Women's Network P.E.I. marks 30th year

Mary MacKay comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on January 5, 2015

Michelle MacCallum, left, WNPEI director of youth and parent programming, executive director Sara Roach-Lewis and Anne Nicholson, who first became involved with the network when it was still in its infancy, were on hand at the recent 30th anniversary celebration of this non-profit social justice organization.

©Guardian photo by Mary MacKay

The big 3-0 was reason for celebration for Women’s Network P.E.I. (WNPEI) in 2014.

Founded in 1981 and incorporated in 1984, this non-profit social justice organization has survived, thrived and rolled with the times over the last three decades, despite major hurdles, such as cuts to core funding in the 1990s.

“There are still a lot of common themes, and one of those is giving voice to women’s experience. It’s a big part of the work that we do, and maybe those voices are different now — certainly they are — and that’s really exciting,” says WNPEI executive director Sara Roach-Lewis.

The focus in the beginning was Common Ground women’s magazine and an annual women’s festival, as well as conducting research and advocating for policy changes in a variety of areas important to women and their families.

“I think back in those early days they were talking about things that we talk about now, whether it’s breastfeeding, menopause, abortion, reproductive justice — sort of that cradle to grave women’s experience,” says Roach-Lewis.

In the early years, WNPEI was also doing a lot of exploration with regard to women in nontraditional roles — mainly primary producers in the fishing and farming industries.

After losing federal core funding in the early 1990s the organization had to switch to more project-based work.

One of the more recent program additions has been Trade HERizons, which is designed to increase the number of women in non-traditional trades and technology occupations on P.E.I.

“When we started Trade HERizons five years ago the number of women who were registered as apprentices . . . in nontraditional trades fluctuated between .5 and .75 per cent (over a 25-year period). Last year with Trade HERizons that number has increased significantly, but we’re still at only 4.8 per cent. So I think the reason these things are happening is because we’re not there yet,” Roach-Lewis says.

“It is a targeted intervention on a number of different levels before we see equality in an area like trades . . . , (or) with women in government, for example.”

WNPEI’s Paths to Prosperity is a program designed to implement a community response to poverty. It is also involved with various youth work, including cyber bullying, and Boys Council Groups and Girl’s Circles, which assist in teaching youth how to make value based, healthy decisions.

“(The Girls’ Circles have) been amazing because we worked with almost 400 girls over a three-year period. That’s a lot of seeds that we’re sowing within our community,” Roach-Lewis says.

Most recently, WNPEI held A Bold Vision conference, where 23 aspiring and established woman leaders from throughout Canada contributed to an anthology and collaborated on a shared vision for Canada’s future.

The organization also has a referral service designed to help Island women find programs and services they may need, such as domestic violence, separation or divorce, abortion, or addiction services.

“They just see us as a friendly voice on the other end of the phone that can help point them in the right direction,” says Michelle MacCallum, director of youth and parent programming.

In addition to ongoing issues, new ones are arising in this ever-changing world. That’s why WNPEI strives to keep on top of what issues are impacting the community right now.

“Certainly from a youth and parent perspective it’s hard to imagine that we really are like the Wild West when it comes to the Internet, when it comes to cyber violence and cyber safety, and so I see that as an area that we will continue to work on for awhile,” Roach-Lewis says.

MacCallum says it is dangerous to assume initiatives and programs to address the gaps, barriers and inequalities are no longer needed.

“There’s a bit of a war on feminism right now because of (the mentality) ‘But you’ve come so far. How dare you compare yourself to places in the world where women have nowhere near the equality that you enjoy in North America,’” she says.

“And yet if you spent a week walking in our shoes with the women that we walk within our community, you would see that a lot of those inequalities are the same here in our culture. They might not be as visible. They might not make the media or the six o’clock news but they’re still there. So there are women who are feeling victimized and exploited and oppressed in our community and if you look you will see them.”