Good morning and welcome to meeting number 15 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women.
Today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format, pursuant to the House order of January 25, 2021. The proceedings will be made available on the House of Commons website. The webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee. If you're on Zoom—and everyone other than Stephanie is—please use the “raise hand” function.
Today the committee is resuming its study on challenges faced by women living in rural communities.
To our witnesses, welcome. Before you speak, wait until I recognize you by name. When we get into the questions, you can just answer as they're directed. Comments should be addressed through the chair. Interpretation in this video conference is very much like that in a regular committee meeting. You can select, at the bottom of your screen, whether you hear English, French or floor. When speaking, please do so slowly and clearly for the interpreters, and when you're not speaking, you should be on mute.
Let me welcome the witnesses. We have today, as an individual, Katie Allen.
We also welcome Renée Fuchs, from the Centre Victoria pour femmes.
We have, from Red Deer County, Jean Bota, who is a councillor there.
Also joining us is the Mayor of the Ville de Magog, Ms. Vicki-May Hamm.
Each of you will have five minutes for your opening comments, and then we'll go into our rounds of questions.
We will begin right away with Ms. Allen for five minutes.
Wonderful. Thank you very much.
Good morning. My name is Katie Allen, and I am a Ph.D. candidate in rural studies at the University of Guelph. It's my honour to be here with you today. My contributions to this discussion today are informed by my academic studies as well as my experience as a leader in supporting women’s participation in rural society. I will discuss access to services, employment and labour and accessibility for affordable housing and emergency and second-stage shelter space. I will follow up on these challenges with recommendations for your consideration.
Regionalization and the downloading of responsibilities to local government, non-profit and charitable organizations—without the matched support of funding—has had significant impacts on women’s ability to access critical health, social and justice services. Additionally, the closure of schools and postal offices, the loss of local infrastructure like gas stations, and limited access to broadband and telecommunications infrastructure continue to further isolate rural women from critical services. Without access to these services in their local communities, rural women face poorer outcomes across the board in terms of their social and economic well-being, health and safety, and engagement in decision-making processes that impact their lives. A lack of public transportation options exacerbates these challenges and particularly impacts senior women.
Often, social and health-related programs and services are downloaded to local non-profit charitable organizations or local governments in an attempt to fill gaps in service delivery. However, this process is often not supported by increased funding to these agencies, resulting in pressure on sectors that do not have the financial capacity or the human resources to adequately and appropriately deliver on their new responsibilities. COVID-19 has intensified the fragility of these sectors and exacerbated gaps in capacity and financial instability.
The composition of rural economies and labour market landscapes impacts employment quality, often producing conditions that lead to precarious employment and significant out-migration of rural youth. Precarious employment, particularly in care and service industries, continues to create challenges for women in finding secure, stable, full-time employment in their home communities. The lack of affordable transportation and housing further compounds these dynamics. Financing options for women engaging in entrepreneurship can be limited or difficult to obtain. With limited options for diverse, stable employment and post-secondary education and training required to attain higher-paying employment, rural women and youth are often stuck with making difficult choices about where and what education and employment opportunities they can access, creating a vicious cycle of low wages, few opportunities, unsuitable housing and insufficient transportation. These factors, combined with limited emergency and second-stage housing for women and children, also produce significant health and safety risks for rural women looking to leave unstable home environments and gender-based violence.
I'll now briefly discuss three recommendations for your consideration to address some of the challenges that I have overviewed.
The first is the essential need for access to broadband and telecommunications infrastructure. In some instances, service providers have digitized services and created space for online or telephone cellular support meetings. This is beneficial to those who have access to broadband and telecommunications infrastructure and technology. However, this is not the reality for many rural women. Access to broadband can also provide opportunities for professional development, training, and education.
The second recommendation is for stable and secure operational funding sources that allow for flexibility and pivoting for organizations delivering essential services. These would provide increased resource capacity to deliver essential programs and services, as well as the stability and flexibility required to respond to challenges as they arise. As we look to the future and shift towards recovery from COVID-19, long-term secure funding sources for organizations delivering those critical services to communities are imperative to ensuring that women do not fall through the cracks of various jurisdictional configurations.
