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Pierrette Ringuette

The Hon. Pierrette  Ringuette, B.A., M.B.A. On December 12, 2002, Senator Ringuette was appointed to the Senate by the Rt. Honourable Jean Chrétien to represent the Senatorial Division of New Brunswick.

Statements & Hansard

Motion to Recognize "Famous Five" as Honorary Senators

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Statement made on 07 October 2009 by Senator Grant Mitchell

Hon. Grant Mitchell:

Honourable senators, I would like to begin by congratulating Senator Cochrane, who moved this motion. This is an enlightened idea. I kind of wish I had thought of it myself.

One of the things we forget is the power of our institutions, not just to legislate, but to present and put ideas out into the world. In doing so, we can change thought, direct energy, build ideas and, in this case, create a greater prominence for the importance of women's equality. It is something on which we have made a good deal of progress in Canada, but for which — I need not remind honourable senators — we still have a long way to go.

I congratulate Senator Cochrane for this. I know that she is very motivated and passionate about this motion. Unfortunately, I was unable to be here to listen to her speech. However, I read it and it was a beautifully crafted and I am certain it was beautifully presented. Good for her, and congratulations.

Honourable senators, I have an anecdote about Nellie McClung. First, I should say I am particularly impressed by the Famous Five, because every one of them came from Alberta. That is one of the places where equality is always an issue and it has emerged many times, in many historic cases like this one, on the right side of equality.

I was a member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta for 12 years. At some point during that time, the then-Conservative government decided they would redraw boundaries. In the process of doing that, they renamed a number of existing constituencies and established some new ones. I came into the legislature one day and saw the motion to do this. Much to my absolute horror, they had proposed to rename Edmonton-Meadowlark, the riding I had represented then for about six wonderful years, Edmonton-Manning.

I thought: What kind of a horrible joke is this? I stood up in the house — and this is a testimony to the responsiveness of that government, although I would not say that very often, and I surely never said that when I was there — and I said: "You can name this riding Manning if you want, but could you please name it Ernest Manning or E. Manning, and not the other Manning?" I thought the historical differences and difference in perspective were absolutely profound.

Lo and behold, I came in the next day, I believe, and there was an amendment to this motion. They had changed the proposed name of my riding from Edmonton-Manning to Edmonton-McClung. Looking back, that was one of the proudest days of my life. First, I had actually had success in changing the government's mind for once in the 12 years that I was there. Second, I feel so strongly women's equality and about Nellie McClung. It was a fantastic moment.

There is another anecdote. I have mentioned this in this house before, but I am not sure all the new senators have heard this. I was appointed to the Senate on the same day as Senator Nancy Ruth. Over the years we have come to know one another very well and I have worked closely with her. She is remarkable on women's equality issues and other issues, as well. I had not realized it at the time, but her grandfather was Rowell of the Rowell-Sirois Commission, which we all know about. However, he was also the lawyer who took the Persons case to Britain and won it. Due to his victory, Senator Nancy Ruth and other women can be in the Senate today. It is very interesting.

If we are to recognize these five remarkable people as honorary senators, it begs this question: If they were sitting in this Senate today, what would they think about the status of women's equality and rights in this country?

Looking back, I think they might say that we have made some progress. I am sure they would say that. However, I am sure they would also say that we have a long, long way to go. They would reflect upon two things. They would reflect upon what this government has done in the last four years in setting back initiatives to establish and enhance women's equality rights. I can actually list a number of them.

There are too many to list in 15 minutes, so I will just list a couple of them. First, the government cancelled the Court Challenges Program. That was unfortunate, in the first case, when they did that, because that program had been exceptionally important in allowing many groups that are not as powerful in society and do not have access to money to take important equality issues to the courts. It certainly enhanced and helped women do that in the past.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that, this summer, the Prime Minister seems to have drawn an analogy between the Court Challenges Program and women's left-wing fringe groups who would have used that program. In any event, it had been very successful and it has been cancelled, unfortunately.

Second, the government cancelled funding for Status of Women Canada. That is very interesting because in the February 2008 budget they called upon the Standing Committee on the Status of Women to bring out a special action plan for women's issues, women's policies and equality. That has not been done.

That brings me to the next point, which I raised this afternoon in Question Period, which was with regard to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. It simply cannot be that hard to do the fundamental, basic responsibility in the acceptance of that resolution, which is to prepare a plan of action for implementing the resolution throughout our institutions and to see it reflected in the way that we conduct ourselves, particularly internationally.

