Policy Options by Deborah Stienstra, Susan Manning and Gail Baikie 21 April 2016

Last fall, when Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his gender-balanced cabinet, he explained it with the phrase “Because it’s 2015.”

Thirty years earlier, the equality provisions of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect. While the current prime minister’s father signed the Charter in 1982 on April 17, the actual equality provisions were not enacted until 1985 to give the provinces and territories time to revise their legislation and regulations to reflect the new protections.

Quite a lot has changed since then for women, and those of us working for equality and gender-based analysis have seen many improvements. And yet, we also know once we examine the impacts of policies on diverse women like Indigenous and disabled women some things have not changed.

The Feminist Northern Network (FemNorthNet) is a collaborative team looking at how new economic development in Northern Canada is changing communities socially, economically, and culturally. Our focus is on researching how these changes affect Northern women. While resource development can bring many economic benefits, a focus only on these economic cycles masks deeper and often longer-lasting social and cultural effects that disproportionately affect specific women.

We know how important it is to listen to women’s experiences and support their voices. Our most recent factsheet exploring gender and disability in Canada’s North offers some important observations shared by women who live with disabilities in that region. Two key points emerged:

  1. We do not know much about the lives of women with disabilities in Canada’s North
  2. There is no common understanding of disability in Northern communities

And yet, our conversations with women also found there were positive aspects of living with disabilities in Canada’s North. There is a strong sense of community that helps women with disabilities feel included. Communities rally, they fundraise to help women get the supports they need, and community organizations often fill in the gaps left by a lack of government services.

Still, common barriers exist.

Women with disabilities may have different experiences depending on their individual situations and differences in age, income, Indigenous identity, citizenship status, and related social categories.

These different experiences translate into significant gaps in services and social supports. While we see these gaps present in many sectors of our society, we are only now beginning to take seriously the impact our national legacy of colonization has had on Indigenous communities.

The experience of colonization and intergenerational trauma is debilitating for many Indigenous women, their families and their communities. While communities do help women with disabilities, often their ability and capacity to do so can be limited by the history of colonization.

Add in the environmental challenges of the Northern climate, the physical barriers posed by community infrastructures that do not support accessibility, the economic difficulties which minimize employment opportunities for women, and the narrowing criteria for eligibility for programs, supports and services offered by provincial and territorial governments, and we can see how Northern and Indigenous women in Canada’s remote communities do not enjoy equality of access compared to Canada’s southern regions.

A growing concern is how resource extraction development creates many changes in communities near mega-project sites. While certainly bringing prosperity and employment for some community members, many women with disabilities feel that these projects are not benefitting them, and are instead creating more barriers to inclusion. These include:

  • Strained infrastructure including limited transportation options
  • Higher costs for food and housing
  • Loss of feelings of safety and sense of community
  • Limited employment options for people with disabilities
  • Loss of services as support workers move into resource-based jobs

Our work has revealed how ignoring women’s voices and their experiences vis-à-vis the potential impacts of resource development in Canada’s North serve to perpetuate colonialist practices of exclusion. There are inclusive models that can be shared and adapted to meet the needs of Northern and Indigenous women with disabilities.

We need informed public policy based on evidence, and the experiences of Northern and Indigenous women with disabilities, to ensure inclusion and equitable access to programs and services.