Michelle Rempel’s Feminism Doesn’t Add Up: Why Infrastructure Funding is a Feminist Issue

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Here We Go Again

So Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi probably shouldn’t have told reporters “Apparently, math is challenging” in reference to Conservative MP Michelle Rempel.

The context for Nenshi’s comment is a Twitter dispute between him and Rempel over skyrocketing property taxes for small business owners in Calgary. Rempel quickly called Nenshi’s comments sexist – relating them back to former PC Leader Jim Prentice’s infamous “Math is difficult” comment during the 2015 Provincial Leadership Debate.

Oh, and Rempel has a degree in economics. She’s written this exchange into another page of her career narrative as a feminist challenging the “Old Boys Club” status quo.

It’s definitely important to challenge the sexist tone political conversations often take in a male dominated arena. But – while she’s building a career under the banner of feminism – it’s also important to talk about her economic policies to see if they’re more than self-serving talking points. Unfortunately, her municipal funding policies don’t actually break down any barriers for women – especially immigrant and refugee women.

Syrian Refugees in Canada – in Cities

One of Rempel’s most significant critiques as Immigration Critic last year was that Canada could not bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees because we lacked the proper services and infrastructure to support them.

Food bank usage is one symptom of this [as is] access to affordable housing and access to language training, which helps people find jobs — these are all things that we know are lacking,” said Michelle Rempel, the Conservative critic for immigration, refugees and citizenship, who now lives in Alberta and is the MP for Calgary Nose Hill.

One year later, this is still a legitimate concern. Our public services like health care can’t even adequately support our own population, much less thousands of refugees fleeing a war torn country. They will require years – not just 365 days – of support from cities, provinces and the federal government to recover from trauma, adjust to new languages, cultures and locations to lead stable, healthy lives.

We do lack the proper resources to integrate refugees and immigrants into the workforce, and it makes immigrant women especially vulnerable. Contrary to what Rempel would like to infer, this is not a solely Liberal failing, but one her party must own up to. One report from 2012 addressing Immigrant Women in the Labour Market notes:

“As a result of budget cuts, employment programs are being amalgamated. Consequently, many immigrants have to move from one program to another, often with long waiting periods between programs. These delays and associated changes in schedule and location can have severe impacts on women whose childcare responsibilities often make it difficult for them to change the time and location of their programs. Women may not be able to travel to different service locations. Asking women who are already isolated in the home and who often have sparse social networks, to move from one program to another and redevelop social networks is also detrimental to their progress.”

Let’s not forget how difficult it must be for these women to establish themselves in a country where cultural warfare against Muslims was a significant part of Conservative public policy during Harper’s reign. Take the paternalistic niqab ban, which Rempel defended last year. Or Jason Kenney’s spousal sponsorship system, criticized for exacerbating power dynamics in abusive relationships and isolating women from their family and support communities. Or Kellie Leitch’s current Trump-applauding immigrant-screening campaign strategy.

These policies certainly do little to negate the rise of white supremacism and anti-Muslim sentiment among Canadians.

It is no surprise then, that immigrant women earn significantly lower incomes than immigrant men and white women born in Canada. Poverty is the result – the material manifestation – of social oppressions like racism and sexism.

So how does this all relate to Michelle’s Twitter dispute over rising property taxes in Calgary?

Well, quite a bit, when you realize how all this social oppression plays out in cities. A Globe and Mail report on poverty in urban centres highlights:

“Immigrants tend to concentrate in large cities, where they can find other people from their home countries and forge a quick network. And immigrants also tend to be low income, especially when they first arrive in Canada, says Andrew Sharpe, executive director of the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards.

It used to be true that immigrants arrived in Canada poor, then worked hard and quickly moved up the income ladder. But more recent studies have shown they’re stuck at the bottom of the ladder for longer periods of time.

“There’s a deterioration there,” Mr. Sharpe says.”

Sexism Manifests Materially – Requiring Material Remedies

Funding municipal public services and infrastructure in cities directly affects the health and wellbeing of refugee women, immigrant women, indigenous women and other women who experience poverty.

Municipalities rely heavily on property taxes to fund these essential services and infrastructure – such as public transit, water treatment, snow clearing, recreation centres, and after-school programs. It’s not perfect, but simply one of the few funding options available.

Many acknowledge the flaws of this model, including the Federation of Canadian Municipalities:

“Unlike many of their international counterparts, local governments in Canada were left to rely on the slow-growing municipal property tax, a regressive funding tool that hits middle-and low-income people hardest, including working families, senior citizens, and small-business owners.”

So what are the other options? Provincial and federal funding are usually grant-based, doled out for specific projects – and only those projects. Meaning municipalities can’t use that funding for any other purposes than its designated use– it can’t be redirected, even if there are extenuating circumstances, like a flood, or an influx of refugees.

So cities are constrained by the sources of revenue they have access to. Ergo, property tax.

The FCM also emphasizes predictable, long term investments from the federal government are essential to remedy alarming infrastructure decline. This would make it a lot easier for cities to budget, plan and invest in their long-term needs –  and support their most vulnerable citizens.

What was Michelle Rempel’s solution to this when she was Harper’s Minister of Western Economic Diversification?

Public-Private Partnerships, known as P3 projects.

