, a single mom without a patron to protect her, she knows she has no hope of finding justice for the wrongs she’s suffered and flees in search of a place that is safe.
Hardened by circumstances, struggling to survive, cultivating social graces was never her priority. She is blunt and brazen, always the outsider, never invited to fit in. Yet, this woman, denied justice and acceptance by others, freely puts her own neck at risk to save the very ones who shut her out. Thirsting for justice, she is compelled to draw, from a well deep within her own soul, the strength to come to the aid of others in need. Aren’t we all fortunate to have known women like Mary in our own lives, who teach us about strength of character, resiliency and compassion?
When I reflect on this, I think of my own mother, who was a source of inspiration and strength in my life. While she raised my 10 siblings and me, she also, ran a restaurant, tended on boarders, cooked three full meals a day and baked a dozen loaves of bread every second day.
And she did all of this with little money, no washer and dryer or modern conveniences – and still, dog-tired, every night she sat at the table doing homework with her children so they would thrive. If there was a need in the community, she was one of the first to address it. It is women like her on whose shoulders we stand – strong, resourceful, selfless women, who made a difference in the lives of their family and their community.
From the time of Mary Bundle, generation after generation of women, with their sweat, tears and blood, transfused Newfoundland and Labrador with the gift of life. And we are the heirs of their enduring legacy.
How Change Happens
It was barely a stone’s throw from where you sit today and less than a century ago where a group of such women fought for our right to vote – women such as Armine Gosling and Fannie McNeil, May Kennedy and Julia Salter Earle.
Those defiant pioneers of women’s suffrage in Newfoundland and Labrador blazed the trail that I would one day travel. They were not begging or pleading for others to confer rights on them. They were claiming rights for themselves, knowing that society is neither whole nor just when some are denied full participation.
I find it so disappointing that women in the trenches fighting these tough battles for basic human rights and justice have so often been scorned. The “feminist” tag has been hurled as an insult, a scarlet letter to be worn in shame. Feminism is nothing any of us should be reluctant to embrace. We all have a right to identify ourselves as we choose, and I am proud to be called a feminist.
I describe feminism as simply wanting the same opportunities for your daughter as for your son, wanting the world to be as safe for your daughter as for your son and wanting a safer world for both. There you have feminism in its simplest terms.
If we want change, we will need feminists, who are willing to continue the battles because change does not happen on its own. It happens because someone thinks a thought, initiates an action and, with a principled approach and sustained activity, is willing to put something on the line for justice. As with all of the important progress we’ve seen in this province, change starts when women in communities recognize that something is wrong and set about to make it right. It starts around kitchen tables or work tables; it starts on the fish line or over the clothes line.
All of the great victories for equality in this province started in communities, with women who may never have thought of themselves as activists, but who worked to meet needs. They fought for fairness and justice and they changed the course of history. Many of them may never have realized the impact of their actions and will never be recognized for their work.
Did you know that, with the exception of two Queens (Elizabeth and Victoria), there was not a single women represented among all the statues on Parliament Hill until the year 2000? That was the year that statues were unveiled to honour the Famous Five – Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards – who won the Persons Case in 1929.
Quite fittingly, sculptor Barbara Paterson chose to include an empty chair. That chair, to me, represents all the women who worked throughout history but will never be recognized. It also represents the place for all of us to join the fight. Past victories not only inspire us to acknowledge the work already done, they also challenge us to join in the action.
We Have Not Yet Arrived
For each of us, filling that chair is important because some may be under the impression that we, as women, have already arrived and all the hard work is done. Although we have made great strides there is still a great deal of work to be done.
For example, women are still underrepresented in trades and technology sectors, the areas that fuel our economic engine in Newfoundland and Labrador. Less than four per cent of workers on the Hibernia project were women and less than one per cent of those held high-paying trades and technology positions. This province now has Gender Equity and Diversity Agreements that mandate gender targets for companies in the offshore and mining, but the progress is very slow, and we are still a long way from fair access to the lucrative salaries that accompany trades and technology jobs in these sectors.
In the corporate world, according to the Conference Board of Canada, it will take 151 years for women to achieve parity with men in middle management positions at the current rate of advancement. This is true despite a large body of research demonstrating that companies benefit when women are in senior leadership positions, both in profits and efficiency. So while some women may be filling middle management positions, they are still hitting a glass ceiling. In Canada, women make on average 18 per cent less than men, and here in Newfoundland and Labrador, the wage gap is greater still at 23 per cent. Women also continue to bear the bulk of childcare and household responsibilities. Balancing family and work continues to be a difficult struggle for most women.
There is still a great deal of work needed and while we have made some strides, we must remember the lessons of World War II. Women left their homes and became captains of industry, running businesses, staffing factories and keeping commerce going while the men were away at war. Women ran the world, but as soon as the war was over, any progress gained slipped away and they were forced back to the kitchen.
It has taken 60 years for the corporate world to realize the benefits women bring to business leadership.
