On a Wednesday evening in late October, the west hall of the Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House is packed. More than 50 people, mostly women, are seated around four tables and discussing the effects of Vancouver’s housing crisis on women.
After listening to three 10-minute presentations by a law professor, an urban planner, and an antipoverty organizer about women and affordable housing, participants turn to their groups to brainstorm solutions. For 90 minutes, they’re glued to their seats, only moving away for a quick coffee refill or washroom break. It seems like everyone has a personal story of how the price of housing in Vancouver negatively affects them or women they know.
“Many older women find themselves in situations of poverty, particularly women who are alone, single. So affordable housing for women is critical to be able to come up with some focused solutions,” says participant Chris Morrissey. “So many of the policy decisions are made by men, and they don’t always have the same perspective that women have.”
That’s the basis for the Women Transforming Cities International Society (WTC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging women’s participation in municipal politics. Monthly “cafés”, such as this one on affordable housing, are just the beginning of the work the group hopes to do.
For founder Ellen Woodsworth, it’s the opportunity to put what she calls an “equity lens” on municipal issues.
“By ‘equity lens’, I mean a gender lens, a race lens,” Woodsworth, a former Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) Vancouver city councillor, told the Georgia Straight in an East Vancouver house. “That’s the only way you’re going to get the breakdown of who’s using your services and what their needs are and how the service would work in a good way.”
Slightly more than 50 percent of Vancouver’s population is women, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the municipal leaders. Although women make up 40 percent of city council—which is actually high for Canada, where fewer than one-quarter of municipal politicians are women, according to the WTC website—the mayor of Vancouver has always been a man. (The Federation of Canadian Municipalities notes that 16 percent of Canadian mayors are women.)
These statistics worry Anne Roberts, another former COPE councillor, who says that without equitable representation of women in municipal politics, policies and decisions made by governments risk excluding half the population.
“Women are the primary caregivers for children, they do the main amount of shopping, and if you’re poor, you’re primarily using the bus, so your safety at night if you work a late shift [is a concern]. All of those things are different from men, and the city doesn’t look at that particularly,” Roberts told the Straight by phone.
Roberts and Woodsworth tried to drive this point home in 2007 when they appeared before council—they were ex-councillors at the time—to urge it not to adopt a Federation of Canadian Municipalities–endorsed policy pledging that 30 percent of council seats must be occupied by women by 2026.
At the time, Vancouver already had 40 percent women councillors, and Roberts and Woodsworth wanted to bump that to at least 50 percent. “I can’t believe that we’re so backwards that 30 percent is acceptable in the 21st century,” Roberts said, laughing. “It’s just such an inadequate response to the issue.”
Council left the recommendation at 30 percent and it passed.
But Roberts and Woodsworth had been able to effect change for women when they were on council from 2002 to 2005. At the time, they were the only women on council. It was not something they took lightly.
“Anne Roberts and I got a women’s task force set up that wrote the document ‘Gender Equality Strategy for the City of Vancouver’, and one of the recommendations from that document was setting up a women’s advisory committee,” Woodsworth said. “We became a role model for Canada with that document.”
Before that particular recommendation could be acted upon, an election swept COPE from power. The subsequent Non-Partisan Association–dominated council didn’t implement any of the report’s proposals, so it wasn’t until Woodsworth was reelected to council in 2008 that the women’s advisory committee was finally created.
In 2009, Woodsworth approached the committee with her idea for a new project called Designing Ideal Cities for Women and Girls, intended to foster women’s participation in municipal policy formation. The committee liked everything but the name, changing it to Women Transforming Cities: Designing an Ideal City for Women and Girls.
The ball didn’t start rolling, however, until Woodsworth lost in the 2011 municipal election. Together with Wendy Williams, chair of the women’s advisory committee, she started the Women Transforming Cities International Society. Although it’s cochaired by two women heavily involved in Vancouver politics, Woodsworth says that WTC is not affiliated with the city.
WTC plans to hold a café every month on a different topic in a different neighbourhood. The November café will be at the Gordon Neighbourhood House in the West End, to continue the housing discussion; and the December café, about young women’s issues, will be held in East Vancouver.
But WTC needs funding to keep going. Currently, the cafés and website rely on donations of space and volunteer time. WTC has approached both the city and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for money through councillor Raymond Louie, who is the Vancouver liaison to the FCM, but with no success. Louie suggested securing private funding first and trying the city’s competitive grants program.
But Winnie Cheung, a member of the WTC steering committee, said that funding from private foundations and organizations has been hard to find without government funding.
“The city is moving too slowly,” Cheung told the Straight at the October meeting, referring to the grants program. “We’re going on the assumption that someone will fund us, but it’s discouraging.”
Cheung says WTC is even trying to plan a conference without funding, scheduled for May 30, 2013, the day before the FCM’s annual general meeting begins in Vancouver. WTC hopes to attract municipal leaders, academics, city employees, and women’s organizations from across the country to discuss the importance of putting an equity lens on municipal politics.
But an equity lens is difficult to implement when fewer than 50 percent of councillors in Canada are women. Although Vancouver’s 12-person women’s advisory committee has the power to review city policies and make recommendations, it doesn’t have the time to review every policy. Even if it did, city council has the final say.
“If you can get the council to 50 percent women, or a woman mayor who has a significant impact on policy, then you’ll be that much further ahead rather than having just 12 people on a committee,” says Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer.
Reimer says she believes that removing barriers to political careers for women—including poor access to affordable childcare and a lack of social capital required for a political campaign—will lift barriers for other underrepresented groups, too.
Political veteran Roberts says that although gender equity in politics is really an old issue, not much has changed in 21 years.
“I was looking at some old reports from 1991 about trying to increase the number of women or doing planning that takes into account women, and it’s a lot of the same issues that we’re still talking about, that we haven’t made a lot of progress on,” she says.
“It’s long overdue.”