From Sid Smith to Parliament Hill

A reflection of the U of T Women in House Program

From Sid Smith to Parliament Hill

Last week, 49 other women and I went to Ottawa to shadow a parliamentarian as part of the winter 2018 instalment of the U of T Women in House program. Personally, I went into the experience as a non-partisan, and cynical of a career in politics.

I was, however, interested in experiencing the everyday life of a federal politician: the work they do, the decisions they make, and how they make them. I did not go into the experience with the intention of considering how I could one day hold political office, despite that being part of the program’s purpose.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I came out of the experience with a little less cynicism and a little more inspiration, while still maintaining a critical lens of a colonial political system and its inequitable effects on the people in this country.

My day with Bardish

I credit a large part of my positive experience to the parliamentarian I was assigned to shadow: the Honourable Bardish Chagger. Bardish, like me, is Punjabi, assertive, and unapologetic. She is also the Minister of Small Business and Tourism and the first woman to hold the position of Leader of the Government in the House of Commons.

I met Bardish on the morning of March 1 and was struck by two things: first, she was about a head shorter than me; second, she was wearing large, comfortable, furry boots. Despite our height difference, she walked with double the speed and double the purpose.

Within the first few seconds of meeting her, she was leading me out of her office and into the House of Commons while the A/V crew was setting up for Question Period. She had me sit down in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s seat — while she sat in her seat beside — which allowed me to take a moment to consider the physical space where members of Parliament advocate on behalf of their constituency.

My cynicism for partisan politics must have showed when, in this moment, I asked Bardish if she and the Prime Minister would discuss political strategy while sitting beside each other in the House. She responded saying that she just tells him to breathe, relax, and stay focused. As I humbled myself in the realization of her humanness, she continued to tell me about the room. Then, she looked me in the eye and said: “I can see you here one day.”

While I realized that it was part of her job to advocate for the current Liberal Party Prime Minister, and while I don’t see a political path ahead of me anytime soon, I did appreciate her genuine effort to make me feel comfortable and ensure I got as much as I could from the experience.

Photo Courtesy of Bardish Chagger.

Meetings, Question Period, challenging the status quo

When I witnessed Question Period in the House at 2:00 pm later that day, I noticed that Bardish’s demeanour was demonstrably different than many of the other ministers: she was still wearing her boots while others were adorned in dress shoes or heels, she would comfortably sit in different positions, and she was calmly listening as the debate became heated.

The most notable realization I had during Question Period was that, no matter which side of the House spoke, the older men who made up a majority of the House would continually heckle their opposition — especially when women members were speaking. It’s hard to notice this when you’re watching Question Period on television because the voices of those speaking are amplified. But when you’re in the House, the reality is you can barely hear the member speaking over the cross-talk and heckling. The gender dynamics you suspect are at play are on wide display for us all to witness. Seeing Bardish defiantly be assertive in a space that was dominated by masculinity and whiteness made me appreciate her presence at Parliament even more.

For the rest of the day, Bardish continued to talk to me about her role and ensured we stop everytime we crossed paths with another parliamentarian or high-level staffer. She was genuinely interested in telling me about everyone’s position in a way I could not receive from simply watching the news.

I also saw her in action at a Board of Internal Economy meeting where sexual harassment at the workplace in Parliament was being discussed, sat in on her briefing with the Prime Minister’s Office about the day ahead, and was offered a sneak a peek at the Cabinet meeting before it began.

Through shadowing Bardish at these meetings, my appreciation for her work transcended to a deeper level. Bardish is not one to passively process anything that comes her way — in every interaction I saw her partake in, she always asked her colleagues questions and proposed her own well thought-out arguments. In moments like these, I witnessed how, even in federal politics, members from the same party can disagree about the specifics of their platforms or the phrasing of proposals. In each interaction, I witnessed her challenging the status quo and trying to make each issue more accessible and equitable.


Photo Courtesy of Bardish Chagger..

Within my community

I did not choose to write about my day on Parliament Hill to impart how great Bardish is — although she was a pleasure to meet and truly is a great person. Rather, I’m writing to discuss how she validates the kind of work and ideals I conduct myself with and wish to continue to embody as a student trying to improve my own community.

