The circumstances surrounding Jenny Wright’s departure from her post as Executive Director of the St. John’s Status of Women Council (SJSWC) were mysterious from the outset. After five years at the helm of the feminist advocacy group, she abruptly announced her resignation on March 21, 2019.
A month later on April 17, CBC published a story reporting on a leaked letter, signed by eight individuals, that was sent to Wright’s employer (the SJSWC Board of Directors) on November 9, 2018. It complained about “damaged relationships” and accused Wright of “creat[ing] a divide within the community sector.” The letter was signed by representatives of five local community groups, one private individual, Linda Ross on behalf of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women (PACSW), and Chief Joe Boland on behalf of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC). The signatories demanded an in-camera meeting with Wright’s employer to discuss their concerns, without her present, and issued a deadline of November 21 to respond to their ultimatum.
A series of Access to Information requests submitted by the Independent provide a closer look at the role of both the police and the province in coordinating the complaint letter to Wright’s employer. This new information raises serious questions about the appropriate role of government and RNC in responding to activists—as other local advocacy groups worry they too could be targeted by police for speaking out.
Five of the signatories to the letter are community organizations, and therefore protected by privacy legislation. Two of the signatories, however, are public bodies: the RNC and PACSW. Consequently, their correspondence is accessible, with restrictions, through ATIPP requests. This correspondence reveals that the meetings which culminated in the complaint letter to Wright’s employer were initiated by PACSW, which called together the other community organizations for meetings in PACSW’s offices.
In the correspondence provided under the Independent’s Access to Information requests, RNC Chief Joe Boland and RNC Inspector Sharon Warren were identified by name.
The name of the PACSW correspondent was redacted from the emails provided. But the email signature (a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi) was the same in content and font as the signature line on other emails received from Linda Ross, then-President/CEO of PACSW. Several of the emails bearing this signature are signed “L.”, while Ross’ title (“President/CEO – PACSW”) appears on another. Based on this characteristic signature and other details it is assumed, but not confirmed, to be Linda Ross.
The correspondence also reveals some of the tensions and conflicts animating relationships across the community organizing sector.
The Task Force on Violence Against Women and Girls
PACSW, as a government agency, and the SJSWC, as an independent community-based feminist advocacy group, had fundamental political differences on certain issues.
Under Wright’s leadership, the SJSWC established a reputation as an activist organization that was not afraid to challenge and criticize government. One of the criticisms leveled by the SJSWC was over the provincial government’s decision not to establish a task force on violence against women and girls. SJSWC and other groups had lobbied government for some time to establish a task force on the issue. Instead of a task force, on October 18, 2017, Minister of Justice Andrew Parsons struck a Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) committee, co-chaired by Parsons and Linda Ross (then president of PACSW).
Wright, on behalf of SJSWC, argued that a task force would have a stronger mandate and send a more powerful message.
Some anti-violence advocates agreed with Wright. On November 27, 2017, the province kicked off a Purple Ribbon Campaign to raise awareness about violence against women. Debbie Hibbs, whose daughter Julianne Hibbs was murdered in 2013, spoke at the launch and forcefully criticized government.
“Getting a committee together is not the solution. We need a task force,” Hibbs said at the ceremony. “A committee doesn’t do much. I think now a task force is what’s important.”
Later that day, Hibbs’ speech arose in email correspondence between PACSW, where President Linda Ross co-chaired the new government committee, and Boland.
“Still processing the speech today!” wrote the PACSW representative assumed to be Ross.
“The speech was a missed attempt at rallying people and organization to come together. I think there was definitely outside influence,” replied Boland.
On October 11, 2018, the SJSWC produced an interim report card on the VAWG committee’s work. They gave it a grade of ‘D’, and stated: “the SJSWC continues to advocate for a task force to proactively address the continued prevalence of gender-based violence. The structure of a committee that has no resources, staffing, political will, ministerial accountability and a concrete action plan, is simply inappropriate and inadequate to address the scope of the issue within our province. There are real concerns that those who are at the highest risk of experiencing violence including rural, disabled, seniors, Indigenous, trans, sex working, and racialized women are neither mentioned nor prioritized.”
