In Habitat’s birthplace, new Vancouver Declaration emerges on gender and indigenous rights

Advocates hope to scale up ongoing campaign as benchmark against which to measure the New Urban Agenda.

Vancouver is "better than it was for our mothers or our grandmothers, but it ain’t good enough,” said Andrea Reimer, a city councilor, at a recent Habitat III Urban Thinkers Campus. (Lara Stiegler)

VANCOUVER — Over a thousand indigenous women and girls are reported murdered or currently missing in Canada. Although they make up just 4.3 percent of the country’s female population, they are the victims of 16 percent of all female murders and 11 percent of all female missing-persons cases.

Last year, a United Nations report lambasted the Canadian government for its treatment of aboriginal women, a black eye for a country otherwise known as a bastion of security. Both Toronto and Montréal, for example, were ranked in the top 20 of the Economist’s Safe Cities Index 2015.

Such global rankings don’t square for Gitxsan-Tsimshian activist Jessica Wood. “The city we are in is violent,” the former City of Vancouver social planner told a recent audience at Heritage Hall, a community centre in the city and a bastion of civic activism. “The city we need is free from racialized and gendered violence, and we aren’t there yet.”

Wood invoked “the city we need” in reference to the upcoming United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, better known as Habitat III. Ahead of that milestone, activists worldwide are contributing their vision of “the city we need” through a series of Urban Thinkers Campuses.

[See here for all of Citiscope’s coverage of the Urban Thinkers Campuses]

The event, held last week, was billed as the Grand Tea Party Café. It featured all the trappings of a celebratory protest — tea and cake alongside rousing folk songs from groups like the Raging Grannies and the ReSisters.

This was the capstone of a series of 30 smaller such cafes organized by Women Transforming Cities (WTC), a Vancouver-based NGO. Over the past three years, women and their allies have met in art galleries, recreation centres, credit unions and coffee shops across greater Vancouver to discuss a range of issues — the naming of streets, parks and other civic places; how to get more women in leadership positions in councils and organizations; and how to meet the basic needs of housing, living wage, safety and child care.

[See: Habitat III is a critical opportunity for grass-roots women]

This “kitchen-table research”, as WTC calls it, will be compiled into a report for submission to the World Urban Campaign in order to provide feedback for the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, the eventual outcome strategy of Habitat III.

The submission is all the more poignant given that Vancouver hosted the first U. N. Conference on Human Settlements, or Habitat I, in 1976. The resulting Vancouver Declaration formed the basis for the past four decades of U. N. advocacy on behalf of the issues that will be addressed at Habitat III, which will be held in Quito in October.


“Women and girls work for cities, but cities don’t work for women and girls,” said WTC founder and former Vancouver City Councilor Ellen Woodsworth in her explanation of the group’s rationale for collecting ideas about how to improve urban environments.

“Imagine what would happen if we had an indigenous woman as mayor. Imagine how the politics, the language, the graphics, the branding of our community could change. Imagine how the dialogue would shift and where it would land.”

Jessica Wood
Indigenous activist

Women Transforming Cities subscribes to what contemporary feminist theory calls an “intersectional lens”. In this case, that refers to the idea that women experience discrimination in society in differing ways depending on other parts of their background, such as race, class and ethnicity.

In the Canadian case, the experience of white, middle-class women tends to differ significantly from that of indigenous women. The former might be fighting for equal pay for equal work, paid maternity leave or subsidized day care, even as the latter struggle to overcome a statistical deck that many view as stacked against them.

[See: Can Habitat III create cities in which gender equality is the rule?]

With this background in mind, the group dedicated two of its cafes to issues concerning Inuit, First Nations and Métis women — the three recognized indigenous groups in Canada. Those roundtables “enriched the discussion and educated us,” said Ingrid Kolsteren, café co-organizer for WTC. “Truth is not so difficult — it’s the reconciliation part that’s going to be very difficult,” she said.

But to Wood, the First Nations activist, reconciliation can be distilled into one sentence: “Cities for indigenous women need to have relevant inclusion in the daily fabric of our living.”

In a fiery speech, she elaborated on this idea and painted a hopeful vision. “Imagine what would happen if we had an indigenous woman as mayor,” she said. “Imagine how the politics, the language, the graphics, the branding of our community could change. Imagine how the dialogue would shift and where it would land.

“What kinds of policies would cease to exist?” she asked. “What kinds of policies and practice would be changed, centred, empowering our community on our land? Who would be the city manager? How would this change anything and how could it not change everything?”

The past few years have been a heady time for indigenous rights in Canada. The Idle No More movement, founded in 2012 by four women in the city of Saskatoon, went viral across Canada and parts of the United States. Inspired by the movement, Theresa Spence, a female First Nations chief, went on a six-week liquid-only hunger strike while camped out in a tepee on an island in Ottawa across from Parliament Hill. She ended the strike only after securing concessions from the legislature and prime minister.

Another key victory? Last month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a national inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.

Hot-pink campaign

The newly announced national inquiry has launched indigenous women’s issues into the Canadian mainstream. “The connections are starting to happen” between indigenous women in Vancouver and those without an aboriginal background, Kolsteren affirms.

[See: In informal settlements of Nairobi, women look to Habitat III on inclusive planning]

For the latter, meanwhile, the city has been home to considerable social progress over the years. Most recent was the landmark, if controversial, policy on transgender students adopted by the Vancouver School Board that made waves at home and abroad.

“It’s better than it was for our mothers or our grandmothers, but it ain’t good enough,” said Andrea Reimer, a Vancouver city councilor. She points to the fact that Vancouver was one of the first cities in Canada to create a women’s advisory committee (Toronto has one as well); in 2005, the city also became a pioneer by adopting a gender-equity strategy. The Women’s Advisory Committee formally advises the City Council with a mandate to watchdog the municipal government in order to ensure that the strategy is implemented.

Reimer is quick to offer a realistic assessment of the committee’s work, however. It hasn’t done that bad, she said, “but we have one. But it has a heft and credibility that makes these issues visible.”

The committee’s disapprobation can also be a powerful incentive. “Council members do not want to be criticized by them,” she said, laughing. “We want people [on the council] to have a feminist lens.” As a result of interactions with the committee, Reimer said, “Whether or not you’re a feminist going in, you’ll be one going out.”

At the ballot box, Vancouver voters also consistently elect female officials. The council currently has a 50/50 gender balance, which is not uncommon. Such political representation is a global challenge in cities, especially in countries where women’s right to vote and participate in civic life is less assured than in Canada. “I am more and more convinced that quotas are the only way to achieve big change,” Reimer said.

For the most recent local election, in 2014, Women Transforming Cities promoted the Hot Pink Paper Campaign that measured municipal candidates against 11 key issues: intersectionality, aboriginal initiatives, environment, immigrant women, violence against women, affordable housing, transit, child care, wages, electoral reform and youth.

[See: Habitat III seen as an important opportunity to ‘engender’ city design]

Building on its Urban Thinkers Campus report, the group intends to bring the campaign to the Prague meeting of the General Assembly of Partners and Europe and North America regional meeting, key milestones in the Habitat III process that will be taking place in March. Their hope is to scale up the campaign as a benchmark against which to measure the New Urban Agenda.

To that extent, the Vancouver experience could end up informing Habitat III beyond the city’s legacy as the birthplace of Habitat conferences. Instead, if the New Urban Agenda ends up offering a progressive strategy on women’s issues — as gender advocates hope — it could be in no small part due to the contemporary hard work of women at coffee shops and art galleries across the city that hosted the first Habitat conference 40 years ago.

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