While the number of women in the NWT Legislative Assembly may not have increased since the previous election, the 18th Assembly seems to have kicked off with a commitment to finding solutions to gendered violence and inequality in the territory.
The territorial government designated funding for the first time in many years to send representatives to the 60th meetings of the UN Commission on the Status of Women last week in New York.
Minister Responsible for the Status of Women Caroline Cochrane and Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green — the only two women elected in last November’s election — attended the meetings on behalf of the government, where they gleaned a number of ideas on how to improve policy in the territory when it comes to women’s rights.
“When you work in a small jurisdiction like the Northwest Territories on an issue like violence against women, it can be a lonely road. To put that into the perspective of the whole world was truly enlightening,” Green says.
An initiative that’s taken off in Australia and, more recently, in Manitoba, is being eyed for the Northwest Territories: allowing victims of domestic violence to access paid leave in order to address their situation.
“I felt really rejuvenated in this struggle. Violence against women is a number that tends to go up and not down, so sometimes it feels like you’re pushing the boulder uphill, all day, every day. So to hear that other people have had some success with innovative approaches in places like Zimbabwe, Iceland, Australia, is super-exciting. I felt like a bottle of pop that had been shaken up.”
Cochrane and Green shared their key takeaways from the monumental gathering with EDGE, including international best practices that could be adapted to improve equality and safety for women in the Northwest Territories.
Preventing violence through education
When it comes to domestic violence in the Northwest Territories, rates tend to be going up. The best way to stop that, Cochrane says, is through education — starting as young as possible.
“The biggest thing around the prevention is we need to get into the schools, we need to start early with youth,” she says. “We need to promote gender equality right from when they’re young… It’s really hard to change societal norms when people are adults.”
Green says a number of countries around the globe are taking a fresh look at how to reverse the upward trend of gendered violence through primary education, most notably in Australia, where a strategy called Change the Story is changing attitudes toward family violence in schools. Australia has also launched a Royal Commission to look into family violence that could have international implications for places like Canada.
“Australia is a good comparison for us, even though they’re a smaller country by about a third. They have an Indigenous population as well, so there’s some overlap, and they’re interested in our Canadian missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry for that reason,” Green says. “Where Australia is going is changing values towards family violence, and they believe that starts with gender equality, and they believe they need to start with kids as early as possible.”
Gender equality in the workplace
Closer to home, innovative solutions are also coming out of the Yukon, where Cochrane said a new program has been developed to educate government employees on gender inclusion and diversity.
Based on a survey that identified obstacles faced by women in the territory, the Yukon Government took that information and has launched an online campaign and internal training program to improve equality in the workplace.
Cochrane says she is “more than interested” in implementing something similar in the NWT.
“It wouldn’t be a real strain, financially, and why reinvent the wheel when there’s something out there where we can work in partnership and move forward?” she says. “Training government workers to be able to understand the challenges that Northern women face and the areas we can work on in every department to ensure women are more equal is really fascinating. I think it’s something we can move on actually fairly quickly.”
Another initiative that’s taken off in Australia and, more recently, in Manitoba, is being eyed for the Northwest Territories, which would allow victims of domestic violence to access paid leave in order to address their situation.
“What that involves is that if someone comes to work and discloses confidentially to the employer that she is leaving her relationship and going to the shelter, she — or he — can be granted a number of days paid leave in order to get their lives sorted out,” Green says.
“The story is that if paid leave isn’t available, then leaving their relationship isn’t just going to cost them a place to live, but it’s going to cost them their jobs as well. This is a way to help women make positive choices by giving them a certain amount of paid leave.”
While paid leave is more an initiative of the private sector in Australia, it is now an official policy with the Manitoba government. Green says she’d like to see a similar policy put in place in the NWT.
“That’s another thing that seems like a very straightforward policy change for private industry and something that the assembly can look at at some point with the union,” she says.
Empowering Indigenous communities
As part of her ministerial duties, Cochrane was included in a bilateral meeting with New Zealand, where there was a great deal of discussion around empowering Indigenous women.
When it comes to addressing family violence, Cochrane said the New Zealand government has taken a progressive approach that gives Indigenous communities the tools and resources they need to design and implement their own violence prevention strategies.
“I’ve always said, ‘Nothing about us without us.’ So if you’re going to be having a meeting, you need to have the people who are going to be affected at the table,” Cochrane says. “New Zealand has moved that a step forward. They’re moving from ‘Nothing about us without us’ to ‘Nothing about us unless we’re doing it.’”
Because communities have ownership of the project, Cochrane says it is set up for greater success. She’d like to see a similar approach to address violence in the NWT.
“I thought that was really interesting and something that the Territories could probably move towards without a lot of effort, and something I’d certainly promote.”
Women in politics
While gender parity in the NWT legislature is still a problem, it is not unique to the territory, Green says. The UN itself has never had a woman secretary general, and leaders from around the world shared similar challenges.
“The more that women can get into higher paying, higher respected positions, the easier the stepping stone is from that position to a political career.”
“We heard that many of the same issues keep women out of politics in other countries: a lack of child care, a lack of confidence, a lack of support,” Green says. “Women don’t see themselves in politics because they don’t see women politicians very much. It’s like seeing is believing, so we really need to work on ways to empower women and build their confidence and support them in logistics and so on so that they will become leaders in whatever capacity they have, whether it’s band councillor or member of the legislative assembly or secretary general of the United Nations.”
While the consensus-style system of the territorial government doesn’t allow for a move like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to ensure half of his cabinet are women, Cochrane says there is opportunity within the NWT to ensure women are put on boards and in senior positions that tend to lead to politics.
“That is a start,” she says. “The more that women can get into higher paying, higher respected positions, the easier the stepping stone is from that position to a political career.”
A global issue
Cochrane was quick to emphasize that while matters of equality and violence are often classified as women’s issues, they are matters of global significance.
“To deal with violence against women is not something that women or governments alone can tackle; it’s a global issue,” she says. “We need governments, non-profits, the private sector, and men at the table as well as women to become champions in this and say violence against women is not okay. We need to change.”
That message was backed by the theme of the meeting, which focused on the importance of gender equality to global sustainable development.
“If you leave half of the population out of economic development, you’re never going to reach sustainable development,” Green says. “Women are left out because they’re not well educated, because they’re victims of violence, because the cultural norms are to keep women at home… This is a problem of half of the the world’s population not realizing its full potential.”
Canada’s opportunity to lead
With Trudeau currently the “toast of the town” — at least of the United Nations — due to his progressive stance on women’s equality in government, Cochrane says Canada is now in the spotlight as a leader, making it important for jurisdictions like the NWT to keep setting the bar higher.
“People are looking at us as an example now, so we need to move forward with that,” she says. “We can’t let that ball drop. [Trudeau] started it and we need to push it forward.”