I wrote about moving to Winnipeg from Calgary for the Uniter. You can check it out here!
I wrote about moving to Winnipeg from Calgary for the Uniter. You can check it out here!
Let’s get right to it – the Students’ Union at the University of Calgary is in trouble and has been for awhile. An overall lack of student mobilization over the proposed market modifier tuition increases in 2014 and the recent Mac Hall ownership dispute are all symptoms of an SU that has lost its ability to connect with students on issues that matter.
I write this as a former SU Elected Official (Arts Rep) myself, and as a student who has interacted with the SU in various capacities over the past six years. This article is based on my personal experiences, observations and conversations with other students.
The leadership model at the University of Calgary is a highly individualistic and competitive, focused on promoting individual careers than capacity building for student organizing. This is most evident in the SU election process, which is centred around effective marketing and branding, where candidates in various eye-catching onesies strive to set themselves apart as cures for student body ailments.
But, in the face of an increasingly precarious job market – where employers across industries find ways to exploit workers by suppressing wages and benefits – students can do more by learning to band together rather than striving to set themselves apart. There’s no better training ground for this than the campus environment, and the SU is doing students a disservice by not recognizing this. The SU needs to provide students with the full spectrum of tools they need to organize themselves – including direct action in the form of strikes and protests.
Instead, most of an Elected Official’s capacity is directed towards learning and navigating the SU bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is not a problem in an of itself. The SU provides a lot of student services such as the Campus Food Bank and the Q Centre and it’s important for students to play a role in the delivery and implementation of these services. It’s also helpful for students to gain experience working in such an environment, as the world is sadly made up of many large slow, moving bureaucracies.
But a key problem is that the SU centralizes outreach and communication to such a degree that it limits the capacity of individual EOs to connect with students and create a sense of solidarity. Candidates who run on platforms that emphasize community building or organizing can easily get frustrated with the lack of institutional support for such initiatives. When students never see or hear from candidates once elected, it’s because they’ve been absorbed into a bureaucratic machine.
Take for example the concept of “office hours,” which is not actually included in an EOs job description, and thus no formal structure exists to facilitate or promote them. EOs have to essentially improvise. Without an established structure to maximize their effectiveness, “office hours” can feel like an exhausting and demoralizing waste of time and are quite often abandoned.
Compare this to SU organized activities centred around Orientation Week, Bermuda Shorts Day, Sex Week, Stress Less Week, Dinos games etc. These kinds of events all have SU bureaucratic support in the form of organizing committees, staff positions, volunteer coordination, and financial resources to facilitate effective planning, promotion and execution.
These events are all well and good for providing a fun, recreational campus experience, but they do not serve to build a sense of solidarity among students as Union members (and all students are Union members!). Students come to these events, enjoy themselves (hopefully), pick up some SU sunglasses or whatever the swag-item-of-the-year happens to be, and leave without knowing why the SU matters, why unions matter in general, or why student solidarity is important.
Particularly telling that this year’s SU presidential candidates all stated that they would use SU resources to break a strike on campus. It’s easy to see SU as filled with self-centred careerists with this kind of talk from its aspiring leaders. Grassroots and labour organizing is simply not a cultural value at the U of C.
Occasionally, activist-oriented candidates will come into their roles hoping to shake things up and mobilize students. But effective protests and campaigns don’t just materialize out of nowhere, or because particularly charismatic students can rally people around them. There has to be a general understanding about why direct action has value, and the SU has failed to communicate this effectively.
Take the market modifier protests in 2014, which I participated in – the Students’ Union couldn’t even fill a single bus to send up to the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton. Those who did attend were students either already in the SU or students gunning for SU positions in the upcoming election. It was a very insular crowd.
Or the Mental Health Funding campaign, which showcased the SU’s super lackluster black curtain + tiny whiteboard photo campaign strategy. The SU could totally afford a better setup, but no one thought to invest in these kind of campaign-oriented resources. As a result, these campaigns usually look very thrown-together and not all that inspiring.
