Vote YES for Women in Metro Vancouver’s Transit Referendum

With only three weeks left to vote in the Metro Vancouver Transit and Transportation Referendum, less than 30% of residents have cast their ballots.   If you’re a procrastinator like me and that referendum package is hiding somewhere underneath last month’s bank statements, this reminder is for you. In case you haven’t decided how you intend to vote, here is my take on the Referendum, from a feminist perspective.

I’m sure you’ve heard how voting YES will keep Vancouver livable as we gain 1 million new residents by 2045. How voting YES will protect the environment. How voting YES will reduce traffic congestion and provide better commuting options. But you probably haven’t heard how voting YES will promote women’s equality.

The simple fact is, safe, reliable and accessible transit is a women’s issue. Women rely on transit more than men. A Case Study on public transportation use in Western Europe and North America found that 75% of all bus journeys are undertaken by women. One reason for this might be that only 30% of women have access to the use of a car during daytime hours.

Not only do women use public transportation more than men, we also use it differently. Women do not simply go from place A to place B in a day, for example from home to work. Rather, as primary caregivers and members of the informal and formal labour force, women make more complex journeys. One trip may involve multiple destinations for diverse purposes like dropping children off at daycare or school, going to work or picking up groceries. It is very common for women to have to get off at multiple destinations, pay multiple fares and travel during off peak hours. Many women, particularly women of colour, need affordable and 24 hour public transit because they are concentrated in low-wage, night shift, temporary or part-time work. As such, by necessity they must travel through the city very early in the morning and late at night when public transit is typically unreliable and trips less safe.

Women also experience public transportation spaces differently because of the diverse forms of gender-based violence that occur on a daily basis, including sexual abuse, harassment, groping, the use of vulgar language, intimidation and assault. A study by the World Bank in Peru concluded that while men’s first priority with public transit is speed, women’s is personal security. Accessibility is also a priority for women. More often than men, women must navigate public transportation while carrying small children, children’s strollers and packages.

For all of these reasons, women need accessible transportation that runs reliably off commuter channels and outside of peak hours. Transportation that takes us near schools, daycares, shops and employment locations so we may have access to education, healthcare resources and employment opportunities.   We need well-maintained footpaths, pedestrian streets, bike lanes and well-lit sidewalks that connect us to bus stops and SkyTrain stations. And we need all of this to be affordable.

The Mayors’ Council Vision may not address all of these needs, but it does make important strides. Here are some of the highlights of the Vision:

  • Transit will be accessible to more residents across Metro Vancouver
  • Light rail transit will be expanded into Surrey and Langley to offer more reliable transportation to these rapidly growing communities.
  • Bus service will be improved in new and growing lower density neighbourhoods across the region.
  • HandyDART service will increase by 30%.
  • Transit will run more frequently, outside of peak hours.
  • Bus service will be increased 25% across Metro Vancouver.
  • All-day bus service will be more frequent, with a significant expansion of the routes that provide service every 15 minutes or better, all day, 7 days a week.
  • 70% of Metro Vancouver residents will have transit service so frequent throughout the day a schedule is not needed.
  • Night bus service will increase by 80%.
  • There will be more safe alternatives to transit.
  • There will be 2,700 kilometers of new bikeways, including 300 kilometers of fully traffic separated routes making cycling a safer choice for both cyclists and motorists.
  • Walking and waiting facilities at or near transit stops and stations will be improved for better connections to transit.
  • Moving around the city will take less time.
  • Traffic congestion will be reduced saving drivers and transit users 20-30 minutes per day on many of the region’s most congested corridors.

If the referendum does not pass, we are looking at a deterioration in our existing levels of transit. The Mayors’ Council estimates that within 10 years we will need an additional $140 million per year just to maintain the quality of service and infrastructure we currently have. Even with this level of investment we will likely see worse overcrowding, more passengers being passed up by full buses and trains, no new or expanded transit service for growing communities and no new investment in pedestrian connectivity or safety. For women, this will mean more difficult access to transit, more time spent waiting for transit and fewer safe alternatives to transit.

Seems like an obvious choice to me. Vote YES. Support the women of Metro Vancouver.

Advertisements

In defence of the “F” word: why we need feminism now more than ever

I started blogging a few months ago because I’d had enough of the smear campaign against feminism that has been underway for many years. Like the #WomenAgainstFeminism phenomenon on Tumblr where women would take photographs of themselves holding signs that state why they do not need feminism, such as, “I don’t need feminism because my self-worth is not directly tied to the size of my victim complex.”   Or the recent Time magazine article which included “feminist” in a list of annoying words that readers could vote to ban from public discourse. Or the public distancing from feminism by celebrities like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, who, for better or worse are role models for young girls.

