A prominent women's rights activist in New Brunswick is calling on the Alward government to answer questions about its new women’s advocacy organization.
Finance Minister Blaine Higgs’s 2011 provincial budget eliminated funding to the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, a move that was criticized by opposition parties and groups at the time.
The Progressive Conservatives announced in 2013 that a new group, called the Voices of New Brunswick Women Consensus-Building Forum, would be created and it would have a $200,000 budget.
Rosella Melanson, a former executive director for the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, said the Alward government’s new women’s rights group is virtually non-existent.
She said the group is not giving a voice to important issues that affect women.
“Like everything from prevention of violence, which we do very, very little of, to dealing with the only abortion issue — access to services. Before every election, a body looking for change on those issues would have a few recommendations or options or whatever,” Melanson said.
The provincial government appointed 15 members to the new forum in February. Even after five months, Melanson said the agency cannot be contacted by phone, email or on social media.
'I'd rather see nothing, than something that's pretending to do the job, and not doing it.' - Rosella Melanson
“What is happening? There is nothing happening and that is weird. Five months after the appointments, and a year after the creation of the body,” she said.
Education Minister Marie-Claude Blais, who is also the minister of women’s equality, said the new group that was created earlier this year is slowly coming together.
“It takes time. We have two co-presidents who are active and are working now,” said Blais.
“We've already had meetings where I was present. I am meeting with co-presidents next week too. But it's an independent forum.”
Wendy Robbins, a member of the forum and a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of New Brunswick, said she has concerns about the new organization.
“When we had the first meeting and saw the mandate, there were a lot of red flags for me,” Robbins said.
Robbins said that initial mandate made no reference to abortion even though the future of the Morgentaler abortion clinic has been on the public radar screen for many months. The group did release a media statement in June that called on the provincial government to repeal the regulation that they say put barriers on access to abortion.
She said her worry is the new forum could be a way for the provincial government to show it wants to promote women's issues without really doing so.
Robbins said she was skeptical about the new group from the beginning and worried that it could be a pre-election tactic.
“Are we just being used? Can somebody point and [say], 'Well, we've set up the replacement, don't hold that against us, we've got one,’” Robbins said.
“The feeling of being used really bothers us because we are putting phenomenal amounts of volunteer time, energy and effort and if it is just window dressing or exploitation of people’s good intentions that really hurts.”