And, finally, the loss of student ownership over Mac Hall. The overall absence of mobilization around what should have been a massive student concern is evidence of the general lack of student identification with the SU and sense of student ownership of the building.
And it wasn’t for lack of trying on behalf of the executive and elected officials of that year., who were generally fed up and ready to take the fight to the streets. That year’s council was simply late to the game in recognizing that direct action might have been a useful strategy in the Mac Hall struggle.
Educating the student body around this issue should have happened years before. You simply cannot get a large amount of students effectively educated and organized over such a complex issue in the span of a couple months. It’s easy to blame student apathy, as many of us did initially, rather than recognize the lack of groundwork the SU laid to make effective direct action a real possibility.
Now, the Mac Hall dispute was largely a legal battle, and understandably, most of the effort was concentrated into legal channels. Similarly, the SU invests a lot of time into lobbying government officials on behalf of students against things like market modifiers or for increased mental health funding. These are obviously important channels to work through that most students don’t see.
But these methods centralize power into the hands of a select few students & SU bureaucracy. It’s a “Don’t worry, we got this” approach. While these “respectable” tactics are important tools for student advocacy, they have been prioritized at the expense of empowering and engaging the broader student body. What happens when you send a select number of suited students into meetings with government officials and university administration and come back with nothing?
As it stands, the SU is structurally deficient in facilitating any truly effective direct action, and that’s a problem.
So, what’s the solution?
Well, directing some SU infrastructure and resources towards grassroots and labour organizing would be a start, ideally in the form of an organizing committee. (Edit: Or perhaps a Public Interest Research Group*.) This committee’s mandate would have to be, in order of importance, something like this: a) build solidarity among students through community building initiatives b) educate students about grassroots, student, and labour organizing history and tactics, and c) determine how and when direct action should be employed by the SU and d) organize direct action when deemed appropriate.
It would also have to support students organizing independently of the SU, much like their Lobby Training Program does by trying to make lobbying tactics more accessible to students outside the SU. This would shift the notion that “leaders” are ones who can market themselves successfully in elections, to students who can foster those around them to recognize their own power.
But let’s face it, this is absolutely not the SU’s style and would take a miracle to actually happen.
The alternative to the SU failing to take on such an initiative would be the formation of an independent student organization that would operate under a similar solidarity-building mandate. This might even be preferable, as this group could, in theory, circumvent the SU personality-centred leadership model, be decidedly more political, and less weighed down by a bureaucracy. This is not to say that the group wouldn’t work alongside the SU in many cases – I think it would be advantageous to do so, while simultaneously retaining independence to critique the SU when needed.
The way such a group is formed and functions internally would matter just as much as the actions it carries out. It would have to be inclusive of all genders, sexual orientations, cultural and religious backgrounds. It would have to be accessible to students in poverty and students with disabilities. It would have to prioritize the wellbeing of students involved, rather than sacrificing their minds and bodies to a greater cause. It would affirm that students are people first and not working machines.
Students would have to do their homework, researching other grassroots organizational models, trying to learn from others’ mistakes and finding what works best for the unique campus environment that is the U of C – they should probably try to bring in student organizers from across Canada in for some workshops. There are a lot of ways an endeavour like this could go wrong, but getting it right would be game changing for student advocacy in Alberta.
Again, I’m not going to pretend that any of this would be easy, or that it wouldn’t be a huge headache in many ways.
But you know what’s also a huge headache? An administration that just screwed students out of their own building. Precarious work, wage suppression, and exploitative working conditions. Entitled politicians who forget or disregard the needs of their communities once elected. Students feeling anxious, depressed and powerless because they are overwhelmed by academic and career pressures. Students feeling isolated and lonely because they feel their peers are their competition, not their community.
Students deserve access full spectrum of tools needed to advocate for themselves – including knowledge about organizing effective strikes and protests.
Who at the U of C will step up?
*Update (3/24/17): A friend of mine has since referred me to the existence of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs). I had never heard of them, but apparently they can facilitate the kind of grassroots organizing mandate I suggested in the piece, among other things.