These anti-feminism sentiments have led smart, progressive people to distance themselves from a movement that’s aim is equality. I know because I’m married to one. My partner is a strong woman. She grew up playing hockey and baseball with boys because our small town didn’t have girls’ teams. She has always known what she wants and isn’t particularly concerned with conforming to societal expectations. She is tough. She is egalitarian. But she is not a feminist.

And she’s not the only one. Most polls say that fewer than half of younger women identify with feminism.

From my conversations with my wife, I’ve learned a thing or two about anti-feminism sentiments. In many ways, anti-feminism campaigns are grounded in misunderstandings. Misunderstandings about what it means to be a feminist.

I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men, I celebrate American male culture – beer, bars, and muscle cars.” – Lady Gaga

Misunderstandings about what feminism stands for.

No, I wouldn’t say feminist-that’s too strong. I think when people hear feminist, it’s like, ‘Get out of my way, I don’t need anyone.”- Kelly Clarkson

And misunderstandings about where women are at in terms of equality.

“I don’t need feminism because men are now the true victims of discrimination.”

It’s this last misunderstanding that I’m most concerned about. It’s true that women have made a lot of progress in the last forty or fifty years. But it would be a mistake to believe feminism is no longer necessary. The way I see it, sexism still abounds. Both in the ways it always has and in completely new ways.

How far we’ve come

Let me start by acknowledging that women’s equality has come a long way since the 1970s, especially in terms of women’s education and participation in the workforce.

Young women in Canada are pursuing post-secondary education at impressive rates and are now more likely than male youth to hold a university degree. In the United States, women earn almost 60 per cent of undergraduate degrees and 60 per cent of all master’s degrees. They also hold almost 52 per cent of all professional jobs.

In terms of labour force participation, women have gone from 37.97 per cent of the workforce in 1970 to 47.21 per cent of the workforce during 2006-2010. Women have also made significant gains in certain occupations. In 1970, very few women were accountants, police officers, lawyers, pharmacists and doctors. Between 2006 and 2010, 60 per cent of accountants were women, 52.6 per cent of pharmacists, 32.4 per cent of physicians and 33.4 per cent of lawyers.

Rates of domestic violence have also declined significantly since 1999. This decline is partly due to increased social equality and financial freedom for women, which makes it easier for them to leave abusive relationships at earlier stages. However, after falling for a decade, rates of domestic violence have now flat-lined. In 2009, the rate of self-reported spousal violence was the same as in 2004. Unfortunately, reporting rates have not improved over the years. Victims of domestic violence are now less likely to report an incident to police.

How far we have to go

Despite these significant gains, women still lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions. For example, only four per cent of CEOs in Canada’s top 500 companies are women. Ninety-six per cent are men.

Women are also seriously outnumbered among Canada’s elected representatives. Although there are more women in politics now than in 1974, when only four per cent of MPs were women, men still outnumber women four to one among Canada’s elected representatives. And the Conservative caucus is a mere 17 per cent female compared to more than 40 per cent for the NDP.

Women also have a long way to go in terms of pay equity. Even with a university degree, women on average earned almost $30,000 less than men in 2008.

In some areas, women are actually losing ground. For instance, the percentage of women appointed to Canada’s more than 200 federal tribunals, boards, agencies and Crown corporations has dropped from 37 per cent before Harper’s Conservatives took power in 2006, to 32.5 per cent. The numbers for judge appointments are even worse. Fewer than a third of federally-appointed judges by the Conservatives were women. By comparison, nearly 40 per cent of the judges appointed in 2005 by the then Liberal government were women. The Supreme Court of Canada’s high-water mark for women judges was four out of nine. Under Harper, we have slipped to three. As we saw with the attempted appointment of Marc Nadon, the Conservatives have no intention of remedying the imbalance.

Despite these stark comparisons, Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay has tried to defend his government’s low rate of female appointments by blaming women. Earlier this year he stated that women don’t apply to be judges because they fear the job will take them away from their children– and that children need their mothers more than their fathers.

In BC, the numbers for judicial appointments are no better. Last fall, retired B.C. Supreme Court judge Donna Martinson wrote that only five women and one non-Caucasian were included among 31 judicial appointments since January 2009.

Violence against women is another area where progress has stalled or started to backslide. Rates of self-reported violent victimization against women have not decreased between 1999 and 2009. In 2010, the rate of intimate partner homicide committed against females increased by 19 per cent, the third increase in four years.

In Canada, the backsliding of women’s progress may be partially attributable to our government’s lack of commitment to women’s equality. In 2006, the Conservatives cut Status of Women Canada’s budget by 37 percent and closed 12 of its 16 regional offices. They also eliminated funding to women’s groups doing research, advocacy and lobbying.

This may be one reason the UN Annual Human Development Index for 2012 revealed that inequality in Canada is actually growing.

