Practicing Social Activism


Once established in Halifax in 1987, Stella continued to do the research for her dissertation and teach part-time at Saint Mary’s University. She also worked on a number of action research projects with Linda Christiansen-Ruffman, Barbara Cottrell, and others in the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) in Nova Scotia. Already a volunteer on the national board of CRIAW/ICREF, Stella knew the organization very well.

Motivated by her awareness of the injustice faced by women, Stella wanted to work on issues that were not visible and therefore garnered little attention. She saw that these issues must be kept in the public eye – and knew that this would require “some kind of struggle to bring things to the forefront”.

Cuts to women’s organizations

We were really, really outraged that the government would think that women’s groups weren’t worth the candle as far as funding was concerned. We wanted a solution to the funding crisis.

Immersed in social action and research between 1987 and 1992, Stella put her dissertation research temporarily aside when a major struggle over federal funding to women’s groups erupted.

The 1992-93 federal budget threatened not only to cut funding to national women’s organizations and local women’s groups across Canada, but to shift away from core funding that would sustain their operations. In Halifax, Stella and Linda Roberts, president of the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunity for Women (CCLOW) teamed up with women in Newfoundland and Labrador, colleagues in Halifax, and in women’s centres in rural Nova Scotia, to protest the cuts. They were especially concerned for the rural women’s centres that provided services to women living in vulnerable conditions.

In Newfoundland, women occupied the federal Status of Women office, and in Halifax a couple of women occupied the Status of Women office for two days. The media attention resulted in growing protests across the country. With political skill and appeals to the media, strategic links were forged with the national organizations, women’s centres, and the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women. This collaboration enabled development of a coherent actions and argument against the cuts.

In Halifax, Stella was involved with colleagues in organizing demonstrations and making connections with the women’s centres, women in the trade union movement, and the Advisory Council on the Status of Women. “Every couple of weeks, women from rural women’s centres would travel to Halifax for meetings to plan the media strategy and then we’d all attend a rally in the Grand Parade and march to the Status of Women office.” These carefully planned demonstrations continued for about six weeks, sometime there were two or three a week.

Understanding the power of the media, and their interest in publishing human interest stories, Stella and her group accessed the media network of the Advisory Council to reach reporters, who obliged with stories that highlighted the importance of services provided through the women’s centres. This was the kind of coverage that captured the hearts of potential supporters as well as average citizens.

Building a strong constituency for the protests meant tapping into the fears around general government cuts threatened by the budget that would impact wider social programs, garnering support from the NDP and women in the trade union movement who opened up their excellent communications network to support the demonstrations. Younger women from the universities used their creative skills in street theatre to add an edge to proceedings.

After six weeks of lobbying and demonstrations, the impasse was broken. Mary Collins, Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, came to Halifax for meetings related to her main portfolio as Minister of Defence.

Some of the women in our coalition demonstrated outside the hotel where she was meeting while a few others went inside the room where she was speaking. While she was talking about the importance of the defence industry to Halifax, they unfurled a large banner that pointed out the unfairness of the cuts to women’s groups. The irony was obvious!

The Minister finally agreed to meet with the women’s coalition. Because meetings with government officials and federal Ministers required serious preparations and a calm but determined demeanour, the caucus carefully prepared a respectful, well-founded case. The Minister agreed to reconsider the funding change.

However, this agreement turned out to be only an interim measure allowing government officials to regroup. A gradual shift from core funding to project funding was introduced, a policy that gives governments more control over what funding recipients do with their grants and contributions. Since that time, there has been an incremental erosion of funding for women’s groups. In 2006, the government of the day went even further and restricted funding parameters so that no evident political or advocacy work would be possible. Today, government funding through Status of Women Canada cannot be used for research or advocacy, and project funding is focused on service delivery or education, leaving women’s groups to do the research and lobbying on their own dollar or through volunteers.

Review of social security programs

There were lots of changes that were negative and we are still living with these; however, there were a few that were not so negative, and that opened up other opportunities for activist work.

Early in 1994, the new federal Liberal government undertook a review of several key social security programs. At the time, they were looking at government expenditures with a view to drastically reducing the deficit – a tip-off to the women’s movement and social justice groups that they would be more concerned with saving money than with positive reforms. Stella and her colleagues were especially concerned that the review might propose “huge changes” to the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP), the cost-sharing program that helped provinces to pay for their welfare programs; cuts to the CAP could mean cuts to income assistance.

The government offered funds to help citizen groups consult with their members and participate in the parliamentary consultations on the review, and Stella, as co-chair of CRIAW-NS, and Dolly Williams for the local chapter of the Congress of Black Women, successfully applied. A coalition of women’s groups swung into action to ensure that Nova Scotian women’s voices would be heard during the review process.

