This column originally appeared on http://www.newsworld.cbc.ca
If you were wondering why people feel that they have to storm the barricades to get heard by the Ontario government, here’s a good example.
This week more than 80 organizations working against or concerned about violence against women signed on to a series of what they called “Emergency Measures for Women and Children.” Included among the groups are everyone in the province who works on the front lines of rape crisis centres, shelters and crisis hot lines. These women got together during the summer after the horrific spate of murders of women and children to come up with a series of measures that could prevent further deaths.
This is the first time in the province of Ontario that such a broad range of groups have worked together to come up with solutions to what seems like an intractable problem. On Wednesday, about forty women came from all over the province to meet with politicians. Any government should be delighted to have access to such a wide range of expertise, but not Mike Harris.
“We read that Mike Harris was going to make domestic violence a priority by increasing policing,” long-time anti-violence activist Eileen Morrow told a sparsely attended Queen’s Park press conference. “The criminal system intervenes after the fact. We want to keep women alive, not mourn them after they’re dead.”
Moreover, she pointed out, 75 percent of assaulted women do not call the police. “If Ontario only focuses on the criminal justice system, they will leave out the majority of women who need help.” While the groups disagree with the direction of the Harris government, these women took him at his word and presented a set of precise proposals, including about $50 million for community based services for women and children, such as a province-wide crisis line; additional funding for shelters and rape crisis centres and a restitution of funding for second stage housing, that provides access to housing after the emergency is over.
Another $50 million was proposed for legal reforms and services. According to the women’s groups one of the biggest problems of women dealing with violent partners is their inability to get legal aid in family court and the lack of special measures in custody and access in the situation of a violent spouse. Finally the women are calling for a modest cost of living adjustment to welfare rates to help women survive.
All of these measures should be perfectly acceptable to the Harris government, with the possible exception of the welfare rates. Ontario has a $3.5 million budget surplus not to mention the $185 million spent by the government on partisan advertising and the $1 billion in the crass and foolish tax rebate. There is plenty of money to implement these measures.
If he were serious about making a priority on ending violence against women and children, Harris would have met with the women’s groups as did NDP Leader Howard Hampton and Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty. But Harris didn’t even bother to send a cabinet minister.
Instead John Baird, Minister of Community and Social Services cynically put out a press release re-announcing the same $10 million that was announced in last year’s budget and outlining the money the province is already spending on services to women and children who are victims of violence.
I’ve worked with women’s groups and I know how difficult it is to pull together a coalition of the scope that took these measures to Queen’s Park this week. Even harder is to get agreement to call for all-party co-operation in the Ontario legislature among groups who have spent years fighting attacks from the Harris government.
Yet despite an incredibly responsible approach, all they got was slap in the face from the Harris government. What’s even worse, the women were almost completely ignored by the media. Over the summer we had endless sensational reporting of the murders of women and children but when a group makes a serious attempt to outlines measures to prevent such murders, they are ignored. Is this the anti-feminist backlash at work?
Fortunately both the NDP and the Liberals signed a statement supporting the measures and agreed to make common cause in putting measures to end violence against women and children at the top of the agenda when the Ontario legislature reconvenes next week.