New forms of misogyny

Beyond the traditional indicators of women’s progress, we see girls facing new forms of sexism in their daily lives. In many ways, these new forms are even more pervasive and difficult to escape. Like cyberbullying, the sexualisation of women and girls in the media and the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation.

The effects of these new forms of misogyny are devastating. Eighty per cent of ten year old girls in America say they have been on a diet. The number one magic wish for young girls age 11 to 17 is to be thinner. With these numbers it should come as no surprise that we are seeing record declines in mental health among adolescent girls.

We are also seeing high levels of sexual violence. In 2008, over 11,000 sexual assaults of girls under the age of 18 were reported to police in Canada. Since only about ten per cent of assaults are reported, the actual number is much higher. Rates of sexual assault are much higher for certain populations of girls. Tragically, about 75 per cent of Aboriginal girls under the age of 18 have been sexually abused.

We are also seeing high levels of sexual exploitation on a global scale. The U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Eighty per cent of them are women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation.

The way I see it, feminism is not irrelevant. Girls today need feminism now more than ever. In the next several posts, I will be exploring the new ways sexism is impacting girls today, and how feminism can be utilized to help them.

-Kaity

Picture: “feminism” by Jay Morrison is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Why women’s voices matter

I recently attended a talk by the Right Honourable Kim Campbell, Canada’s first and only woman Prime Minister. The talk was called, “Women’s Voices: What difference do they make?” It was about women’s unique life experiences and the consequences of ignoring women’s perspectives in politics, business and media.

I had never heard Campbell speak before, so I was eager to attend. I was disappointed to see that few Vancouverites felt the same way. Despite Vancouver’s population of over 600,000 people, the auditorium at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre was only half full. To be fair, the event was not effectively promoted. Nonetheless, I was dismayed to see poor attendance for a talk about the importance of women’s voices.

But I digress.

Campbell is a Conservative and so it won’t surprise you that I didn’t agree with everything said at the talk. It did, however, give me a lot to think about.

Let’s start with where Campbell and I agree. The thesis of the talk was that women’s perspectives are vital. Vital to the creation of good public policy. Vital to public discourse. And vital to the success of modern businesses and organizations.

To illustrate the point, the organizer of the talk, Informed Opinions, discussed a little experiment. Informed Opinions trains women experts to share their ideas through media commentary. Curious to know what differences women’s voices make in terms of focus and content, they created a word cloud from the first 100 published opinion pieces written by their workshop participants. They then compared this word cloud to the most prominent words generated by a similar sampling of op-eds written by male experts.

The clouds contained many similar words, including Canadian, government, health, political, public and work. However, a number of other phrases appeared prominently only in women-penned pieces. Tellingly, these included abuse, assault, benefit, care, children, equality, families, girls, help, justice, services, sexual, support, treatment, violence and women.

In many ways, Campbell’s experience as a woman member of parliament mirrored that experiment. In her talk, Campbell told anecdotes of times she educated an awkwardly silent room of male colleagues about issues such as contraception and sexual assault. Issues that are very prominent in women’s lives, but admittedly were not well understood or considered particularly important by some of her male colleagues.

Given the complex social, economic and environmental challenges we face, it simply does not make sense to make public policy based on the experiences of only half the population. On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with Campbell.

But public policy is not where women’s contribution ends. Research shows that women also play a large role in driving economic growth. In her talk, Campbell referred to various studies that prove women’s positive influence on business.

Let’s look at some facts.

Research suggests that to succeed, businesses should start by promoting women.

As investors, women come out better on almost every count. They are less likely to hold a losing investment for too long. They are less likely to wait for too long to sell a winner. And they are less likely to put too much money into a single investment or to buy a reputedly hot stock without doing sufficient research.

Women also excel as leaders. New studies have found that female managers outshine their male counterparts in almost every measure. Forty-eight per cent of all US firms are owned or controlled by women. Compared to all firms, women-owned firms have triple the growth rate, twice the rate of job creation and are more likely to stay in business. McKinsey & Company found that international companies with more women on their corporate boards far outperformed the average company in return on equity and other measures. Operating profit was also 56 per cent higher.

How can these results be explained? A recent article from Scientific American provides some insight.

In that article, entitled, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Katherine Phillips discusses decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers that demonstrates that being around people who are different makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.

Phillips notes that people who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand. Diversity promotes hard work and creativity by encouraging the consideration of alternatives. Her conclusion? We need diversity- in teams, organizations and society as a whole- if we are to change, grow and innovate.

So far, Campbell and I are on the same page.

My disagreement comes with what to do about the inadequate representation of women’s voices.

Despite the fact that women constitute roughly half the population and workforce, and more than 60 per cent of university grads, women’s voices continue to be inadequately represented in media, politics and business.

In Canada’s most influential print, broadcast and online new media, male voices outnumber female voices by a factor of four to one.

