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BC a Bad Place to Be a Woman?

'D' grade for women's equality given to province by group sparks debate in Legislature.

By Andrew MacLeod 7 Oct 2009 | The Navigator

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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New Dem MLA Mungall: 'We could obviously be doing better'

The West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund gave the British Columbia government a 'D' for women's equality in a report card released Oct. 6.

During question period New Democratic Party critics drew attention to the two areas where the report gave failing grades.

"Gender's no longer a priority for this government provincially or federally and it's showing," said Alison Brewin, the executive director of West Coast LEAF. "What we're trying to illustrate is there are international standards around gender and equality that aren't being met here."

The report, prepared by LEAF, examines to what extent the province has met the United Nations' Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.

B.C.'s top mark, a 'C', is for efforts to stop violence against women and girls and for how women and girls are treated in prison. The reviewers gave the province 'D's for its housing system, the weakness of its social assistance program and for access to childcare.

Failing grades were given for the province's failure to fully investigate the cases of missing and murdered aboriginal girls and for access to justice.

Missing women

Michelle Mungall, MLA for Nelson-Creston, said she would prefer to put questions about the report to a Minister of Women's Equality, but could not since the B.C. Liberal's disbanded the ministry in 2001.

Instead she addressed a question about missing and murdered aboriginal women to Solicitor General Kash Heed.

"Our primary goal has always been to ensure that we have front-line services available for people who become victims of violence in society," Heed said. "We are investing $43 million into programs to ensure that we have victim assistance available, whether it's members from a disenfranchised group in life or who fall victims of violence."

Burnaby-Deer Lake MLA Kathy Corrigan picked up on the other 'F' awarded to the province, in the area of access for women to the justice system. She asked, "Why has this government gutted legal aid services and allowed critical services like the Family Law Clinic to close their doors?"

"Actually, the member is incorrect," responded Attorney General Michael de Jong. "Funding for legal aid services from the government have actually gone up again this year."

Drawing on the LEAF report, Corrigan said "just this year the Family Law Clinic was axed, dispute resolution referrals eliminated, extended services for family law cases suspended and the Legal Services Society gutted." She asked how "dismantling the legal aid system" would help women, particularly single parents, who need the services.

'Facts that are not facts'

The question brought a tougher attack from de Jong. "I think it's a vitally important subject," he said. "But I also think that the member as a legislator and an occupant of a seat in this chamber has a duty to check her facts . . . She chooses either deliberately or inadvertently to bring information to this House and present facts that are not facts."

Funding for the Legal Services Society has actually increased, he said. "Now that may not fit within the parameters of the political story that the member chooses to advocate, but it is a fact."

Brewin said de Jong and Corrigan are both correct. "Funding to the Legal Services Society has not been cut," she said. "Services to families that need legal aid have been cut . . . The funding wasn't cut but the services were."

Spending priorities wrong: NDP MLA Mungall

The shortfall goes back to the huge cuts the provincial government made to legal aid in 2002, which she said has been "consistently underfunded" since then. "Family law legal aid virtually doesn't exist in B.C. right now."

The question needs to be considered in the context of how women have been affected by the government's policies in a variety of areas, she said. Lack of childcare makes it hard for many women to find and keep jobs, she said. And women are more likely than men to be poor, she said. "We have the highest poverty rate in Canada here in B.C. and women are hit hard by that."

"It's the combination of all those issues that makes equality a problem in B.C.," she said.

"I think the entire report was very indicative of how this government has prioritized women's equality in the last eight years," said Mungall. "We could obviously be doing better. The highest score was a 'C'."

Question period—which included questions about overly thorough Olympic security policing -- made the government's priorities clear, she said. "The Solicitor General seems to have endless money to investigate any lead that the RCMP will find for the Olympics to ensure security, and yet they continually under resource and under staff investigations for Highway 16."  [Tyee]

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