The third piece for consideration is the need to address rural data gaps. Canada is a data-poor country, with a significant deficit of rural-specific data. It is impossible to produce evidence-informed responses if there is insufficient data and understanding of the unique needs and contexts of rural Canadians. Data must be publicly accessible and provided across not only socio-economic strata but gender and race as well. Open data on federal funding provided to address gender-based programming in rural communities should be clearly available in order to address barriers in applying for such funding programs. This is a particularly critical time to gather data on the unique impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on safety and emergency services. Data collection on the different stages of the pandemic can offer insights into how to strengthen the support for women during emergencies and in times of crisis.
Gender equality is a cornerstone of inclusive and sustainable growth. Policy-makers across all orders of government must dedicate time and resources to understanding rural women's issues if we are to develop effective and targeted solutions. Closing the data gap will help inform the use of gender-based analysis plus policies. It is essential that decision-makers like you integrate GBA+ and a clearly articulated rural lens to post-COVID-19 economic recovery policies for rural communities. As realities change, integrating GBA+ and a rural lens will provide opportunities to address some—
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Before I begin, I would like to respectfully acknowledge that I am on the territory described in the Robinson-Huron Treaty, part of the traditional territory of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation.
My name is Renée Fuchs, and I am the president of the Centre Victoria pour femmes. I am also a lawyer specializing in criminal law and family law. As a francophone woman born in Sudbury, I must thank you for inviting me to share with you the successes of the women using the services of the Centre Victoria pour femmes, as well as the challenges they must face.
The Centre Victoria pour femmes is established in a number of rural areas in the Sudbury and Algoma District regions, with a large number of francophones. The Centre Victoria pour femmes has just celebrated its 25th anniversary. So, for 25 years, it has been offering francophone women a complete range of services in cases of violence against women, including sexual violence. These services include individual and group support, practical assistance, group counselling, and advocacy.
The Centre Victoria pour femmes provides its services in the Greater Sudbury region and in all of the Algoma District, including Sault Ste. Marie. To give you a point of reference for how big the Algoma District is, I can tell you that it is almost the entire size of Ireland. In the Algoma District, more than one person in every eight is francophone and, here in Sudbury, one quarter of the population is francophone. That is why I would like to highlight a major deficiency in these regions in terms of access to justice in French.
I will give you one recent example that made the headlines. A woman living in the Algoma District reported to the police that she had been sexually assaulted. The Centre Victoria pour femmes was one of her supporters. In 2019, she was expecting to testify in French before the court in Sault Ste. Marie. However, her testimony never could be heard, because the judge declared a stay of proceedings due to the unreasonable delay. The unreasonable delay was mainly attributable to the fact that, because of a number of failures in the system, no francophone interpreter had been scheduled for that trial. In her reasons for decision, Justice Dunn said that, in terms of providing services in French, local practice in the Sault Ste. Marie court was “flawed”.
The judge had a little room to manoeuvre in her decision to declare a stay in proceedings. As you perhaps already know, in the Jordan decision of 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada set the entire duration of a criminal prosecution in a provincial court at 18 months. The case in Sault Ste. Marie had gone beyond 19 months.
Testifying about a traumatic event in one's own language is not a privilege, it's a right. Ontario's Courts of Justice Act and French Language Services Act require that the services provided in French be of the same quality as those provided in English and that they be equally accessible. Despite the fact that the need for an interpreter was indicated from the start of the proceedings, this woman obtained no justice. This is a systemic failure.
Although the example I have just given is more in provincial jurisdiction, it very clearly demonstrates that the rights of minority groups can sometimes be trampled on because they live in rural regions far from major centres. These fundamental rights should not be in competition.
Moreover, the Algoma District has just lost its only official bilingual judge position. A unilingual anglophone judge obtained the position.
Let me quote former Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache: “…a community must fight for certain fundamental rights and, to do so, it must have the courage to persevere”.
Thank you for your attention.
Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you to the committee for the opportunity to speak this morning.
My name is Jean Bota. I'm a Red Deer County councillor. For anyone not familiar with Alberta, Red Deer is halfway between Edmonton and Calgary. In addition to being a councillor, I also sit on the Red Deer/Lacombe rural crime watch as a director, and I chair the Alberta Community Crime Prevention Association, which is a provincial board with representation from around the province.