We cannot sit back now. We must keep fighting for equal access to prosperity. Women, men and society as a whole benefit when women help fuel the fiscal engines. When everyone contributes, everyone becomes better, stronger and more fulfilled, and that, in turn, creates a healthier, more balanced and prosperous society.
Society also benefits when women are around governance and decision-making tables. Life impacts differently on women and having their experience heard creates better policies and wiser governments. It just makes sense; any government must be representative of the community it serves. However, women make up more than 50 per cent of the population, yet we hold less than a quarter of seats in elected office. We have not arrived. The work is not done.
Then there is the staggering incidence of violence and poverty borne by women all over this province, Canada and the world. In our province one-half of all women over 18 will experience at least one act of sexual or physical violence in her lifetime. Eighty per cent of single parent households on income support are led by women. The economic independence of women is important to the economy of the province and the country, but it is also a critical component of allowing women to escape violence. So often women are forced to choose between continuing in violent situations or facing a life of poverty for themselves and their children. That is not an acceptable choice.
These struggles are shared by women all over the world. In some countries, our sisters are living in severely repressive conditions.
We have all recently been transfixed by the courage of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, who chose to defy the Taliban butchers who proclaimed girls have no right to an education. Interviewed just months earlier, she predicted the attack that would strike her down, saying: “I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.” Standing for what’s right nearly cost Malala her life.
Why Ovations Is Needed
These are some of the reasons coming together for Ovations is so important. We need to celebrate how far we’ve come and, we must let those victories inspire us and mobilize us for the work that’s still to be done. Each of us in this room has the capacity to make change happen.
No matter who you are or where your life has taken you, you have experiences and opportunities that can change the world around you.
Looking around this room, I see women from all sorts of backgrounds with a rich variety of experiences. I see police officers and lawyers; women involved in public service and politics; mothers and CEOs. The biggest mining company in the province is headed by a young mother.
The chancellor of the university is a woman. I see women who have operated fish processing plants and others who have worked on the line, women in trades and women working on issues of violence in the community. I see Aboriginal women with the unique perspectives you bring to this forum, mothers with a lifetime of experiences to share and daughters just starting out, eager to learn.
Like our grandmothers, we must work collaboratively, remembering how powerful this cooperative approach has been in helping us achieve important goals. We cannot afford to divide our own ranks. We need to find the thread that binds us together. We may have different belief systems and backgrounds, but we accomplish more when we put divisions aside and define a common space to mobilize for change.
Ultimately, we need to lay the foundation for an even broader dialogue leading to a truly just society uniting all of us, women and men. This forum is not about mobilizing in opposition to men or shutting men out of the decision-making processing, replacing one imbalance with another. It is about raising our sensitivity to one another. We expect men to listen as we articulate our unique perspective.
At the same time, we must remember to practise what we preach and listen attentively to the unique perspectives of men. Life impacts us all differently. Together, we can understand better the challenges we face and more clearly define the solutions we need.
Clearly, there is much work to be done. Ovations is a new vehicle to interconnect us in our quest for justice, and we can all be a part of the change.
I have learned in life to never discount the importance of anything you’ve done or any experience you’ve had.
Who knows where any of you will be a decade from now or how the connections you make at this forum will open doors to opportunity for you or others down the road. Some discussion you have, some connection you make, some piece of information you hear may plant a seed that, tomorrow, or a year from now, or a decade from now, blossoms into something entirely unexpected.
Today, I am proud to lead a government that has taken deliberate steps to collapse barriers to opportunity that block the paths so many women travel. I recognize that, with my background – a background radically different from those of any previous premier of this province – I have a unique perspective on the barriers many women face and a unique opportunity to act for change.
Just the fact that I became Premier demonstrates clearly to young women that they can aspire to do the same. All things are possible. Another glass ceiling has been shattered. I say that not to boast. I say that to celebrate. It’s been a long, long time coming. And we have only just begun.
Irrespective of the differences that divide us, regardless of the vehicles that have transported us on our journey, we have parked our agendas at the door and come together as women, as equals, to celebrate our respective successes, to lift one another up and to inspire one another for the victories to come.
Each of us can fill Barbara Paterson’s empty chair. It is not for me or anyone to say what work you ought to be doing or to judge the value of the path you’ve chosen to take. When we put on the lens of justice, each of us sees a unique set of opportunities to make a difference. While we may take different paths, it will take the efforts of each and every one of us to get us where we need to be.
All of us will leave Ovations with valuable information, with lifelong connections and with a tank brimming over with inspiring stories we did not have when we arrived.
Our paths may differ. Our circumstances may differ. But the thread that unites us is far stronger than the forces that might pull us apart.
Let’s all resolve to ensure this event is just the beginning of something truly transformational in our lives and in our province.
Let’s all resolve to put on the lens, that allows us to see our neighbour through the eyes of compassion, and to let that vision move us.
Once you do, one thing is for certain. A change is gonna come!
2013 01 17 10:55 p.m.