This past year in my role as the President of the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), I saw many similarities between the kind of work I do in the world of student and faculty governance and Bardish’s work in state governance. I regularly attend various committee meetings on academic policies, curriculums, and appeals in my faculty, and I also run my own team of executives and staff with whom I plan events and release statements in response to events in our community.

I saw myself in Bardish when she would question others during her meetings. I consistently question and discuss issues with people in committee meetings who are often male, white, and older than me in paid or tenured faculty positions. As a racialized woman student leader in a space still imbued with its own colonial and masculine structures of leadership, Bardish’s work provided me with confirmation that my own actions, assertiveness, and confidence are warranted and needed for the future of our country.

I saw how Bardish’s leadership had a trickle-down effect in her office. When I sat to talk with her at the end of the day, I told her I was most grateful for the kindness of her staff who accompanied me throughout the day. I commended her for surrounding herself with a staff made up of other extremely capable, assertive, and racialized women, recognizing that most parliamentary staff are often not diverse in this holistic way. Having myself previously worked in the corporate sector last summer, I was aware of how often diverse hiring can become extremely tokenistic and disingenuous, and so was aware and appreciative of when this wasn’t the case with Bardish’s team.

All in all, you could say that the U of T Women in House program was a great experience for me, one I hope more women — who are not just students at a high-level academic institution — are able to experience. The reality is that federal politicians hold significant political power in making decisions on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people. Their decisions affect many people from Indigenous, immigrant, and racialized communities.

The more representative Parliament becomes to truly reflect the community it is mandated to serve, the more inequitable processes and decisions will lose power and validity. Having more diverse women who hold political power is the first step to moving toward a future in which I see myself being genuinely interested to participate. Let’s reflect on that possible future on International Women’s Day and every other day.

International Women’s Day urges us to ‘press for progress’ on working conditions

Securing decent work bears positive ramifications for gender equity and women’s health

International Women’s Day urges us to ‘press for progress’ on working conditions

International Women’s Day (IWD) arrives yet again on March 8, presenting another opportunity to reflect on the status of gender equality in our society. This year has already been galvanized by powerful movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, which clearly demonstrate an amplified interest in progressing issues related to gender equality. Quite appropriately, the theme of IWD this year is #PressforProgress, calling on the community to advance efforts in all areas on gender-inclusive action worldwide.

Recalling that International Women’s Day was born out of women’s labour struggles at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and Europe, it is time to return to these roots. Despite many achievements in women’s equality in the labour sector, we must press for progress on remaining shortcomings, particularly in our own province.

Many women continue to face discrimination and unfair working conditions in Ontario. In fact, precarious employment overall has increased in Canada by nearly 50 per cent in the last 20 years, and women are overrepresented in the population that faces such conditions. Research shows that racialized immigrant women specifically experience a higher burden of precarious employment in the province. As children of working immigrant women, this is a reality we have seen first-hand.

Ontario is still far from where it needs to be when it comes to equity in the labour sector. As public health students, our work entails closely reviewing the evidence linking  working conditions to ramifications for health and wellbeing. Governed by provincial labour policy, employment and working conditions directly influence health by determining individuals’ income, which ultimately dictates the affordability of aspects of healthy living such as nutritious foods, stable housing, and  medication. Additionally, flexibility in working hours and access to paid leaves affect people’s ability to look after themselves in times of illness. Research shows that having insecure and precarious employment results in anxiety and greater social isolation.

Fortunately, some progress has been made in this area. In November 2017, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, or Bill 148, was passed in Ontario, with many of its measures implemented in January 2018. Some of the changes brought about by this bill include the increase in minimum wage, equal pay for equal work regardless of employee status, and an increase to a total of 10 days of emergency leave per year, two of which are paid at employee’s regular rate. It is also inclusive of new scheduling practices around shift changes and cancellations, ensuring that employees are given fair notice.   

The bill is definitely a step in the right direction — it is progress on labour rights for all in Ontario. But for women, who form the majority of those in precarious forms of work, there is more to be done. This is especially true in certain industries. For instance, the caregiving sector, primarily made up of women, is overwhelmingly susceptible to precarious working conditions. It is often low-wage with no flexibility in scheduling, not to mention that it is mentally and physically exhausting given the emotional toll that caregiving can take. This sector is also highly racialized, as immigrant and racialized women are often pushed into caregiving jobs.