This is an operating & financing model in which the public sector partners with the private to deliver vital infrastructure – anything from roads, bridges, transit, schools, water treatment plants and hospitals.

Governments like P3s because, on paper, it looks like they’re keeping costs low by letting private contractors shoulder a portion of the upfront costs. Additionally, the private sector shoulders the risks, meaning the government has a scapegoat if anything goes wrong.

But just because it’s good for government bookkeeping PR doesn’t mean it’s good for women.

Nenshi’s been wary of the model, but hasn’t been presented with any alternatives. One group even claims city councillors in Edmonton were pressured into P3s by the federal government to fund their new transit line, despite concerns.

The cautionary tales of contracting out a public service to a profit-driven company are well documented. If that company goes under, it leaves cities, and ultimately taxpayers, in a lurch – paying more for less reliable infrastructure delivery. With profit being the underlying motive – as opposed to providing a reliable public service, -it’s all too easy for private contractors to cut corners, suppress labour wages, and increase user fees.

For example, several cities have utilized P3 partnerships for water treatment plants, with lackluster and even disastrous results. Hamilton, Ontario saw a huge wastewater crisis in the 90s when a private corporation’s downsizing and cost-cutting measures lead to a massive sewage backup, causing significant damage to homes, small businesses and the environment. Moncton, New Brunswick turned to a P3 model for their water treatment when federal funding fell through, resulting in increased water rates.

The National Network on Environments and Women’s Health documented these cases in a  report titled Women and Water in Canada, noting:

“Here in Canada, perhaps the most important consideration is that women tend to make up a large percentage of low income households, and privatizing water, which can lead to consumer price hikes, more disconnections from the water supply, poorer water quality, and increased health risks will disproportionately impact women in a negative way. Faced with no choice, poor women “may be forced to use contaminated water that they get for free rather than clean water, which they cannot afford” (Brewster et al, 2006: 14).”

Another concern is that P3 projects don’t actually save the taxpayers more money than publicly funded projects. As a recent study of Ontario P3 projects has shown, they frequently cost more.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives concludes:

“…privatization tends to increase inequality by driving down wages and ramping up user fees, while eroding the capacity of our public sector. That’s why many cities across Canada and around the world have begun bringing services back in-house after failed experiments with P3s.”

We saw this happen in 2014 when Alberta returned to building schools through public funding, and in Hamilton, Ontario after the city’s water treatment crisis.

The detrimental effects of privatization hit to low income women the hardest. The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women provides further insight in a 2010 factsheet on restructuring:

“The city of Vancouver privatized its bus services in 2008, which has significant and disproportionate impact on women, poor people, people with disabilities and seniors who rely extensively on public transportation. The Bus Riders Union in Vancouver argues that ―Women are a majority of these bus riders. Many women, particularly women of colour, need public transit because they are concentrated in low-wage, night shift, temporary, part-time work, and have a lot of family responsibilities. They need reliable, affordable, and 24 hour public transit.”

Infrastructure Funding is a Feminist Issue

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It is entirely possible to say some funding models are more “feminist” than others based on whether they will remedy or exacerbate inequality for women. Rempel’s P3 model doesn’t do cities – and the women who live in them – any favours. It not only furthers reliance on regressive property taxes, but limits how cities can support their most vulnerable populations.

The CCPA reports that Calgary is one of the worst cities to be a woman in Canada. It has the highest rates of income equality between men and women, high rates of domestic violence, and unchanged rates of child poverty over 25 years- all issues which are exacerbated if you are an immigrant or refugee woman. Consider these findings along with unfunded infrastructure projects in Calgary – which Nenshi totals at $25 billion – and the picture it paints for women is a little grim.

And yet Michelle Rempel chooses to raise the alarm when property taxes go up, despite her party offering no viable funding alternatives for cities outside of unreliable P3 projects. (Trudeau, unfortunately, is not faring any better by chugging along the P3 train himself.) Stable, predictable funding from the federal government could alleviate a lot of these infrastructure issues, but that too becomes challenging when your party slashes the GST from 7% to 5%, limiting the amount of federal funds available to support municipalities.

Anyone who considers themselves an advocate for social justice needs to look at the ways oppression manifests in physical, material ways. The CRIW highlights some helpful tips for those who want to address the issue:

“You may find others interested in restructuring at your local women‘s organization or community organization. Together you could identify and share information about support services for women workers in their communities. You could map your community’s social infrastructure and share your findings and the gaps with public officials.”

Feminists should increasingly use the language of material oppression to identify and find solutions for individuals who are most in need. We should also understand the language and PR strategies politicians use to further their own interests instead of caring for the wellbeing of those they are supposed to serve. Change will come from the ground up, not through politicians duking it out on Twitter for political points.

Sincere thanks to Kate Jacobson and James Wilt for their feedback on the creation of this piece.

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One thought on “Michelle Rempel’s Feminism Doesn’t Add Up: Why Infrastructure Funding is a Feminist Issue

  1. Excellent blog–thank-you for putting this piece together and stating it so well!

    I believe there is a typo towards the bottom here: “The CCPA reports that Calgary is one of the worst cities to be a woman in Canada. It has the highest rates of income equality between men and women, high rates of domestic violence, and unchanged rates of child poverty over 25 years…” I believe it should be “highest rates of INequality”.

    Like

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