The critical report card was featured in local and national media, and its criticisms of the VAWG committee were highlighted and extensively quoted in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ 2019 report on Best and Worst Places to be a Woman.
One week after the report card came out, on October 18, 2018, the PACSW representative assumed to be Ross—co-chair of the committee—emailed a number of individuals, four of the organizations that sit on the committee which SJSWC had criticized in its report card, and also the RNC.
“I have been asked by a number of community organizations to host a meeting to discuss collaborative working relationships with the St. John’s Status of Women Council,” they wrote. That meeting was held at the PACSW office on October 23.
It was this meeting, and those which followed, that culminated in the letter of complaint about Wright which was sent to her employer.
Tension Over Support for Sex Workers
Another area of contention between the SJSWC and the RNC was the SJSWC’s work on behalf of sex workers. The Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) operates under the SJSWC and provides support for sex workers.
Publicly, SHOP and the RNC appear to have an amicable relationship. But the ATIPPs reveal a different story.
On June 20, 2018, the PACSW representative assumed to be Ross wrote to RNC Chief Boland, complaining about a VOCM story which provided favourable coverage of SHOP’s work.
“Talk about glorifying the ‘work’: What message does this send to an impressionable young girl wanting to have spending money!!” they wrote.
On June 25, 2018 Boland responded: “This is ridiculous. I do think it is time to push back on SHOP. This messaging makes no sense to me and flies in the face of how the majority of us see ourselves as supporting women involved in sex work. Time for change!”
“Agree!” replied the PACSW rep the same day.
At times, these areas of contention intersected, such as during the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Boland appeared before the Inquiry on October 15, 2018. On October 17, the PACSW rep assumed to be Ross emailed him, with a subject titled “MMIW.”
“Joe: Wanted to say, I listened to your presentation on Monday and think you did a great job. I can’t imagine how tough it must have been, but you were very good.”
Boland responded the same day: “It was a gruelling day for sure. I was not comfortable and advised by council to avoid challenging some of the non-profits. There was clearly one legal council [sic] who wanted to go after the Minister’s Committee on VAWG.”
The PACSW rep replied, same day: “Today Blue Door [a local organization which supports women seeking to exit sex work] is on the panel and the negative tweet has already come out from our ‘friend’!”
Boland: “What time are they on?”
PACSW: “Any minute and…herself has just walked in!!”
The “friend” referred to in the email is in all likelihood Wright. She tweeted criticisms that day over the fact that Blue Door was invited to present at the Inquiry yet SHOP was not.
RNC, Government Organize Complaint to Wright’s Employer
According to the emails provided through the Independent’s Access to Information requests, on Thursday October 18, 2018, the PACSW official assumed to be Ross emailed a number of community organizations, calling a meeting “to discuss collaborative working relationships with the St. John’s Status of Women Council.” The meeting was scheduled for PACSW’s office on October 23, 2018.
Half an hour before sending the email, the same PACSW rep emailed Inspector Sharon Warren with the RNC, asking Warren to give her a call.
RNC Inspector Warren attended and participated in the group’s meetings on behalf of the RNC, and shared meeting notes and summaries with Chief Boland (these were withheld by the ATIPP officer). On November 5, as the meetings continued and the letter was drafted, Warren wrote to an employee of PACSW: “Great chatting with you on Friday. Did you get so [sic] opportunity to complete the suggested revisions to the letter? When you do could you forward it so I can have Val circulate it to the Board.”
(‘Val’ presumably refers to Val Barter, one of the signatories to the letter. In an unusual twist, Barter, who is the Executive Director of Violence Prevention Avalon East, was also at the time employed by the SJSWC. Wright was technically her supervisor.)
The PACSW employee wrote back: “Yes, I sent it to [redacted] on Friday waiting for [redacted] feedback and did receive word from [redacted] and Georgina [McGrath—a survivor whose name was listed as a signatory] was fine with how I had her represented in the letter… See attached the final letter which has been distributed to everyone for their board approval.”