Despite these struggles, however, workers in caregiving in private homes and in other sectors are banned from forming a union to collectively advocate for improved standards and working conditions. Currently, exemptions and regulations in other legislations like the Labour Relations Act and the Employment Standards Act exclude workers in certain sectors and of certain origins from the right to unionize.

Current efforts to improve working conditions through Bill 148 can only be successful if they are implemented well. This includes ensuring that employees are aware of new changes and that they are also well-equipped with support and information in the event that this legislation is not being adequately applied in their workplace. Migrant workers, for example, are specifically vulnerable, as they may be repatriated by exploitative employers if they complain.

With this year’s IWD theme being ‘pressing for progress,’ the time is right to insist on improving working conditions for women in Ontario. While there is much to celebrate in terms of labour rights in the province, we should be cognizant of the many changes that still need to be made.

It is also important to be critical and push for change not only on IWD, but all year round — especially in light of the provincial election in June and the potential implications its outcome may bring for Bill 148 and gender equality in women’s everyday lives. As young people, if we want a more progressive and equitable society, we should celebrate achievements in the labour sector for women on March 8, but continue to press our politicians on this cause going forward.


Sandani Hapuhennedige and Afnan Naeem are Master’s students at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and steering committee members of the Decent Work and Health Network.

U of T celebrates International Women’s Day

Series of events honours achievements, raises awareness of women’s struggles

U of T celebrates International Women’s Day

Last week, student groups came together in celebration of International Women’s Day, which took place on March 8. These events aimed to celebrate the historical achievements of women, whilst highlighting the struggles women still face.

The Women and Gender Studies Student Union held a lecture entitled Islands of Decolonial Love: Exploring Love on Occupied Land featuring Leanne Simpson.

Simpson is an Indigenous (Michi Saagiing Nishnaabeg) author and academic. In 2014, she was named the inaugural RBC Charles Taylor Emerging Writer by Thomas King and was nominated for a National Magazine Award. Her first book of short stories and poetry, Islands of Decolonial Love, was nominated for a ReLit Award in 2014.

In an interview with The Varsity, Simpson refuted the suggestion that gender equality has been reached in Canada. “It’s wrong,” she said. “While Canada as a society has made advances towards gender equality, particularly for upper and middle class heterosexual [cisgender], able bodied white women, but Canada still has a tremendously long way to go.”

Simpson pointed to the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as the fact that two-spirited and LGBTQ+people are targets of gendered violence under settler colonialism, as evidence against the claim.

“Heteropatriarchy is a force that still creates violence and inequality in wages, working conditions, and professional opportunities,” said Simpson, citing anti-blackness and a lack of support for midwifery and breastfeeding as continuing issues.

When asked if International Women’s Day was a gender-specific celebration, Simpson responded that everyone can celebrate International Women’s Day. “I think we have a collective responsibility to build societies where we take on white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, anti-Blackness and settler colonialism. If International Women’s Day can be part of those movements, then it’s a good thing.”

Amnesty International UofT is hosting an event entitled Intersectionality, Community and Solidarity on March 16 in collaboration with Because I’m a Girl U of T and Canadian Voice of Women for Peace.

According to the description on the event’s Facebook page, it will focus on  “intersectionality in which women come together from diverse backgrounds and speak of their personal experiences of women empowerment and feminism.”

Isabelle Maurice-Hammond, a master’s student at U of T’s Women and Gender Studies Institute at U of T, said that she would like to see more work done to promote a woman’s right to autonomy and self-determination.

“I’m personally very concerned about women’s rights to control their own bodies -— specifically reproduction, and the attacks on abortion rights that we are seeing across the border right now,” she said. 

Maurice-Hammond added that she would like to see the topic of sexual violence taken more seriously. According to Maurice-Hammond, this would involve beginning education on the issue early in a child’s academic career. “This is an inter-generational crises (that some communities bear more heavily than others) and something needs to be done about it,” she said.

Maurice-Hammond shares Simpson’s concern regarding violence towards Indigenous women, two-spirited, and LGBTQ+ people. She also hopes to see concrete changes arise from the enquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women that the federal government has promised. “[We] need to address the prevalence of racist misogynistic violence in this country,” she said. 

When asked if she had any advice for young women, Simpson responded that she did not, although she did have some for adults: “listen to girls,” she said. “Listen to children. They have fantastic ideas and visions for decolonial futures.”