Today I speak to you about the challenges faced by women in rural communities from the perspective of rural crime and the fallout I am personally seeing for many women.
I have seen a lot of fear: trauma fear, fear of criminal harassment when perpetrators have been released from prison or are out on bail, and fear of reprisal after being robbed or violated more than once. I've seen psychological fear, being a distance from an RCMP detachment, and I've seen a greater, very deep fear of disconnect to the community and feeling unsupported.
Our victim services units that work with the RCMP detachments tell us that domestic violence is of course on the increase, and with COVID this is really an issue right now, especially in the indigenous and Métis settlement communities. Many perpetrators also move out to the small rural areas in order not to be detected due to lack of communication between law enforcement and agencies. Again, transportation and isolation are the biggest barriers for the abused and, in a lot of cases, their children. Then there's the physical abuse, the psychological abuse and a lot of elder abuse—older people being taken advantage of in the rural areas.
Again, supports for rural women, such as shelter, counselling, day care and infrastructure for transportation and education, are not as they should be. Many times there is no family or even friend to support them, and agencies do not have the wherewithal or the money to provide extra for these people.
Funding and capacity in rural areas for women's shelters—including trained staff to accommodate and provide programs for the women and children—are a problem. The Internet connection, as noted previously, and the means to access online counselling or meetings, especially during COVID restrictions, are also a big issue. You don't have to go very far into rural areas to have very poor Internet.
One thing I am very concerned about and I'm seeing a lot of issues with is opioids, the increase in drugs and overdoses within rural communities. To me this is a two-edged sword. The opioids are driving the rural crime by way of gangs and gang activity, and on the other hand the opioid crisis continues to take its toll on a lot of residents, with Alberta being no different.
Again, it's the result of isolation, long distances from emergency services and limited access to support, resources and education. The opioid crisis has had a heavy toll on rural and first nations communities. There is a stigma and many times discrimination for the treatment of the addiction in the communities and the addicted. The women in these communities, whether they are doctors, grandmothers, mothers or just community connectors, are ringing the alarm bell.
It's important. Thank you.
Good morning, Madam Chair.
Thank you for inviting me to appear before the committee today.
I speak to you today as the mayor of the Ville de Magog but also as a past president of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities. My comments to you will be in both languages.
First, let me talk a little about rural Canada. As we've seen, rural Canada is extremely diverse in terms of population size, density and degree of remoteness or proximity to urban centres. For example, a rural township of 11,000 in the greater Toronto area, compared to a community of 13,000 in northern Alberta, will experience very different lifestyles, opportunities and challenges. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach to rural policy will not work.
Rural communities, which are often very attractive to retired Canadians, are facing major demographic challenges. Those retirees need specific access to social services or housing. While the aging population is not a factor only in rural regions, those are the regions that have fewer resources to deal with it.
In addition, the vitality of our rural communities depends on their ability to attract and retain youth. The exodus of young people to larger centres, for opportunities in either education or employment, is a challenge.
Rural municipal leaders are working hard to address this demographic shift. To secure the talent and skills needed to generate local economic growth, these communities must attract and retain new residents, including young people, immigrants, indigenous people and women. Retention requires having the right support in place. For example, immigrants, in particular women, who find themselves unemployed or underemployed often turn to local governments for help, and if they don't find the resources that becomes a big problem.
Now let me say a few words about FCM's program toward gender parity.
At FCM, we believe that being part of the solution starts at the local level. To ensure more inclusivity, part of that solution needs to be about electing more women to municipal office. We need to help change the face of leadership, so that people elected to make decisions reflect the people they serve. We also have to identify systemic bias, recognize and acknowledge racism, and tackle gender-based violence in all its forms. There is a growing momentum and discussion about not only the impact of discrimination in society, but the need to do better.
Despite our efforts in recent years, women remain underrepresented in municipal politics. Only one fifth of our mayors are women, with a few provinces around 30%. Only the Yukon and the Northwest Territories have attained parity.
Much work remains to ensure that women are represented all across the country. This is particularly true for young women in rural communities.
FCM's program called “Toward parity in municipal politics” launched two new tools in 2020 that outline strategies and tangible ways to achieve parity: our pan-Canadian framework, which we've called “Run, win, lead”, and our knowledge hub, a collection of more than a hundred resources. Both were developed through consultation and collaboration with many of you on this call, and others across the country.