In Federal politics, only 17% of Conservative Members of Parliament are women. The percentages for the NDP and Liberals are 38% and 25% respectively. BC has the highest rate of women MLAs in Canada at 36%. The other provinces and territories range from 10% (Northwest Territories) to 35% (Ontario).

Status of Women Canada reports that in 2012, women held only ten per cent of seats on Canadian boards. They held only 16 per cent of board seats on FP500 companies. And, on 40 per cent of FP500 boards, women held zero seats.

So what do we do about this serious underrepresentation?

Campbell suggests that women are often shy of power, that we see it as a bad thing and not as a potential to do great good. She suggests that women need to step up and grab power.

This to me, sounds a lot like “lean in,” the message to women from Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook. In her book, appropriately titled “Lean In,” Sandberg suggests that women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers rather than pursuing their career goals with gusto.

Step up, lean in, whatever you want to call it, is a philosophy that puts the onus on women for their inadequate representation in positions of power rather than the institutions and corporate structures that were made by men and continue to be run by them. It is a philosophy that calls out women for “opting out” of their careers rather than their employers for refusing to foster flexible, supportive environments that are more likely to keep women employees.

But more importantly, in my view, it is a philosophy that distracts us from the real question we should all be asking. It’s not a question of how we force businesses to accept women or their unique tendency to bear children. Nor is it a question of how to force women to work harder or longer. The question is, given what we know about women’s profound impact on the success of various entities, how can organizations justify their exclusion?

At a time when innovation is recognized as a key competitive advantage, the increase in a group’s intelligence attributed to the inclusion of women should be sufficient incentive for organizations in all sectors to work harder at soliciting female participation.

In my view, given what we know about women’s contribution to public policy, science and business, it is simply negligent for public and private institutions to refuse to reform the structures that push women out. Organizations should be asking themselves what they can do to make themselves more attractive to women, so they can reap the benefits of keeping us.

The refusal to change may well be the death knell for the stubborn “old boys’ clubs” of the world that will fail to take advantage of the exceptional investment, communication and leadership skills of women and thus fail to remain competitive.

In the meantime, our leaders should stop asking women to take personal responsibility for systemic failings. Our ambition (or lack thereof) is not the problem.

-Kaity

Conservatives looking to add contempt of court to record

In March 2011, Harper’s Conservatives became the first government in the history of the Commonwealth to be found in contempt of Parliament. That historic moment came about after Harper’s then minority government refused to disclose sufficient information about the cost of several big-ticket items such as the law-and-order agenda, corporate tax cuts and the plan to buy stealth combat jets.

The Conservatives now seem to be angling for a second contempt order, this time from the courts. In 2012, Cabinet overhauled the Interim Federal Health Program. With the changes, the government ended the more than 50 year tradition of funding comprehensive health insurance coverage for refugee claimants and others who have come to Canada seeking protection.

The effect of these changes was to deny funding for life-saving medications such as insulin and cardiac drugs to impoverished refugee claimants from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. It was to deny funding for basic pre-natal, obstetrical and paediatric care to women and children seeking the protection of Canada from “Designated Countries of Origin” such as Mexico and Hungary. It was to deny funding for any medical care whatsoever to individuals seeking refuge in Canada who are only entitled to a Pre-removal Risk Assessment.

Refugee organizations brought a constitutional challenge to these changes claiming, among other things, that they amounted to “cruel and unusual treatment.” The Federal Court agreed, in a decision released in July 2014.

The Court concluded that the government intentionally set out to make the lives of admittedly poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals even more difficult in an effort to force those who have sought the protection of Canada to leave more quickly and to deter others from coming here.

The Court was particularly, but not exclusively, concerned with the effect of the changes on children who have been brought to Canada by their parents. Like the young child with a fever and cough who was unable to get a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia. Or the asthmatic 8 year old who began coughing and wheezing more severely because his mother could no longer afford asthma medications. Or a young child infected at birth with HIV, who without medical treatment would be effectively condemned to an early death.

The Court concluded that the 2012 modifications to the Interim Federal Health Program “potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency.”

The Court gave the government four months to reinstate the coverage in place before 2012. The government, not surprisingly, has appealed the decision. However, in the meantime, its request for more time to abide by the Court’s order was denied. The deadline for compliance was November 4, 2014.

November 4, 2014 has come and gone and while the government says it has complied with the Court’s decision, experts say this is blatantly false. Professor Jennifer Bond notes that while certain refugee claimants have had their coverage restored, others have not. Many claimants still will not be covered for drugs or supplemental health benefits.

“The government is still being punitive, they’re being selective and the court told them to reinstate all benefits,” said Peter Showler, co-chair of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. Showler said it is likely their lawyers will file a contempt motion, asking the court to order full compliance.