On November 7, 2018, an email was sent to the group—the sender’s name was redacted—with the subject line “Letter is a go.” It reveals that not all the groups involved in the meeting felt comfortable with the approach that was being undertaken.
It also reveals concern that word of the group’s secret activities was getting out:
“Hello all, we are moving forward with the letter and have agreed that Monday will be the date for sending. From discussion as of late we realize there are a small number who are not ready to sign at this time for various reasons. However there is a degree of urgency to get this letter sent. Therefore, given that all were active participants in both the meetings and the development of the letter we are proposing those who are not ready to sign agree to being (cc’d) along with both Ministers [Siobhan] Coady and Parsons.”
The letter also warns: “we have been made aware that the existence of the letter has been leaked and the [redacted] is aware of it though has been misinformed of the content and how it is presented. This makes moving ahead with sending something formal to the [SJSWC] board even more important so we can clarify this communicated miscommunication. For those who haven’t already please identify who is signing on and who is agreeing to be cc’d.”
In the end, Dan Meades, Executive Director of the Transition House Association of NL, was CC’ed along with Ministers Coady, Caroline Haley, and Parsons.
That same day, Inspector Warren forwarded a copy of the letter to Chief Boland: “the group is wondering if you are still in support of this step.”
Boland responded the same day: “I am good with signing on to this letter.”
The letter was addressed to Mary Shortall, Chair of the SJSWC board of directors. It says the signatories wish “to express our deep and growing concern about the damaged relationships between our organizations and the SJSWC. We represent nine different organizations and a violence prevention advocate with lived experience… We firmly believe that the damaged relationship can be repaired, recognizing that doing so will require honesty, frankness, and a commitment to true partnership, support, and collaboration going forward.”
It also says that “It is a persistent concern that the SJSWC’s Executive Director [Jenny Wright] has acted in a manner that has created a divide within the community sector that has diminished opportunities for collaboration and partnerships, thereby losing valuable opportunities to work together to benefit vulnerable people in our province.”
The letter requests “an in-camera meeting between our agencies and SJSWC Board of Directors to take place with only [emphasis in original] Board members present. This private meeting will begin the important but difficult work of restoring the relationship …”
The letter gives a deadline of November 21 for the SJSWC board to provide a reply and a meeting date.
On November 21, the PACSW rep assumed to be Ross wrote to Inspector Warren asking: “any response yet. It is the 21st,” suggesting that Inspector Warren had been designated the point of contact for the group.
Warren responded: “I have been checking and nothing yet. I was planning on sending an email asking if they had an opportunity to meet yet and if they’d provide a time when I could expect a response.”
Subsequent ATIPPs indicate a meeting took place in December 2018, between three representatives of the SJSWC Board and three representatives of the group that compiled the letter. One of the latter representatives appears to have been RNC Chief Boland.
On December 6, Inspector Warren (who attended a prep meeting of the group) sent Chief Boland a document containing notes and key messaging in advance of the meeting with the SJSWC board. This document was compiled by a representative from the NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre.
This is most likely then-Executive Director Nicole Kieley, who also sat on the government Committee on Violence Against Women and Girls. She was Executive Director in charge of the organization from 2013 until earlier this month, and signed the letter on behalf of the organization. The name of the email sender was redacted, but the message contained an NLSACPC logo and signature line. Based on this characteristic signature and other details it is assumed, but not confirmed, to be Nicole Kieley.
Warren told Chief Boland the notes and key messages were “so you have some background on what is felt to be the important issues with the strained working relationship with SJSWC and [Jenny Wright] in particular.” The meeting was held at the offices of the NL Federation of Labour. On January 3, 2019 the representative from the YWCA (where Ross served on the Board of Directors) who took part in the secret meetings emailed the group asking for an update, and a meeting of the group was scheduled for January 9, 2019 at the offices of Violence Prevention Avalon East (which also sits on the VAWG committee).
