Clap Your Hands to the Beat: Brian Jean’s Violent Comments Only Affirm Status Quo for Women in Alberta

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““Let’s be honest. I’ve been beating this drum for 10, 11, 12 years now, so I will continue to beat it, I promise. But it is against the law to beat Rachel Notley, so …” he said before being cut off by laughter and applause.”

Brian Jean, leader of the Wildrose Party of Alberta, has apologized for the above comments made yesterday, but the damage has already been done. He has not only validated his party’s rabid fan base that has been hurling death threats at the premier, but normalized a culture of violence against women in the province, an issue that is exacerbated by women’s economic insecurity.

THE PAST

My Mom wakes me up and says we have to go. I don’t know what time of night it is, but I’ve already been sleeping for a while, as I’m maybe six years old. She helps me put on some clothes, and I’m definitely fussing because she’s trying to get me to wear jeans and I hate the way they feel – they’re all cold and stiff and I’m not a big fan of her right now even though all she is trying to do is keep me safe.

She takes my sister, brother and me to a women’s emergency shelter in Calgary that night.

My step-dad at the time struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and was homeless on several occasions, which lead to a pretty unsafe situation for us. I don’t know the exact details, as “Hey Mom, tell me about that one time we were in an emergency shelter” is not really an experience anyone wants to re-hash.

As a kid, you’re not privy to the inner workings of “adult world.” Staying at an emergency shelter, a children’s home, a secondary shelter, and hopping around from friend’s houses to various rental apartments, and coping with constantly changing, safe and unsafe, family dynamics are all things that just happened. Throughout it, all I wanted to do was go about the business of trying to be a kid.

But turns out the re-hashing of traumatic childhood experiences is not something I have much of a choice over. As much as I’d like to leave it all behind, these experiences are now a part of my psychology and physiology, as experiencing domestic violence as a child can result in serious life long health effects.

My childhood was a life of adaptation – not getting too attached to anything, or anyone. It was also a life of being on guard, learning to read people and situations very closely. When you’re a child who has experienced domestic abuse, your body goes into a “fight, flight or freeze” mode in every new situation. New people, particularly authority figures, must be viewed as potential threats. It’s simply a survival tactic. This constant alertness can result in higher stress levels that manifest in the form of both physical and mental illnesses later on in life. I guess I know where my anxiety comes from.

I have essentially spent most of my adult life trying to pick up the pieces and understand what the fuck happened to me and why. I’ve studied domestic violence at university, I’ve read as many books and reports as I could get my hands on, I’ve volunteered and worked for women’s organizations, I co-founded my own very successful anti-violence group, I’ve helped shape university policy, I’ve volunteered and worked for political parties, I’ve given speeches, I’ve won awards.

And what I’ve discovered is really depressing.

Namely, that this province doesn’t really give a shit about domestic violence.

THE PRESENT

Alberta consistently ranks as one of the highest provinces for domestic violence in the country. We also have the largest gender wage gap in the country (with Indigenous women and women of colour making even less than white women). Women make up the majority of part-time, minimum wage earners. Childhood poverty levels have remained unchanged over the past 25 years.

Women have been in a consistently vulnerable situation in this province, with little means to move to more stable ground.

Right now, the Alberta government is considering upping the minimum wage to $15 an hour (it’s currently a laughable $11.20, while Vibrant Communities Calgary pegs an actual living wage at $18.15). Whether hiking the minimum wage is actually the best way to address poverty is up for debate, the fact is, they’re at least trying to do something for the most vulnerable of our population – women.

The Fraser Institute, a far right-leaning think tank, put out a report opposing the hike, noting that “minimum wage earners tend to live in households with multiple-income earners, meaning they are not living on one minimum wage earner’s income alone.”

But making the argument that we don’t need a reasonable minimum wage because so many minimum wage earners rely on someone with higher income suggests that financial autonomy is a luxury, and not really necessary for an individual’s or relationship’s wellbeing.

Statistically, higher wage income earners are male, meaning there’s a hell of a lot of women dependent on their male partner’s incomes.

Did you know that one of the main reasons women struggle to leave abusive situations is because of they’ll face poverty upon leaving?

The secondary-suite battle never ends at City Hall, leaving many affordable housing options completely off the table. There’s no rent control, meaning landlords can jack up rent however much they’d like in periods of high demand. MLA Deborah Drever’s Bill 204, which allows victims of domestic violence to break their lease, is a monumental step in the right direction, but housing struggles for victims of abuse don’t stop there.

When I was a volunteer peer support worker at the Women’s Centre of Calgary, I connected women to various community resources to help them meet their needs. I could make referrals to the food bank, assist them with personal care items such as tampons and shampoo, I could help them find things like low-cost clothing and furniture. But the calls regarding affordable housing and childcare were always the hardest to take, because there wasn’t much I could do.

When I was a kid, the fact that we made it into to a women’s shelter was actually quite lucky. Many women and children are turned away every day, meaning they often have to return to vulnerable situations or somehow find another way out.

This also calls to attention the state of heterosexual relationships in general, even if they are not outright abusive ones. Alberta’s current economic situation means that financial dependency is an essential component in many relationships, meaning power dynamics are skewed in favor of the partner with access to the most financial resources. A healthy relationship should be based on mutual respect, love and trust, not the financial dependency, which can foster coercive elements.

THE FUTURE

“Oh, a Women’s Studies degree, hey? What do you want to do with that once you graduate?”

Good fucking question. I mean, I guess besides being able to understand the predicament of my family and the rampage of domestic violence across the province, and maybe try to find ways to address it – I don’t really know. I probably should have gone into engineering. Arts degrees are useless in this economy.

I’ve done everything to try to understand and fix myself and the system. I have worked hard. I have given you everything I have.

The women in my family, after all these years, remain in economically vulnerable positions. I’m one of the lucky ones who has a job right now, but I’m living paycheque to paycheque. I’d like to do some more activist organizing, but I’m just so tired. And as previously mentioned, I also have a few issues with anxiety and depression and constantly have to stave off thoughts that I’m worthless, which, on occasion, spiral into darker places.

And a man who wants to be premier jokes about beating a woman, validating hordes of supporters who make misogynist jokes and violent threats. Another man who wants to be premier wants to channel the Klein glory days of hacking and slashing supports for the most vulnerable, supports my family could have used (including my step-dad, better supports for him really could have alleviated a lot of issues as well, but Klein thought it would be better to literally yell at people like him instead). The current government can’t talk about raising the minimum wage to a reasonable level without inciting an uproar.

I do not mean to erase the hard work many activists and support workers do and have done every day in this province. However, as someone who has experienced domestic violence and also worked within the domestic violence support system, I know that there is a problem and has been for years. Our culture as a whole has turned a blind eye to it, making support work incredibly challenging, facilitating burnout among volunteers and professionals.

Misogyny manifests itself in the way society is structured, it’s not simply individual comments or actions. Gender based oppression is does not primarily manifest as hurt feelings, but economic insecurity and violence or the threat of violence.

Misogyny, racism and colonialism are built into Alberta’s bones. Any attempt to challenge these things on economic terms is treated as akin to giving our economy Osteoporosis. But if the concept of social and economic justice is such a threat to the fabric of our society, maybe that fabric was pretty shitty to begin with.

What to do about it? I don’t know. I’ve tried a few things, like I said. But I’ve got to get to bed soon because I’m tired and, at the time of writing this, have to work tomorrow. Maybe someone with a bit more time, energy and economic resources can shake things up, but after 26 years, I’m not holding my breath.

 

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