An additional factor that rural women in leadership face is that being a councillor is usually a part-time job, and you have to combine that with your workload, family responsibilities and a poor salary.
I would now like to talk to you about violence against women.
Women who live in rural areas are also victims of a number of forms of violence. In addition, they are isolated and have less access to resources than elsewhere.
The real cost of gender-based violence is this. Half of all women over the age of 16 in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence. Approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner; indigenous women are killed at six times that rate. In April 2020, seven out of 10 women reported being concerned or extremely concerned about violence at home as a result of COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the isolation of women in rural communities. They have experienced more economic hardship than elsewhere, either because of job losses or more difficult employment situations. These are often the women who provide health care to the public. Their access to services is limited, with the closure of a number of shelters for victims of violence against women, as those centres are sustained by volunteers. They have problems with transportation, not to mention that some transportation services have closed down, and with connectivity, leading to difficulties in employability and education.
I would like to end with recommendations and reflections.
In order to address challenges faced by women in rural Canada at the local level, particularly in the response to COVID-19, we need to collectively uphold and fund services to reduce gender-based violence; ensure that women’s voices and interests are reflected in the decision-making around the pandemic and the response; collect and analyze data by gender, age, race and other vulnerability factors to underpin policy, service design and budget decisions; improve the working conditions of women; involve women in COVID-19 specialized groups or task forces; promote women’s and girls’ access to information; and put gender equality policies at the forefront of the recovery plans.
Thank you very much for your attention.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to the witnesses. In the past 12-plus years, serving as the proud representative of Richmond Centre in British Columbia, I've had the privilege of visiting all the provinces and territories from coast to coast to coast. I've been all the way from Victoria on Vancouver Island to Newfoundland and Labrador. I've been listening to people, especially women, in all those rural areas. As the former minister for seniors, seniors are close to my heart. All of the issues you brought up today are so important.
My questions are for any one of you who might want to shed some light here. You talked about seniors in those areas. Caring for seniors and also other people in the family who are in need is a very complex issue. What support do you think we need to give these people? You also talked about immigrants and racism, and I have to also mention ageism. Elder abuse, of course, is a very important issue, not only in rural areas but in cities as well.
I'm throwing those questions out to all of you. Whoever wants to shed some light on them, please do so.
Thank you very much.
I would especially like to go back to the issue of seniors.
What the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally revealed is that we were not doing a good job looking after our seniors and a lot of work remains to be done, especially in our residence facilities.
Furthermore, those looking after our seniors are often women, both as professionals and as informal caregivers. There are also more elderly women than men. So we are making women's lives worse in all respects.
I feel that the seniors issue must begin with a conversation about working conditions, about adequate infrastructure and, in rural settings, about accessibility to resources.
So I submit those topics to you for your consideration.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
As Mayor Hamm said, employment categories such as nursing staff and support workers are often made up of women. In general, they are underpaid, especially the support workers.
In addition, they often work on contract, with no possibility of obtaining full-time positions. Sometimes, they have several contracts, moving from one location to another so that they can earn enough money to get by.
In my opinion, that is a major shortcoming in workplace safety. We should pay all the workers in this field more, but especially the women.
I understood what the speakers said in both languages. However, I understand the need for French interpretation, especially since we are talking about access to services in French.
Ms. Dhillon, you asked why a situation like that could occur. It's a good question. The judge didn't explain the reasons in detail.
I can say that the issue exists in Sudbury as well. It's sometimes difficult to get interpretation services because there may be only two interpreters available in the whole city. An interpreter may not be able to get to court because of bad weather, such as a snowstorm. Another may be unavailable due to illness or for other reasons. Because the date and duration of a trial is set in advance, you can't do much about it.
It is very unfortunate, but it is neither fair nor acceptable. It's a systemic failure.
I assume the question is still directed at me. So I will answer it.
First of all, we need more people in designated bilingual positions. This applies not only to judges, but also to lawyers, Crown attorneys, lawyers working with Legal Aid Ontario, for example, court clerks, court staff and interpreters.
Actually, I'd like to point out that we had a pilot project in Sudbury focused on access to justice in French. We took a regional approach. Participants in the project included people from the Superior Court, the Ontario Court of Justice and victim services. The Crown prosecutor was also involved.