We heard in December 2012 from whistleblower Edgar Smith that the legislative branch of the Department of Justice was approving legislation even if it had a “combined likelihood of five per cent or less” of being upheld by the courts. But now the Conservatives have taken one step beyond passing likely unconstitutional legislation. They are now breaching an explicit court order.

If there was any doubt in our minds before, there should be none now. Harper’s Conservatives believe themselves to be above the law.

-Kaity

Lest we forget: Harper’s war on Canadian rights and freedoms

Today is Remembrance Day, a day we remember the men and women who have served and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace; men and women who sacrificed their lives “for their homes and families and friends, for a collection of traditions they cherished and a future they believed in.”

We often take for granted the values and freedoms we enjoy as Canadians: the freedom of speech, the freedom to dissent, the right to privacy, the right to choose our government. Canadians who went off to war, did so in the belief that those values were being threatened. And so they went to fight in distant lands to defend those values.

Ironically, the biggest threat to these values does not lie in distant lands. It does not take the shape of religious extremists or communists or weapons of mass destruction. The biggest threat to Canadian rights and freedoms lies at home. While we take time to honour the service and sacrifice of men and women who have fought to preserve our values, our own government is systematically dismantling the very rights and freedoms that make us Canadian.

The Right to Vote

The right to choose our government lies at the heart of Canadian democracy. It is so significant it is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Despite its importance, the Harper Government has recently taken steps to take the fundamental right to vote away from certain Canadians.

The so-called “Fair Elections Act” strengthens voting identification requirements by banning the use of Voter Information Cards as corroborating documentation. It also eliminates the practice of vouching, by which a qualified elector may prove her identity by taking an oath and being vouched for by another qualified elector. In the last election, this process was relied on by 100,000 Canadians who did not have sufficient ID to meet the voter identification rules.

The alleged purpose of the Fair Elections Act is to cut down on voter fraud. That seems like a legitimate purpose, except that there was no evidence that voter fraud by vouching was a problem. A recent Elections Canada report found that just 0.4 per cent of ballots cast in 2011 had irregularities due to vouching – of which the vast majority were cases of misfiled paperwork, not misidentified voters.   This has led critics to conclude that the real goal is to supress the votes of citizens who are less likely to vote Conservative.

Evidence from the United States indicates that stricter identification requirements do in fact keep qualified voters from voting. In particular, elderly, minority, low-income and homeless citizens are more likely to lack the required identity documents. Without vouching, these citizens’ right to vote may effectively evaporate.

Freedom to Dissent

Another extremely important right in a democracy is the freedom to disagree with the government and to freely communicate that dissent. In Canada, we have many non-profit organizations on both sides of the political spectrum who advocate for changes to law and policy. But lately, something has gone awry.

The supposedly non-political Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) has used special funds provided by the government to investigate organizations with tax-free charitable status to ensure they are not devoting more than the legal limit of 10 per cent of their resources to advocacy activities. But that’s not the problem. What is, is the fact that virtually all of the organizations that have been investigated, from the Suzuki Foundation to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, have been on the “progressive” end of the political spectrum.

There are plenty of charitable entities on the right- from the Fraser Institute to the Canadian Constitution Foundation- but so far none of them have attracted the interest of the CRA.

The Broadbent Institute recently issued a study of ten of these right-leaning charities. The study found that all ten claim they devote zero per cent of their resources to political activity. The published work of the organizations would suggest otherwise. Has the CRA been interested in these inconsistencies? Nope.

NPD’s Murray Rankin asked Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Finlay about this apparently unequal treatment:

“We have seen the Conservatives go after environmentalists, human rights groups, international development groups and yes, even bird-watchers — pretty well anyone who may disagree with them. However, a new report suggests that right-wing charities get a different ride. Annual filings from 10 right-wing charities showed no political activities on their part; none, in spite of the fact that their websites are full of advocacy. Can the minister explain this double standard?”

In response, the Minister simply denied a political motive and then tried to obfuscate the issue by randomly scolding Rankin for asking the question.

The Right to Privacy

Quick on the heels of the high-profile deaths of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, the Harper Government introduced a bill to address cyber-bullying and online crime. Women’s organizations, including West Coast LEAF, have identified cyber misogyny as a serious problem and have made recommendations for ways in which Canadian law and policy can be strengthened to better protect the equality rights of women, girls and other vulnerable communities online.

But despite being named the “Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act,” the bill is only tangentially about online harassment. Really, it is a surveillance bill. Most of the bill is devoted to expanding the state’s powers over the search and seizure of personal Internet data. It would give police and state access to Canadians’ data and online activities without a warrant by granting complete civil and criminal immunity to telecommunication companies that voluntarily grant police access to personal information.

Think this won’t affect you? Think again. In 2011, government agencies asked telecommunications companies to voluntarily hand over data in 1.2 million cases. Between April 2012 and March 2013, telecommunications companies received 18,849 “voluntary” requests from just one government department: the Canada Border Services Agency. Ninety-nine per cent of those requests had no judicial authorization. The companies provided information in 99.98 per cent of cases. With a no-liability guarantee, it is reasonable to expect telecommunications companies to be even less likely to say no.