As I said in Question Period, given that we are embroiled in a war in Afghanistan which addresses many issues, but fundamentally addresses the treatment of women, it would seem absolutely a necessity that we would have an action plan for Resolution 1325 that we could apply in that theatre of war and in many other places around the world where we are active and respected as a country.

By simply taking a stand and expressing a commitment to Resolution 1325 internationally and taking some initiatives to include women in post-conflict resolution and rebuilding, we would send enormously important messages around the world. However, we do not even have a plan of action. How difficult can it be to do that over the four years this government has been in power? At one page a month, it would be a 50-page plan of action. It seems to me we need to do that.

Of course, the government has changed the pay equity appeals process dramatically with Bill C-10, the Budget Implementation Act, 2009. That is a travesty. They have taken away the right of women to present their case for pay equity before the Human Rights Commission. They have diminished that level of appeal to the labour relations boards. There is nothing wrong with a labour relations board, except it is a board where you negotiate, and we do not negotiate rights in Canada. That is not part of what we are. That is the exact implication of what that initiative amounts to and means.

If a women or a group of women today in the public service can get together 70 per cent of their working category, then they could take that appeal to the labour relations board, but without any kind of assistance. If they were rich, then they could hire lawyers. It used to be 55 or 60 per cent of their category and now it is 70 per cent, so they have upped the bar on establishing something as a predominantly-female group. The groups used to have the assistance of their labour union, but it is almost incomprehensible to believe that Bill C-10 took away their right to have their labour union help them fight an inequality issue. If they do that, then it is a $50,000 fine.

Therefore, the five women who we are honouring today with this motion would surely be aghast that women in this country would be treated in this way on basic, fundamental issues of equality and human rights. Why would any government in Canada, at this time in its history, even consider doing that?

You have to wonder; you have to try to plum the depths of the government and the Prime Minister's mind to find out what he was thinking when he allowed that to happen. Maybe he did not just allow it; maybe he actually initiated it. That is what this government has done.

Then the five remarkable people would say, "let us assess where we are"; and clearly, we have not come far enough. On average, a woman in the workforce in Canada makes only 70 per cent of what a man in the workforce makes.

You could say some of that is due to different interests, perhaps, a different sense of what a career could be. You could argue those things, but it is almost a 50 per cent difference and that goes beyond simple structural or psychological differences about what a career might be. That is a structural bias.

We know in our heart of hearts that there are jobs that women tend to do that if men were doing them, they would be paid more. There are jobs that women do that are every bit as valuable; if we looked at it from 30,000 feet, we would say that job is every bit as valuable as the job that men tend to do, which is a different job but has the same value.

Those things still need to be worked out in our society. Prior to Bill C-10, there were some legitimate mechanisms for doing that; they are gone.

Women are paid less in our society — about 70 per cent of the salaries of their male counterparts. Lone-parent families headed by women have the lowest income of all family types. The corollary is that poverty in our society is disproportionately borne by women, not men. As an aside, the Financial Post's top 500 companies have an average of only 15 per cent female executive officers.

This situation is one that we can directly control, which has not been done by Bill C-50, no matter what the government wants to say. The government could have done two things in the bill. In Bill C-10, the government did 9,002 things, so they could have done more than just long-term workers in Bill C-50. They could have done long-term workers and women, because women are structurally disadvantaged under EI and its eligibility.

Essentially, to summarize, women pay into EI about the same way that men do, but they are less likely to be able to claim benefits; and when they claim benefits, they get lower benefits. It is not fair or right and these five women would have seen that.

Today the RCMP has 20 per cent women. Remarkably, the RCMP's hiring objective is 17 per cent. Yes, there are some reasons why they might go to 17 per cent; but if you tried harder, you could push it up.

In the House of Commons, 22 per cent are women; 33 per cent of the Senate are women. Of course, that was a higher percentage before the government started to appoint senators. They have appointed women at a lower rate than the proportion that was in here before the new appointments.

I will say this in passing; I do not know that it means anything, but it is interesting that of the first 18 senators, five were women, but each woman was put in the backbench. You can argue that there may be reasons for that, except that there is a bit of a protocol in here where if you have ever been elected to anything you would tend to be ahead of people who were not. It is not important to me, but it would be important if I were a woman.

In fact, there was a senator who was appointed in January who was a former MP, who was sitting behind men who had never been elected. I just point it out. I do not know that it means anything. It is probably just a coincidence.

In summary, I will say it is a great idea; we have to promote women's rights and do whatever we can. I hope this bill receives unanimous consent. There are serious questions about what this government has done in diminishing any kind of priority that would be placed on women's rights and equality. These "Famous Five" women would look at the situation today and say we have a lot work to do, so let us get started on it.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

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