As co-chair of the Ad Hoc Women’s Committee for Social Security Reform, Stella put her dissertation research on hold to work as a volunteer for the project. With the help of a hired co-worker, she and the Committee organized a conference of over one hundred women with concerns about social security and the review process. One thing that Stella highlights from this experience is the importance of connecting small local groups to regional and national groups when the issue is national in scope.

She and her co-worker developed an education kit on the key issues involved in the review, distributed to the women’s centres throughout Nova Scotia. In turn, the centres organized workshops in their communities on the issues, and widespread awareness-building was achieved. By the fall of 1994 when the government finally produced its proposals and the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development hearings began, there were many women’s groups in Nova Scotia that knew what was going on. This was important because the media was filled with fear-mongering about the deficit and the federal Department of Finance was preparing the public for large cuts in the budget.

The Ad Hoc Women’s Committee wanted to ensure that issues facing the different groups in the coalition would be included in the brief going forward to the Standing Committee when it met for hearings in Halifax, and Stella worked with women from marginalized groups to ensure that their issues would be heard.

Because seven women’s groups submitted briefs to the Standing Committee, the Committee agreed to hold a special session with us. It was a very powerful evening as women from all the different groups talked about the social security issues that were of particular concern to them.

But the Standing Committee’s report was tabled, pre-empted by debate on the federal budget, and two weeks later Paul Martin, Minister of Finance at the time, brought in a budget that proposed huge cuts, especially to social programs. No real debate about the social security proposals occurred in parliament, overshadowed as they were by the huge omnibus bill that stole the debate. In the end, the Canada Assistance Plan was gone, and there were large cuts to social program transfers to the provinces.

Although that result had been their worst fear, Stella felt that the Ad Hoc Women’s Committee had done absolutely everything they could. Although such disappointments can foster cynicism, for Stella this experience increased her determination to promote better-informed and more critical discourse on social reform issues.

Even if you think you’re not going to change the direction of government, it’s still worth trying. What we did was to educate ourselves and the people we were working with on what was really going on; it was a consciousness-raising exercise that allowed us to gain a deeper understanding of the forces that were shaping our world and Canada. By the end of it, a lot of us were pretty cynical, but we also knew what to expect from government, and the direction policies were going in.

In the complex processes of social change, Stella reflected that it is important to see some light at the end of the tunnel. It is crucial to look for possibilities and evidences of progress, however small: “There is always a glimmer of something on the other side: you focus on these things, the world doesn’t end,” she declared.

Women’s Community Economic Development Network

Out of the ashes something positive happened eventually, but it took time and lot of advocacy on the part of a lot of women to get it going.

At the end of 1995, Stella accepted an offer to become policy researcher for the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, which she accepted knowing that the aftermath of the 1995 federal budget would create large shifts in social policy that would particularly affect women in the province. While some changes were definitely not positive, the focus was turning toward involvement of community organizations in education and training programs.

During her tenure with the Advisory Council, a new organization dedicated to training for women was formed, Women for Economic Equality (WEE). With the help of project coordinator Doreen Parsons, funding was eventually secured to get underway.

Our mission is to promote the economic wellbeing of women in Nova Scotia. We do this by creating programs and services that support women’s full participation in the social and economic development of this province.

Under the direction of Doreen Parsons, the Women’s Community Economic Development Network became the program delivery arm of the organization that now runs a variety of programs for women re-entering the labour force.

Highlights of activism

The first highlight for Stella is helping to create a broad province wide coalition that will help to ensure Nova Scotia has a stronger poverty reduction strategy. Second, the struggle in the early 1990s over funding cuts to women’s program. Third, organizing in the mid-1990s in response to the federal social security review and subsequent changes to social programs.

A fourth highlight relates to work that Stella did in the wake of the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery in the early 1990s. Talk in the media focused on government programs to retrain the men who were suffering the demise of the fishery, but there was no initiative to help the women who were holding communities together. CRIAW-NS organized Nova Scotia Women’s FishNet, an action research project active from the early 1990s to 2002. Stella and several colleagues carried out a number of community-based action research projects with the purpose of helping groups of women in fishing communities to raise concerns about policies that affected them, their families, and their communities. Much of this was participatory research that empowered women to give voice to their own lived concerns. By 2001, the group had produced a major report that challenged federal and provincial governments to consider how women participated in the economic and social well-being of their small communities without necessarily going out in fishing boats.

Stella’s last project with FishNet, Good Policy, Good Health, was based on this research, using the social determinants of health to link issues of policy to health.

We developed a workshop kit designed to be used by women in coastal and rural communities so they could see the links between what was happening in their communities and lives, their own health, and public policies.
I think I have a reputation for being fairly sensible, of thinking things through, of questioning what we are doing and why. I guess I also have quite a good sense of humour – that’s how I channel some of my cynicism… It’s hard balancing social justice work with your own personal life, your own family issues and your own personal career goals or other things you might want to do.