On January 11, 2019 the individual assumed to be Kieley wrote to the group to share a document of notes that was to be sent “to the SJSWC board to assist with their ongoing investigation process.” Boland, among others, was included on the email thread which requested feedback. On January 22, RNC Inspector Warren wrote to offer some editorial suggestions, stating that “Other than that I don’t have an issue with releasing the document.”
What happened after that stage is unknown. But it is clear that the SJSWC Board had undertaken an “investigation” in response to the complaint letter, in which two RNC officers—Inspector Sharon Warren and Chief Joe Boland—played a direct role.
“A Chilling Effect”
Janice Kennedy is the Executive Director of the Bay St. George Women’s Council, a role she’s held since December 2013. What most shocked her about the entire situation is the role played by the RNC. Seeing the signature of Chief Boland on the letter to Wright’s employer both surprised and concerned her.
“I’m concerned when I see the RNC—and the Chief of Police at that—signing a letter about someone in the community because there’s a difficult relationship. I find that to be a very chilling effect in terms of the community work and the advocacy work that we do,” she tells the Independent.
Kennedy notes that the work which organizations like SJSWC do is by definition contentious, and involves raising issues with are both difficult and sometimes divisive. To see a feminist organizer criticized for her activism in this regard, she says, is “deeply disturbing.”
“When I look at the advocacy work that we do in the feminist community… we tend to take on difficult topics that people don’t always agree with,” Kennedy explains. “Sometimes we run counter to what policing operations might be doing.”
“The police enforce the laws in our state and that doesn’t always bode well for women because sometimes the laws are oppressive,” she concludes. “So seeing them say that someone’s difficult, and sign a letter to their board saying that someone’s a difficult person to work with because of the stances they may take on feminist issues, it sends a message.”
Paula Sheppard-Thibeau is Executive Director of the Corner Brook Status of Women Council, a role she’s held for over twelve years. When she first read about the letter in CBC coverage, she said she was dismayed that the signatories “didn’t approach Jenny directly and instead decided to go forward in what seemed to be an effort to have her removed.” But it was the signature of Chief Boland which caused her particular concern.
“Because we’re not talking about any type of illegal activity, it becomes very tricky when the police become involved in this type of action. For us it can be seen as almost intimidating or as a way of limiting the role of advocates,” Sheppard-Thibeau tells the Independent. “We need to remember that advocates are often allies for individuals who might be intimidated by the police or the justice system, and if we’re forced to take a small role or feel intimidated in any way, it can impact survivors who wish to come forward.”
“We’re lucky that our current relationship with the local RNC detachment has been very positive, but we also understand the roles that each of us plays, and that occasionally we’re not going to always be on the same side of an issue, and that it is our job to be advocates,” she continues. “From what I understand all the actions that were referred to in this letter are part of what Jenny’s role would have been, or any of us as Executive Directors. It’s part of our role to be advocates, and sometimes that means taking a tough line on issues that can be quite contentious.”
She points to a number of examples in which her organization has called for change, including calls for reform in the justice system when Samantha Piercey died. She said her Council articulated its concerns to PACSW surrounding the letter.
“While some people may view this as just a St. John’s issue, those of us that work with some of the provincial organizations were wondering how that would impact our ongoing relationships,” Sheppard-Thibeau concludes. “We’re not always going to be on the same side of issues, and how do we move that forward? So we had some legitimate concerns.”
Much of the context surrounding the complaint remains murky, as neither the SJSWC board nor the RNC will comment on the matter.
But what is clear from the ATIPPs is that the complaint to Wright’s employer was coordinated by a government agency—the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women—and that representatives of the RNC actively participated in the drafting process, as well as having Chief Joe Boland formally sign the complaint to Wright’s employer on behalf of the police.
What are the proper boundary lines for police when it comes to engaging with community organizations, particularly ones that criticize their work?
Inappropriate Police Action
“The police in general carry out the enforcement of the Criminal Code of Canada,” Steve Crocker, sociology professor at Memorial University, explains to the Independent. “That’s ultimately their role or function in society. They interpret or apply the law, and have access to means of force when required.”