There is an Alberta Public Interest Research Group based out of Edmonton. It looks quite active and like it’s doing some really neat stuff. It’s been in existence since 2001! Wow!
And apparently one did exist at the U of C like over 10 years ago. This looks like a really promising first step for the U of C to take, getting something like this started up again. Check it out.
My uterus has turned into a meat grinder, wanting to churn my insides out of me, and I’m dry heaving over the tub mumbling “no no no no” as the churn slowly makes another rotation.
My partner walks in with a package of Tylenol – I had sent him out earlier for Ibuprofen, but they had none at the store. That was then. I’m on the floor of the bathroom now, paralyzed by the jaws of this monster that is my body.
“What…what should I do,” he asks.
“I don’t know, um, call a pharmacist,” I say, trying to think of anything else other than calling the ambulance.
“What will that do?”
“Um, they can like tell me if this is normal?”
My period started today. I don’t want to make a big deal, but I’ve also never experienced this level of pain before. It feels abnormal, and I know that downplaying its severity could be life threatening. What the hell is going on? The monster keeps chewing me and I clench my teeth.
“Do you want me to call the ambulance?”
I pause for a second and then answer yes.
He makes the call.
Soon five or six large men have entered my apartment asking me questions and hooking me up to wires. I can’t recall the last time I’ve received this much attention. It feels excessive. But perhaps this is only because I’ve had a lifetime of learning to dismiss, downplay, or ignore pain. Vocalizing pain, asking for help, and letting others take care of me feels downright indulgent.
I worry the paramedics will be condescending or dismissive because this particular pain coincides with menstruation. Years of jokes from men in my life have taught me my period is more or less something I just gotta shut up and deal with. I can’t use my period as an “excuse” for anything. Under no circumstances should I draw men’s attention to the fact I have a body – at this time, especially. I’ve been taught the comfort of others around me is always more important than my own.
But, to my surprise, the paramedics are exceedingly gentle and compassionate. I suppose it’s just their job, but they’re doing it well.
“On a scale of one to 10, what is your level of pain right now?”
Despite the emergency situation, the paramedics never take away my agency. They check in consistently with my pain levels, communicate clearly with me, and put decisions in my hands. I feel like they are here to listen and support me in acquiring the kind of care I need.
I end up trying to walk, with one paramedic on each side for support. I feel like a child – not in an infantilized manner, but in the sense that I haven’t experienced this overwhelming amount of tenderness since I was very young. The ambulance ride is one of the most caring experiences in my entire life.
I don’t want it to end, but it does.
Once I’m at the hospital, I wait for seven hours in a fluorescent lit room, hooked up to an IV. The pain has subsided, and I feel stressed and frustrated. The ambulance trip has costing me $800 – higher than usual because my health care card is from another province. I’ve also had to call in sick to work. I want to go home, but know I should wait to make it all somewhat worth it.
Finally, the doctor arrives and prescribes me some painkillers. He says if this has happened to me once, it’s likely to happen again. Bad menstrual pain. Not much else you can do about it.
I take the prescription, relieved he’s told me it’s nothing more serious, but also frustrated that apparently this is just a “new normal” for me. No ultrasound, at least? Nobody wants a closer look?
Despite my frustrations, I am incredibly grateful for our healthcare system in Canada. Eight hundred dollars is not exactly something I can afford, but I know it could be a lot worse. Waiting for seven hours in a fluorescent lit room with constant beeping noises from various medical devices is frustrating, but is less of a barrier to me seeking medical attention than adding more zeroes to my bill.
That said, I do question why the experience of tenderness from the paramedics stood out to me as so abnormal, why I expected to be treated differently, with less care or gentleness.
I relayed my experience to my co-workers the next day. Some told me they’ve experienced that level of menstrual pain their entire lives. Another told me they had been diagnosed with endometriosis, after initially having the pain dismissed by doctors.
Today, I read about a Calgary woman who spent six years fighting to find answers about her own menstrual pain, which had interrupted her life so much that she had to drop out of classes for a semester.
