Madam Speaker, it is always an honour to speak in the House of Commons. The magnitude of this reality is not lost on me, especially today on International Women’s Day, a day when we celebrate and advocate for women’s rights around the world. I wish I could simply deliver pleasantries, highlight the work of some incredible women and wish all present a happy International Women’s Day, but based on the real experiences of women across the country and around the globe that would not be enough.
I would like to begin by exploring some of the history of the women’s rights movement. It is rooted in struggle and conflict, intertwined with colonialism and racism. Before the suffragettes, colonists arrived in North America and deliberately tore apart the fabric of the matriarchal leadership of the first peoples of this land. The intergenerational trauma of these acts continues to ripple through indigenous communities today.
International Women’s Day can be traced back to 1908, when thousands of working women in New York City marched to protest their working conditions. These women worked at low wages with no protection and regularly experienced sexual harassment and abuse. This uprising continued for more than a year, leading to National Woman’s Day in the U.S. in 1909.
At an international conference of working women in 1910, the idea for an international movement advocating universal suffrage was born. The day took on a truly revolutionary form in Russia in 1917, in a country exhausted by war, widespread food shortages and escalating popular protests. Russian women demanded and gained the right to vote in 1917 as a direct consequence of the March protest.
Suffragettes in the U.K., and their counterparts in the U.S. and Canada, looked to Russia as an example. White women in Canada were enfranchised in 1918, but this right would not be extended to women of colour or indigenous women until decades later.
We have yet to fully embrace the layers of intersectionality in feminism and tear down the many ways women continue to be oppressed. The pandemic has plainly demonstrated how race, gender, class, disability and immigration status intersect and compound risk, resulting in worse health outcomes, increased rates of domestic violence and greater economic struggle.
International Women’s Day remains steeped in the fight for all women’s rights. I think about the women facing violence in their homes. I addressed the House regarding gender-based violence on February 25. That same day, a woman from my home province was murdered by her intimate partner. In Quebec, five women were killed by their partners in just one month.
The government has put money into supporting shelters and services for women fleeing domestic violence, but it is not enough. I think about the survivors of sexual assault being retraumatized and stigmatized, again and again, by a court system that was designed to protect property. Bill C-3 will finally require judges to receive sensitivity training on sexual assault, which is a step forward, but our judicial system is so deeply flawed that this is not enough.
I think of Chantel Moore and of Joyce Echaquan. These women’s final moments on earth were spent facing down racism and misogyny. Our policing and health systems let them down. We let them down.
The government has initiated an anti-racism secretariat, but it seems to be operating quietly behind closed doors. This is not enough. I am discouraged by the failings of our systems, reinforced by almost every statistic and by almost every headline. I am discouraged that I hold a seat of power, yet I often feel powerless to right what remains so very wrong.
I look to what brings me hope. I think of my sisters, my friends and the women I work with. Through their trauma, I see their strength. I see their resilience. This year they have given birth without their loved ones present. They have loved and supported family members in mental health crises. They have taken in their adult children who could no longer support themselves financially. They have bravely served, overrepresented on the front lines of this pandemic. They have left abusive jobs, they have left abusive relationships and they stand strong but not unscathed. What I need from the government is leadership that sees their resilience and meets it with equal force.
International Women’s Day has always been as much about struggle and solidarity as it is about celebration. Today, for women across the country, the struggle is real. With some direct action perhaps next year we will have more to celebrate.