“You might say that the police are in the community, but they are not of the community. They do not emerge from it as a community group, and they don’t participate in it in the same way as any other group does,” Crocker continues. “What we’re calling community here is that part of our social life which is not directly administered by the state. In political theory that’s sometimes called civil society. In liberal democracy, the idea is that the police are providing the conditions for the operation of civil society, but they are not themselves a civil society group. The police are not one among other civil groups: they represent the law which applies universally to all groups.”
“They don’t represent the interests of any one particular group and it’s important that they not appear to represent the interests of any one. Neither should they be involved in the formation of public policy or opinion, for the same reason: that in safeguarding the interests of all, they don’t have any particular interests to promote.”
This distinction is particularly important when it comes to the relationship between police and activist or advocacy groups—particularly if they engage in protest activities or critique the work of the police, as Wright did frequently. For instance, Wright and the SJSWC took a leading role in the protests against RNC officer Douglas Snelgrove when he was accused of sexual assault.
“Some social issues and some social groups make it difficult for the police to do their work, and for policing to be carried out in general,” Crocker explains. “But that doesn’t make them illegal, and it shouldn’t make them a matter of special police interest in any way other than for the enforcement of the law.”
“We’re now seeing the emergence of kinds of social control and policing in which the social good is often getting confused with ease of policing,” he continued. “This is a very concerning thing because the protocols of policing are starting to really form the basis for the [management] of civil society and dissent, and it has all sorts of implications for that.”
“It’s important to point out that a society that is easier to police is not necessarily a more desirable society. So I’d say that we need to ensure that a clear boundary is maintained between police and community groups.”
Crossing the Line
According to Crocker, the RNC signing the complaint letter raises a number of very significant questions.
“It seems the police were involved in facilitating a complaint to an employer that was not on the surface related to a violation of the Criminal Code of Canada,” he notes. “What was their role in that? Doesn’t that violate the basic separation of the police from the community groups that they help provide conditions of free speech and assembly for? In what way did it facilitate police work? People generally don’t call the police to make a complaint about an employee. The police are called when it is a matter of a criminal nature. So how did the police become involved in an employment complaint if it is not crossing the line of criminal activity?”
“The police are also signatories on [the letter], [but] they are not one among other groups with a particular interest to promote or to align themselves with. It is a frightening, chilling kind of world where those opinions that are compliant with policing or police ideas thrive, and others have reason to be concerned,” Crocker concludes. “That is certainly a concern if the police begin to influence and form public opinion rather than to serve it.”
“Nobody wants to live in a society that is shaped in the interests of the police.”
Kennedy echoes that sentiment.
“For us, the police aren’t always on side with community. Policing in Canada has a history of oppression against minority groups, be it Indigenous peoples, minorities, women—back when abortion was illegal they raided abortion houses like Dr. Morgentaler’s,” Kennedy explains to the Independent. “So I think the police getting involved in this is disturbing. We don’t always see eye to eye, sometimes we work in partnership with them to deal with issues in our community, but there’s times where we may not agree on things. They need to understand that there’s going to be differences, and that doesn’t mean that someone’s difficult or that an organization is difficult to deal with. It’s just the nature of the work.”
“When I think about some of the work that Jenny [Wright]’s done, whether it’s around sex workers or highlighting Indigenous women getting arrested during the Muskrat Falls protests, you know these are things that run counter to policing operations,” she adds. “So it is concerning.”
Another community activist who heads up a local group approached the Independent about the matter after the letter was leaked to CBC. They expressed concern about Boland’s signature, but wished to remain anonymous because “I’m afraid to be named because it could risk the same backlash.”
They said they found the police involvement in the complaint to be chilling.
“If this happens to one of us, it could happen to more of us… I think it is changing the environment around us,” they told the Independent. “This is a story of what happens when you speak out and you’re doing activist work, including women and survivors doing this work. This is what happens when you make people really uncomfortable who are in big positions of power and other people in the community are too scared to defend you. We see it time and time again… but this is a much deeper level of misuse of police power.”
