By Susan Scott
“Their time is up,” said the woman on the podium to thunderous applause. “All workers should be made to get three quotes on a bed with just one bus ticket – and in the rain.”
The woman was speaking at Canada’s first national conference to focus a gender lens on women and security of housing, but what made it even more remarkable was the number of women with lived experience of homelessness who not only attended, but also made their voices loud and clear.
The All Our Sisters conference in London, ON May 9-11, drew more than 500 women from British Columbia to Newfoundland and from as far north as Yellowknife, more than 100 of them were subsidized by the conference, and there was also a sprinkling who had found other sponsors. On top of that there was a good leavening of service providers and academics, but from the outset it was the women who were the paratroopers for change.
The opening session rather than featuring a charismatic VIP, or a scholarly expert featured five women who know what it’s like to have nowhere to safe; who have jumped the hurdles erected by the systems and then leaped a little bit higher either to set up their own helping organization, or to become involved with an established group.
The audience laughed and cried, the panel ran out of Kleenex listening to each other’s stories and by the end of the hour we were all resolved to go forth to make a difference. Patti Delisle from Duncan, BC, told how she had co-founded a women’s centre without any funding. “You would be eligible for a grant,” said a well-meaning supporter. “What do you mean?” asked Delisle.
Early on a friend donated $20 to a woman to buy food for her hungry children. It was a turning point, said Delisle, because the woman, unasked, returned it wanting to help someone else. Eventually three families benefited by that one unsolicited donation.
“We are our own resource,” thought De Lisle. “We live in a system that makes the poor dependent and holds us hostage.”
From that time forward she has based her life on a system of reciprocity that frees women from begging for help from a system that has as many holes as a Swiss cheese. For example, the Red Willow Womyn’s Centre houses Duncan’s Eco Store that sells items made by the women like hemp wash cloths. Through the store, the women learn how to start their own micro businesses.
The next day Buffy Sainte-Marie echoed Delisle’s example, telling a vigorously applauding audience, “If it’s not on the menu, go cook it yourself!”
The women were already cooking. Over and over again they spoke about the many ways they had been abused by the system from the dirty looks to having their children apprehended.
They were heard.
Several Ontario public health nurses who were about to begin working with marginalized women said that they had had their misconceptions blown out of the water and the stories would radically alter what they would do on the job.
“If you don’t hear the pain behind being homeless, you won’t understand and we will continue to be just a number, or a name on a piece of paper,” said Carrie Daniels in an interview a few days later.
“I feel so empowered to be part of this, to feel equal,” said Daniels. “A look on someone’s face goes a long way (to hold you down) and I’ve had a lot of looks. Now I have a new energy and a new purpose.”
Daniels and several other Calgary women are already talking about what their next step will be to ensure that change happens at many levels.
The London organizers are also pondering where the three intense, emotional days will lead. There is talk of forming a national network; three other cities have expressed interest in a second All Our Sisters conference and there will certainly be a lot of informal education as we all learn from each other.
The organizers had hoped that women of experience would feel safe enough to speak out as they did, but they certainly didn’t expect it. What made it possible? A number of factors from the orientation given to convention centre and hotel workers, to the critical mass of women, so that no one felt like a token representative, and, perhaps, something less definable – the quality of the organizers themselves and the tone they set.
“I learned that the world I wanted can exist – we built it within the four walls of the convention centre. We created a safe space for women that was without class distinction and welcomed all emotions and experiences,” says Londoner Katherine Brock, who among other things was on the first panel.
“I also learned I have a family of women now, that I can always remember when I feel displaced in this unjust world,” said Brock.
For Carrie Daniels it was a relief to hear that in London trauma counselling is taken very seriously. My Sisters Place, part of the Ontario Woman Abuse Screening Project, says that 100 percent of women using its services are dealing with trauma.
“I was so happy to hear that service providers are aware of that and want to do something about it,” says Daniels, adding that all too often trauma symptoms are seen as character defects instead of normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. “It blocks you and takes away your self-esteem.”
You can bet that whatever happens next, Daniels will be working toward better trauma services for women and she won’t be alone. Across the country, the women’s voices have finally been heard and they are not going to go away.
“The conference has given me the gumption to start that communication,” said Colette Smithers also from Calgary. “Shyness was never a problem for me. I intend to be a thorn in their side.”
About the author
After attaining her degree from Oxford University, Susan Scott came to Canada in 1967. Currently a freelance writer in Calgary, she has also worked for three Canadian newspapers. In recent years, Susan has spent a great deal of time in Canada’s underworld of drop-ins, shelters and food banks gathering information for her second book, All Our Sisters: Stories of Homeless Women in Canada. Her first book was No Fixed Address: Tales From The Street. Besides volunteering with the Jesus Loves You Society of Calgary, Susan likes to hike and travel, particularly on the Indian sub-continent.