#NotSoEqualVoice: the race for equality can’t be completed wearing blinders

OTTAWA—Equal Voice, an organization “dedicated to electing more women to all levels of political office in Canada,” has spent the better part of the last two decades purportedly trying to achieve its mission through campaign schools, panels, luncheons, award ceremonies, mentorship programs, conferences, and parties (oh, the parties). All the usual ways Hill-adjacent organizations try to draw in funders, donors, and supporters. You, dear reader, were probably there. Shaking hands, enjoying a drink, and feeling good about yourself for furthering this noble cause. We know, because we were right there, too.

We all watched with great interest as a diverse group of women and gender non-binary delegates from all 338 federal ridings took their seats (or left them empty in protest) in the House of Commons for the Daughters of the Vote event in 2017, and again this spring of 2019. They inspired us and raised our consciousness to issues rarely discussed in such candid terms in Canadian politics. Srosh Hassana spoke of her experience facing Islamophobia in 2017. Taqtu Sabrina Montague brought tears to our eyes with her speech this year about the suicide crisis facing Inuit communities, including her own.

We wouldn’t blame you if, seeing this, you believed that Equal Voice was a force for good in Canadian politics. We had the same yearnings. So, too, did the Government of Canada when in the fall of last year, the now Department of Women and Gender Equality announced that in order to close this gap of political representation, Equal Voice would receive additional federal funding.

Unfortunately, the marketing of women of colour and Indigenous women, meant to signal the organization’s diversity and commitment to equity, appears to be just that—marketing. Behind the scenes, Equal Voice has reportedly been perpetuating the exclusionary and silencing practices that have kept our political spaces rooted in whiteness and settler colonialism.

As reported by The Hill Times (“‘My ancestors did not survive 300 years of slavery to feel like I had an overseer’: systemic change needed at Equal Voice after three racialized women fired, say women’s rights advocates,” Aug. 5, 2019), the National Observer (“These three racialized women explain how they got fired by Equal Voice,” Aug. 2, 2019), and The Canadian Press, (Advocacy group Equal Voice faces fallout after firing three racialized staffers,” Aug. 1, 2019), employees tasked specifically with making Daughters of the Vote a safe and equitable experience for delegates, particularly those from equity-seeking groups, allegedly experienced immeasurable pushback and mistreatment, including surveillance and monitoring, harassment and bullying at the hands of the executive director and board members. These employees, four women of colour, were let go from Equal Voice, out of their nine full-time staff members. Three were dismissed the same day, and four in total were dismissed in the past month. Other racialized employees have quit in recent months. Resignations of members of the board of directors followed.

Equal Voice responded with a canned, public relations statement, which included the trite and hackneyed support for diversity that is now ubiquitous and equally meaningless.

In the statement, Equal Voice says it has “been actively working to ensure that our programs are based on principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

According to reports, the three women said they were were fired for the “harassment and defamation of [Equal Voice executive director Eleanor Fast] and Equal Voice both internally and publicly on social media.” Though Ms. Fast would not speak to the substance of the social media posts Equal Voice took issue with, she told The Hill Times they would be “inappropriate at any workplace.”

The organization has also told reporters the recent terminations had nothing to do with anyone’s race, gender identity, culture, sexual orientation, or religion. Ms. Fast also told The Hill Times the organization still has racialized staff.

But now, former employees, past delegates, and others continue to share their experiences with the organization using the #NotSoEqualVoice hashtag. If true, some of the experiences detailed there are quite harrowing. Supporters of Equal Voice should pay close attention and listen to the accounts participants in Daughters of the Vote programs, and former employees of Equal Voice have bravely shared.

We think Equal Voice was always for cisgender white women and we don’t believe it was ever in its mission to be an intersectional feminist organization. The words and the leadership were not there. An intersectional approach—that is the understanding of equity through the lens of not just gender, but other identities, including race, gender diversity, and abilities—was an afterthought.

Like the Canadian suffragettes of yore, Equal Voice seems like it was only ever comfortable advancing the interests of white women working within the system, after reading these recent accounts. We are left asking, how could Equal Voice be entrusted to disrupt the current electoral system that shuts so many out when the organization is beholden to the status quo of partisan electoral politics for much of its funding? And, most importantly, why should you, or I, or the newly minted Department of Women and Gender Equality give them our time, money, and support?

Tear up your figurative membership cards, the time has finally come to leave Equal Voice behind.

The organization’s mission was flawed from the jump. You cannot fix a broken political system without disrupting the current social order. You cannot bring more young women of colour and Indigenous women into political spaces without also doing the work of decolonizing these spaces. You cannot run an organization premised on equality without centring Black, Indigenous, and racialized people.

The vehicle for great political change and transformation will not be found in Equal Voice. We need to envision and support a new way of doing electoral politics, and we need to give space and support for leaders from Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities to lead us there.

Erica Ifill and Amy Kishek co-host the Bad + Bitchy podcast. Amy Kishek sat on the Equal Voice board of directors from 2011 to 2017.

As published in the Hill Times