This bill is likely unconstitutional, since the Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that the voluntary disclosure of subscriber information to the police violates the Charter, but the Harper Government has no intention to amend it.

With a government that has gone after environmentalists, human rights groups, international development groups and even bird-watchers, there is no knowing whose privacy will be at risk.

Freedom of Information

There are few issues more fundamental to democracy than the right of the public to access information produced by government scientists and researchers. “We as a society cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed about the facts.”

Unfortunately for Canadians, the attack on information has become one of the trademarks of the Harper Government. Take for example the decision in July 2010 to cut the mandatory long form census and replace it with a voluntary one. Along with the long form census, researchers and citizens alike lost important data on shifting population trends and changes in the quality of life of Canadians; data that is a vital precursor to good public policy.

In 2012, the federal budget revealed further and more drastic attacks on the right of Canadians to be informed. For instance, fifty per cent of Stats Canada employees were warned that their jobs were at risk and a number of research bodies were vaporized, including the National Roundtable on the Environment, the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Council on Welfare and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science.

At the same time the Harper Government was cutting resources for research, it was also tightening the media protocols applied to federal scientists. Federal scientists now routinely require political approval before they can speak to the media about their scientific findings. Particularly strict rules apply to issues of climate change and oil sands.

In a recent survey of federal scientists, only ten per cent said they were allowed to speak freely without constraints about the work they do at their department or agency. By contrast, 24 per cent said they have been asked to exclude or alter technical information in government documents for non-scientific reasons.

Why should this concern us? Because, we are being denied access to information that we need to make informed decisions about how we conduct ourselves and how we act politically. And, some of this information impacts our health and safety. In the survey of federal scientists, 50 per cent of respondents said they were aware of “cases where health and safety of Canadians” or environmental sustainability has been compromised because of political interference with their scientific work. And in this climate of fear, 71 per cent agreed that “our ability to develop policy, law and programs that are based on scientific evidence and facts has been compromised by political interference.”

Lest We Forget

The Harper Government’s war on Canadian rights and freedoms has at times been sly. Laws, believed to be unconstitutional, have been slipped into omnibus budget bills or given misleading titles reminiscent of George Orwell’s doublethink in the dystopian novel 1984. But the changes have not gone unnoticed. If my newsfeed is any indication, citizens across the country are aware that their beloved institutions are changing, and not for the better. We have an election coming up, and it is my hope that these attacks on our most valued rights and freedoms will not be forgotten.

In the meantime, I plan to reflect this Remembrance Day on the values I hold dear, and what I can do to stop being complacent while the rights and freedoms of my fellow Canadians are under attack.

“We must remember. If we do not, the sacrifice of those one hundred thousand Canadian lives will be meaningless.”

-Kaity

4 Things You Need to Know About the 2014 Vancouver Civic Election

Advance voting for Vancouver’s 2014 Civic Election is now open.  If you didn’t know about the election, you are probably not alone.  If my newsfeed is any indication, Vancouverites know way more about Toronto’s mayoral candidates and recent election than our own.  This is not a new phenomenon.  In Vancouver’s last civic election, voter turnout was abysmally low at 34.6%.[i]  That is even worse than the turnout for our last provincial and federal elections at 58%[ii] and 61.1%[iii] respectively.

I suspect one of the reasons for civic election apathy is the view that City Council doesn’t have a lot of power over the issues that Vancouverites care about.  Or maybe it’s because our candidates have never appeared on Jimmy Kimmel.  Either way, while it is true that city powers are limited and city funds are lower than other levels of government, City Council is capable of making a significant contribution to issues such as affordable housing, poverty reduction and ending violence against women.  In my view, these issues are important enough to warrant a short trip to one of the 120 voting locations across Vancouver.

To dispel the myth that city politics don’t matter and to inspire you all to vote, I thought I’d do your homework for you and highlight four issues you should care about in this civic election.  The rankings that follow are my opinion only, based on my review of the parties’ platforms.  My only interest in this election is as a concerned citizen.

Issue #1: Affordable Housing

By all accounts, the lack of affordable housing in Vancouver is a serious problem.  The Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation (“CMHC”) defines “affordable housing” as housing that costs less than 30% of a household’s income.  CMHC statistics from 2006 estimate that 43% of tenants in Vancouver spend more than 30% of their total income on rent.  Even more worrying is the fact that 22% of tenants in Vancouver spend more than 50% of their total income on rent, putting them at imminent risk of homelessness.[iv]

For many low income tenants, including tenants on income assistance, subsidized housing is the only way they can afford safe and secure housing.  However, in June 2006, it was estimated that 11,000 people were on waiting lists for subsidized housing across BC.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is not uncommon for people to wait more than three years.[v]

What about home ownership?  Well, for most of us, that is out of the question.  An urban planning think tank says Metro Vancouver has the second-highest housing prices in the world when compared to local incomes.  The average house price in Metro Vancouver is $630,300.  This would require 80% of the average household income to service the mortgage.[vi]

So what do the parties have to say about this serious problem?