She, too, was eventually diagnosed with endometriosis, which “occurs when tissues that usually line the uterine wall are found outside the uterus, where they attach to other organs, such as the fallopian tubes, colon or bladder.”
Since her condition took so long to diagnose, however, it has since resulted in a myriad of further complicated issues.
What is your level of pain, on a scale from one to ten?
What do you need?
What would you like to do?
What do you need me to do?
These questions are transformative because they put power into the hands of the person experiencing pain, and allows their experience be centred. For individuals with marginalized identities, the act of being centred – being heard, being actively listened to, is radical. The person asking these questions puts themselves in a position of service. In moments like these, pathways to healing are created.
Tenderness is revolutionary. Entire systems built to exploit, isolate and alienate individuals are disrupted when we practice tenderness with each other, when we seek to know and understand another’s pain rather than hide from it, and when we offer our assistance in service of another’s healing.
Canadian universal healthcare, for all its faults and flawed execution, is ultimately a gift and should be preserved and fought for. It embodies the notion that care is collective, that individuals are not simply left to the luck of their circumstances when it comes to medical care. In order to preserve this system and fight for it’s improvement and expansion (such as pharma care and dental), we must practice and value radical tenderness ourselves.
This is a value and character quality often overlooked, no doubt due to its feminine and maternal connotations. We do not learn in school, the job market, or in “leadership” programs about how to be tender with one another. Consider it then a revolutionary concept to bring tenderness to the forefront of our personal and political lives.
Once upon a time, Basil and Annabelle, the saddest bunnies in the entire world, were playing tag with their friends at the park.
They were laughing, jumping, yelling, swinging, bumping, running, and climbing!
Annabelle was having fun, but Basil soon started to notice something.
His heart was going
thump, thump, thump, thump, thump!
laughing jumping yelling swinging bumping running climbing
thump thump thump thump thump
JUMPING RUNNING YELLING BUMPING CLIMBING LAUGHING
THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP
The park was so noisy Basil thought his heart was going to explode!
So he bunny-hopped away to the sandbox for some quiet time.
Basil liked the way the sand felt cool beneath his paws…
thump thump thump thump
And the way it felt when he moved it around
thump thump thump thump
He liked picking it up and watching it fall down
He liked adding water so he could build his very own sandcastle
His heart had slowed down to normal.
He liked the sandbox a lot.
Back at the park, Annabelle was worried.
She didn’t know where Basil went!
She started to feel sad her friend had left her.
Did he not like playing with her anymore?
Her heart went
thump thump THUMP thump
and she didn’t feel much like laughing, jumping, yelling, swinging, bumping, running or climbing at all.
Then she saw the sandbox! Basil was playing quietly by himself.
She hop hop hopped over to him.
“Basil!” she said, “I missed you! Why did you leave? Don’t you like playing with me?”
Basil didn’t mean to hurt Annabelle’s feelings. He had to tell her it wasn’t her fault that he left the park.
He took a deep breath in…
and a deep breath out…
and then told her how he was feeling.
“It was too loud, Annabelle. My heart started thumping really fast. I like playing with you, but sometimes I need to play in the quiet sandbox instead of the noisy park.”
Annabelle listened to him, and thought quietly for a moment before responding.
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” she said. “Thank you for telling me, Basil. It’s okay if you need to have quiet time alone, but I feel sad when you leave without telling me.”
Basil’s ears went all droopy. He didn’t know what to do.
“I don’t mean to make you sad, Annabelle. Sometimes it’s so loud and there are so many others around, I just don’t know what to say!”
Annabelle thought for a second more. She looked at Basil’s droopy ears and had an idea.
“That’s it! Maybe we could have a signal!” she exclaimed.
Basil’s ears perked back up.
“What kind of signal?” he asked.
Well, if you don’t feel comfortable saying how you are feeling, you could twitch your ears! That could be our signal for when you need some quiet time.”
Basil practiced twitching his ears.
“Like this?” he said.
“Sure!” replied Annabelle. “Then I will know not to worry.”
“Okay!” Basil said, “I will try to give you the signal next time, Annabelle.”