I thought it was a really great project because it led everyone to discuss the issue together, to exchange information and to break down barriers. In the end, we saw an improvement in Sudbury.
I don't have precise data, but I can say that, even in Sudbury, those facing charges—I'm not talking about victims here—who don't have access to an interpreter, judge and staff who speak French, have to stay in prison for one or two more days. Unfortunately, it happens a lot.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I'm not sure, but I believe my colleague from Shefford is back. I can ask the first question and then give her time to ask more questions.
First of all, thank you for your testimony, ladies. It is very informative. We would like to delve into some of these issues much more deeply.
You all agreed that it's hard to get high-speed Internet service and broadband, in rural areas specifically. We continue to strongly advocate for this across all regions of Quebec and elsewhere in Canada.
More specifically, what problems does this lack of access cause for women?
Can Ms. Allen and Ms. Bota answer the question?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to all the witnesses for joining us today. This has been extremely interesting and very important testimony.
I'd like to extend a special welcome to Ms. Bota from Red Deer. As an Albertan, I know she's been going through a very cold snap like the rest of us, so congratulations on surviving.
The first question I have is around data. I'm going to ask everyone, but I'd like to start with Ms. Allen, if I could.
Ms. Allen, you spoke about Canada being a data-poor country. That's very interesting to me, but I'm curious. Could you expand on that a little? Why do you think that is? What attempts have been made to Statistics Canada and to the federal government to increase our data? What are those key pieces of data that are missing? If you could expand on that a little bit, that would be wonderful.
Thank you for the question.
Well, it's not my domain of expertise.
I would say, however, that it's certainly important to be able to accurately interpret the gender and age data, but also the data on many other factors, some of which have already been mentioned. This helps us target vulnerable individuals, target the right projects when applying for funding and direct them to the right people.
Today, technology makes that possible. People are talking about artificial intelligence in the business world. Data plays an extremely important role in ensuring that we are providing adequate service in our regions, determining where we want to spend our funds, what programs are going to be put in place and what policies are going to be developed. Recovering from this pandemic is going to become a budgetary issue.
Thank you very much for that important question.
I very much support what Ms. Bota said. From my experience, working with rural shelters, there is an extreme lack of affordable housing and second-stage shelter space. It is an incredible challenge. In terms of transportation, COVID-19 has created some unique barriers, which have impacted the ability of women to leave situations, but also to access services, like justice services. That has been flagged a number of times through the different discussions I've had with practitioners working in rural communities.
I have one last piece to add to that. I've also been hearing that there is not enough flexibility, funding and budget lines to reflect a rural lens for transportation. There is not enough funding for gas, because in rural communities there are much larger geographies to travel, so this has also caused a barrier for accessibility.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
It's a shame we only have three minutes to talk with the witnesses.
I hope that the four witnesses will continue their work by engaging in provincial and federal politics. We need people like them in politics. I urge them to follow in Ms. Bota's footsteps.
Our government has invested $50 million in cellular telephony and $150 million in projects to be completed in the next few months. We have invested $1.7 billion in high-speed Internet access. It's the largest-ever federal investment in that area. I encourage all the witnesses to share this with private companies. It's really important.
My first question is for you, Ms. Fuchs. Thank you very much for the work you do at the Centre Victoria pour femmes. Francophone minority communities in Northern Ontario face enormous challenges, particularly because of the distances.
I'd like to highlight the fact that, according to your organization's annual report, you are very involved with high schools and have developed ties with the community.
We have been looking into developing a national gender equality strategy. In 30 seconds, can you suggest two or three factors that should be part of the consultations to develop such a strategy?
Thank you for your question, Mr. Serré.
I would have to think about that too, but, off the top of my head, I would say that our programs need to be adapted to rural realities, but they also need to include gender-based analysis. For each of the programs and policies we put in place, we need to think about how people will be affected based on their gender. Women's groups have developed tools that could really help. I hope that answers your question.
I'd like to talk about connectivity as well, if I may, since you raised it in your comment. It's true that we've never spent so much money, but what's holding back projects is the relationship with the private sector, particularly the relationship with Bell Canada. It's hard to reach agreements with them, and it's a long and painful process. The money and the political will are there, but we can't get the projects off the ground.