Best Position: One City

One City’s candidate, RJ Aquino, is calling for a 20 Over 5 housing policy to combat the out-of-control cost of living in Vancouver.  This policy would require 20% of living spaces in all new developments over 5 units across the city to be reserved for low and middle income people.  This policy would bring at least 20% of new living spaces under the affordable housing threshold of no more than 30% of household income.

One City also proposes to curb rampant speculation in Vancouver with a Flipping Levy that would tax speculative profit when properties are bought and then sold in a short period of time.  The revenue generated by the Flipping Levy would be transferred to the Vancouver Housing Authority to create new living spaces for low and middle income people.

One City also tackles the problem of “renovictions” where landlords use renovations as a means to displace existing tenants and charge a higher rental rate.  One City proposes that existing tenants be given a right to return to the rental unit after renovations are complete.

Finally, One City advocates for the city to actively enforce the Building Maintenance and Safety By-law to protect renters from poorly maintained buildings, especially Single Room Occupancy (“SRO”) hotels that are being severely neglected.[vii]

Runner Up: COPE

In my view, the second best affordable housing platform comes from COPE.  COPE makes concrete promises in terms of replenishing the affordable housing stock.  COPE proposes to build 800 units of city-run social housing per year, including 400 units inside the Downtown Eastside to replace SROs.  COPE also proposes to create a Municipal Rent Control By-law to bring down rents across Vancouver.[viii]

Issue #2: Poverty Reduction

If you read my earlier post about welfare rates, you will already know that BC is the worst province in Canada when it comes to major measures of poverty.  BC has an overall provincial poverty rate of 15.6%, the highest rate in Canada. Our child poverty rate is 18.6%. We have had the worst child poverty rate for 10 of the last 11 years. We also have the most unequal distribution of income among rich and poor families with children and a shocking rate of poverty for children living in single mother-led families at 49.8%.[ix]  Our provincial government may be refusing to deal with this serious issue, but that doesn’t mean our municipal government has to.

Here is what the parties have to say about poverty reduction.

Best Position: Vision

In this election, Vision’s platform focusses less on promises for the future and more on achievements from the last six years.  The implication, I suppose, is that if they are elected, we can expect more of the same.

In terms of poverty reduction, Vision has contributed a fair amount over the last six years.  They created the Vancouver Rent Bank which provides short-term loans to low-income renters at risk of being evicted.  They expanded Vancouver’s Homeless Outreach Team to be city-wide, providing more services to vulnerable residents and connecting them to housing.  They secured funding for 1,500 new units of low-income affordable housing, with 600 units opening in 2014.  And by opening new winter low-barrier shelters, they’ve helped almost 500 people move from shelters into permanent housing since 2009.

If elected, Vision will invest $400,000 a year to directly reduce child hunger by doubling the Vancouver School Board’s Breakfast Program to a reach of 1,300 kids per day.[x]  Not bad.

Runner Up: Green

The Green Party proposes to tackle the root causes of poverty and homelessness with a comprehensive poverty reduction policy.  As part of this policy, the Green Party proposes to expand partnerships with VanCity, the Vancouver Foundation and other institutions to increase year-round social enterprise jobs for those with employment barriers.  The Green Party would also strongly advocate with senior governments to increase funding to build new social and supportive housing, increase addiction treatment, health and mental health programs for the homeless and hard-to-house and increase welfare and social assistance rates.

The Green Party also proposes that Vancouver adopt a Living Wage policy requiring all companies contracted or subcontracted to provide services on city property to pay their employees a living wage.[xi]

Issue # 3: Violence Against Women

None of the parties explicitly include violence against women as a heading for platform promises.  This is disappointing considering that one half of all Canadian women will experience at least one incident of physical or sexual violence in her lifetime.[xii]  Nonetheless, it is an area I care deeply about and one often overlooked in politics.  So, I scoured each party’s platform to find any mention of policies related to addressing violence against women.  There wasn’t much, but this is what I came up with.

Best Position: COPE

COPE is the only party in this civic election to explicitly discuss violence against women.  This is surprising, especially in light of current events.  COPE proposes the reallocation of police resources to ensure full and proper investigation of complaints of male violence against women in keeping with the full recommendations of the Murdered and Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry.  COPE promises to support community infrastructure and organizations that help individuals address systemic violence in their communities without sole recourse to police and state authorities.