He twitched his ears back and forth really fast, it looked like they were dancing a silly dance!
Annabelle made her ears dance a silly dance too and they both started laughing.
“Want to build a sandcastle with me?” Basil asked. “I like quiet time alone, but quiet time together is just as nice.”
Annabelle felt the sand beneath her paws. It was soft and cool.
She noticed that after talking and laughing, her heart was thumping back to normal too!
Annabelle’s heart went
And Basil’s heart went
And Basil and Annabelle, the two saddest bunnies in the entire world, felt a little less alone playing quietly together in the sandbox – with their hearts thumping quietly together too.
I wrote a short article for The Uniter on Divest UWinnipeg, a student-led group organizing to get the University of Winnipeg to pull out their investments from the fossil fuel industry. Their campaign has involved a variety of tactics – from participating in consultation to staging protests – which are all clearly linked in a cohesive strategy. It’s impressive work in light of incredibly unequal power dynamics between students and administration.
Will upload the full article when I have permission to, but for now you can read the full article here.
I’m trying to describe that emotional mixture where you feel deeply content and deeply unsettled at the exact same time.
It’s like walking all day across icy sidewalks that constantly beckon you to your death, then – arriving at a fabric store where you can buy large quantities of colour – so much colour! – and you buy $76 worth of this stuff, this large colourful pattern to hang on your living room wall, and you’re so happy with it (though a little stressed about spending this much of your tiny paycheque) – and then you return out to the cold, grey ice-covered death trap of a sidewalk in attempts to bring it home. Will you make it home??? You just want to transport like 13 feet of semi-loud bird-patterned fabric safely to your personal abode, and it’s requiring every muscle of your body to steady you, every bit of attention on the ground, every step meticulously placed. Has no one in this town heard of salt??? This bird fabric becomes brighter and more precious with each step.
And I’m like, yeah, this is definitely worth my time, energy and money. Donald Trump is actually president and in the process of doing deeply irreversible damage to humanity as a whole as we speak, and here I am with my fucking pinterest project. Here I am clinging to my bird fabric. I feel so small and powerless, yet also a small amount of transcendence. Fuck the world that through inaction actively seeks my undoing, that could care less about me and my path, my goddamn hopes and dreams. I will find and keep my joy in the middle of this wasteland.
I’m at a Holy Fuck show at a venue called The Good Will. I’ve been looking forward to it for awhile – I haven’t danced in a long time. The venue is absolutely perfect and soon becomes a swimming pool of sound washing over me. It’s absolutely wonderful. It welcomes me home like I’ve been away for too long and it’s glad to see me.
I grin like I’m falling in love. And like love, it takes on a religious tone, and I swear I hear organs echoing in a cathedral, reminiscent of some hymn I knew a long time ago. My hand is over my forehead and I’m crying now, but totally try to keep it under wraps.
And then the sound becomes turbulent, carrying me with it, and for once in my life I understand the appeal of hardcore music – I was sadly way too repressed to let myself enjoy it a teenager. I want to throw down, I want to scream, and the music welcomes my anger and pain with a warm smile and says “Yes, go ahead.” I go ahead.
I wonder if anyone thinks I’m on drugs because I’m like, very into this whole concert, but I don’t even care.
And then the crowd-pleaser, Lovely Allen, with its upward marching arpeggios and screaming jet engine synthesizers, building and building into a celebration of what is and can be – if only you go forward – farther, farther than you think you can go, only if you don’t stop.
The show closes with sounds both human and alien, beckoning towards more, to be more, to feel more – to envision beautiful worlds that have not yet become.
I walk home and barely notice the ice this time. Maybe my body has acclimatized to it. For some reason a strain of an old hymn runs through my head and I find myself singing it out loud:
Be thou my vision, O lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me save that thou art
Thou my best thought, by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise
Thou mine inheritance, now and always
Thou and thou only first in my heart
High king of heaven, my treasure thou art
The words both haunt and comfort me as I sing them. What is this feeling? It’s been with me the entire day. And then it hits me.
It’s the feeling of home.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.