Election day is coming

The official campaign period for Ontario’s June 2nd election may not begin until May 4th, but candidates and would-be candidates are already chomping at the bit. Over the past few weeks, both my partner and I have received frequent calls from candidates asking each of us for our support. So far, I have not been inspired enough to make any promises.

There are many critical issues facing the province, some of which I plan to discuss in this space over the upcoming weeks. Looming over them all is the need for significant electoral reform: the campaign promise that all parties not in power love to make and then drop once they are elected. But, until we have electoral reform, there is almost no point in going to the polls on election day.

Not going to the polls is not the same thing as not engaging in the election campaign, though. In fact, it’s critical that we participate: by attending all candidates meetings, writing letters to the editor, questioning candidates who show up at our door and talking to neighbours about the issues that are nearest and dearest to our hearts.

Bring back the Roundtable

Whichever party forms the next government of Ontario, it must be prepared to reinstate the Violence Against Women Roundtable, created in 2015 by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government.

The Roundtable, consisting of representatives from 22 provincial organizations in the violence against women movement, was created to provide advice to the government on ongoing and emerging gender-based violence issues.

It was a cheap commitment for the government: we were not paid for our time, so the only cost was lunch once a month or so and travel costs for those of us who lived outside the GTA.

I remember the feelings of excitement and possibility at our first meeting in March 2015. The passion and enthusiasm of the Premier were contagious. And, to some extent, that optimism was warranted.

The Roundtable successfully opposed the introduction of new family court fees. We worked to shed light on the continued challenges and barriers experienced by survivors of violence and community partners in rural, remote and northern communities, which led to the development of Ontario’s Rural Realities Fund. We advised the government on new directions it could (and did) take to address the serious issue of sexual violence at post-secondary institutions.

We successfully advocated for and won provisions to provide paid leave to employees who are dealing with domestic or sexual violence.  Our work led to changes in housing laws and regulations to enable survivors of GBV to break a lease without penalty in order to keep themselves safe.

We did a lot of largely invisible work, too. We provided MPPs and their senior staff with information and expertise to guide the direction of their work on violence against women. We brought in additional experts, so politicians and bureaucrats could learn more about the issues before they made public policy about them. Our work supported the government in increasing and stabilizing funding to many VAW organizations.

Was the Roundtable perfect? Of course not. It lacked much-needed diversity, particularly in its representation of Indigenous women’s organizations and of rural and remote communities. We did not have enough resources or time to do the work we felt we needed to do. We could be – and sometimes were – ignored.

Despite its imperfections, the Roundtable made a positive and important contribution to the government’s work on gender-based violence. It did not deserve the disrespect shown to it by the Doug Ford government, which did not respond to a single letter, phone call or email sent to any of its cabinet ministers between June and November 2018. I know this because, along with Farrah Khan, I co-chaired the Roundtable, and those many unanswered communications came from the two of us. It was that lack of respect and obvious lack of interest in having a meaningful dialogue with experts in the field that led us to resign on November 17, 2018.

Needed more than ever

After four years of government cuts to women’s services, social assistance (remember the speed with which this government ended the basic income pilot?), legal aid (budget cut by 30%), shutting down the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board and more, and in the face of Doug Ford’s current and transparent vote-buying campaign, I am looking for candidates in the upcoming election to make a serious commitment to the re-establishment of a VAW Roundtable.

Rates of intimate partner violence and femicide have shot through the roof since the start of the pandemic, and there is no sign this is abating. Adequate and stable funding for violence against women services, especially after the past two-plus years, is imperative if we are to respond appropriately to survivors of gender-based violence and work to eradicate such violence from our communities.

Whatever your key issues are going into this election, please consider calling for any candidate seeking your support to commit to re-establishing the VAW Roundtable. Women in Ontario have seen firsthand what happens when politicians don’t include gender-based violence and women’s equality on their list of platform priorities. Let’s not let that happen again on June 2, 2022.

I agree with Kathleen Wynne who, in her final speech in the Ontario legislature on April 7th, said:

“I’m here because government should be a force for good in people’s lives.”

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