COPE also proposes requiring the Vancouver Police Department to engage in regular and frequent mandatory training sessions on current and historic colonial violence in Vancouver, particularly addressing misogyny and racism. COPE would ensure that police explicitly rely upon and incorporate learning from local grassroots organizations recognized as front-line experts in violence against women, including transgender women.[xiii]

Runner Up: Vision

Runner up in this category was not difficult to choose as Vision is the only other party that includes in its platform any promises related to ending violence against women.  Vision notes that it has implemented all recommendations from the Murdered and Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry including changes to city by-laws for the safety of sex trade workers, enhanced support for exiting and a $40,000 grant to help expand the WISH drop-in centre. In the last six years, Vision also collaborated with the YWCA to build 52 units of housing designated for low-income women and children.[xiv]

Issue #4: Child Care

BC is currently facing a child care crisis defined by a number of key factors including too few spaces, high fees and low wages.  In 2010, BC had only 97,170 regulated child care spaces to serve 570,900 children.  In 2012, median full-time monthly child care fees in BC were $1047 for infants, $907 for toddlers and $761 for preschool age children.  By contrast, the median fees across Canada were $761 for infants, $696 for toddlers and $674 for preschool age children.[xv]

Here is what the parties have to say about child care.

Best Position: Green/One City

This was another category that was easy to judge based on the dearth of relevant platform promises.  The winners are the Green Party and One City, both of whom advocate for a $10 a day child care plan.  The only difference is One City proposes a pilot project in one Vancouver neighbourhood.  The pilot, they suggest, will allow Vancouver to gather data about demand, assess up-front costs and track the impact of the $10 a day plan for families currently facing a child care crisis.[xvi]  The Green Party advocates for a city-wide $10 a day plan.[xvii]

Runner Up: Vision

Vision gets the runner up consolation prize as the only other party to mention child care in its platform.  Although not as attractive as the $10 a day plan, Vision’s promise of 1000 new child care spaces by 2018 is not nothing.[xviii]

A Note about the NPA

You may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned the party currently #2 in the polls, the NPA.  This is not an oversight.  The NPA, it would seem, is not overly concerned with the issues discussed above.  A review of their website reveals priorities including reducing traffic congestion, easing parking restrictions, promoting economic growth, increasing government transparency and opposing a garbage incinerator in Vancouver.  The NPA does have a few progressive policies including a child nutrition plan and increased housing for seniors, but they are nowhere near as developed as the policies of the other parties.  Reviewing the NPA platform I am struck by how much it targets middle and upper class residents to the exclusion of our most marginalized residents.  In my view, this is a serious gap in the NPA’s policies that must not be ignored.[xix]

“The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members.”-  attributed to Mahatma Gandhi

I, for one, will not be voting for a government that ignores the people in greatest need.

Get Out and Vote!

The civic election is on Saturday, November 15, 2014.  This year voting is less of a hassle because you can vote at any of the nearly 120 voting locations across Vancouver.  You can find the nearest voting station here: http://vancouver.ca/your-government/2014-municipal-election.aspx

Going to be away on the 15th?  No problem, you can vote at any of the 8 advance voting stations from 8am to 8pm between November 4 and 12 (excluding Remembrance Day).

So please, get out there and make your voice heard.

-Kaity

Sources

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vancouver_municipal_election,_2011

[ii] http://www.bclocalnews.com/news/209405741.html

[iii] http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?dir=turn&document=index&lang=e&section=ele

[iv] http://www.thecanadianfacts.org/The_Canadian_Facts.pdf

[v] http://www.chumirethicsfoundation.ca/files/pdf/SHELTER.pdf; http://www.tenants.bc.ca/ckfinder/userfiles/files/Final%20HRSDC%20Report.pdf

[vi] http://globalnews.ca/news/1098143/vancouvers-housing-prices-2nd-most-affordable-in-the-world/

[vii] http://www.onecityvancouver.ca/affordable-housing

[viii] http://cope.bc.ca/platform/

[ix] http://www.westcoastleaf.org/userfiles/file/CEDAW%20report%20card%202013.pdf

[x]https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/visionvancouver/pages/1196/attachments/original/1414801452/Platform-VV-2014.pdf?1414801452

[xi] http://vote.vangreens.ca/platform

[xii] http://www.wavaw.ca/mythbusting/rape-myths/

[xiii] http://cope.bc.ca/platform/

[xiv]https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/visionvancouver/pages/1196/attachments/original/1414801452/Platform-VV-2014.pdf?1414801452

[xv] http://www.cccabc.bc.ca/plan/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/BCisFailing.pdf

[xvi] http://www.onecityvancouver.ca/child-care

[xvii] http://vote.vangreens.ca/platform

[xviii]https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/visionvancouver/pages/1196/attachments/original/1414801452/Platform-VV-2014.pdf?1414801452

[xix] http://www.npavancouver2014.ca/platform/