By: Jess Tomlin
As I prepare to speak in Manitoba this week, Winnipeg’s Nellie McClung is on my mind: Nellie McClung of the “famous five,” who fought for the radical idea that women are people—people who deserve to vote and people who deserve to be law-makers. Upon the release of the film Suffragette this month, Winnipeggers must feel especially proud. The main character, albeit fictional, albeit British, could well have been Mrs. McClung: speaking out against unsafe labour practices, daring to expose gender discrimination, and imploring male legislators to “make the law respectable” if they wished the laws to be respected.
Winnipeg was and still is an epicentre for women’s rights work. I know, because I am in the business of philanthropy for women and girls. And Winnipeggers are an instrumental part of why I am here today. Canada may now have a feminist Prime Minister in the nation’s capital, but it’s the fierce prairie feminists in the heart of the nation who are the shoulders upon which we stand.
Take, for example, the United Nations’ world conferences on women: Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), Beijing (1995). Winnipeg women were there. And they weren’t just there; they were leaders. In the six months before Beijing, 50 women from Winnipeg and the surrounding area met weekly to go line-by-line through the pre-conference document. Following Nairobi, Winnipeggers contributed time and funding to advance the Forward Looking Strategies. Following Mexico City, Winnipeggers formed a Manitoba Committee of The MATCH International Women’s Fund, which attracted women who were already heavily involved in the Manitoba Association of Home Economists and the Provincial Council of Women. Meeting around kitchen tables and over feasts of homemade cookies, these Winnipeggers fought for the rights of women around the world.
It is not surprising to me that Manitoba women were the first to get the vote in 1916. It is not surprising to me that, when the original Constitution Act of 1982 mentioned neither women nor Indigenous people, prairie women fought for inclusion. And it is not surprising to me that when, in 2010, The MATCH Fund lost 75% of its operating budget overnight, the Winnipeg committee rallied to keep this organization from closing its doors. Today, The MATCH Fund is Canada’s only international women’s fund, supporting grassroots women’s organizations across the globe. We are deeply grateful to Winnipeg–a city of incredible individuals who decry gender-based violence, build safe spaces for Indigenous women, and, yes, still come together over homemade cookies.
As we launch the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence—an annual global campaign from November 25 to December 10—I want to, for one well-deserved minute, focus my attention on Winnipeg’s vast contributions: Aboriginal artists creating travelling art exhibits to raise awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Tireless organizers, many newcomers themselves, fostering interfaith alliances to host Syrian refugees. LGBT activists throwing dance parties to fund a community member’s medical expenses or legal fees. And, of course, Winnipeggers who come to the table or take to the streets to end violence against women.
Without these fierce prairie feminists, Canada could not be a global leader in human rights. And without these fierce prairie feminists, we would all be a lot less respectable.
Jess Tomlin is the Executive Director of The MATCH International Women’s Fund. She is speaking in Winnipeg to launch the 16 Days of Activism at a public event at the University Women’s Club on Thursday, November 26 at 7 PM.