The Proper Bounds of Police Advocacy
Duff Conacher is Director of Democracy Watch, a national citizen’s advocacy group on issues of government and corporate accountability. He expressed concern about the fact Chief Boland was a signatory to the letter, and explained there are limits to what is appropriate when it comes to police advocacy work.
“A chief of a police force will advocate in one way, which is to propose a budget with the argument that various budget items and money is needed to solve their policing problems and problems in the community,” Conacher tells the Independent.
“But that’s really the only situation, because their job is fair and impartial law enforcement. If they took a stand on any other issue or situation then they are showing bias, and anyone who is on the other side of the chief of police—the position the chief of police has taken—would justifiably be worried that the chief is going to direct resources of the police to enforcing the law in an unfair way in their direction. The standard is for judges—for anyone involved in law enforcement including the police—is you can’t even have the appearance of bias, let alone actual bias.”
He said that the concerns expressed by other community advocates around the chilling effect of the RNC signing a letter of this nature are legitimate.
“Sure. Yes. Because a claim that ‘we’re having difficulty working together’ in a letter like that can often be a disguise for the real claim which is that ‘we don’t like your stance on certain issues.’ And so if the police chief is lining up with people who take a certain stance on those issues in the province, then anyone who holds a different view would have reason to worry that they may be targeted for their political views,” Conacher explains. “And in law enforcement, those decisions are not supposed to be made on the basis of someone’s political views, they’re supposed to be made on the basis of whether the evidence shows that they violated the law. And that’s it. That’s all.”
Conacher did note one distinction between PACSW endorsing or organizing a letter of this nature, and the police signing on to it. Unlike the police, PACSW is a political body.
“It’s not improper for [PACSW] to be taking a stand on issues because they are a government body and the government takes stands on issues, but why they would think that the chief of police should be involved in something that’s not a matter of law enforcement, I don’t understand,” Conacher concedes.
“I think it was inappropriate for them to be inviting the chief of police to that meeting, let alone asking the chief of police to sign on to something. But it really does fall to the chief of police to say, I can come to a meeting and hear concerns, but I can’t sign on to a letter advocating to change a private organization that hasn’t broken the law.”
Many questions remain. As to whatever subsequent meetings happened between RNC, PACSW and SJSWC Board of Directors, and what sort of an “investigation” took place at the instigation of the letter, no one will comment. But three months later, Wright left the advocacy group for which she had worked for the past five years.
What is clear is that both PACSW and the RNC played a direct and active role in the complaint letter to Wright’s employer, and that this raises profound questions around the appropriateness of such activity for government and police vis-a-vis community activists.
The Independent approached the RNC for comment on this story, but were informed they “will not be commenting on this matter.” Ross, who was President of PACSW during the events recounted in this article, left PACSW in January of 2019, and was appointed Deputy Minister with the Women’s Policy Office. Both Ross and the SJSWC Board of Directors were approached for comment, but neither responded to requests.
Wright would not comment on what happened at SJSWC between the letter’s receipt and her decision to leave the organization. But with the letter now in the public domain, she was willing to share her feelings about the letter itself.
While she had heard rumours that the letter was being coordinated, receiving it nonetheless had a powerful impact.
“It was pretty awful. It was not pleasant at all. When I first read the letter I spent a lot of time in accountability mode, where I spoke to people who did similar work to me, who were close enough to me that they could honestly say to me: ‘yes you need to deal with this,’ or ‘this is an issue’ or ‘you need to take accountability.’ So I spent that time in deep accountability, because I think that everybody needs to do that,” Wright explains to the Independent.
“But instead every one of them was like: ‘this is so not okay, this is so harmful.’ You could feel people who did similar work have a reaction to it, and to what happens when the police and state and community come at you at this level, what the full ramifications of that means.”
“You go through a whole bunch of emotions—of anger, a real sense of injustice, a real sense of sadness,” she continues. “There isn’t one emotion that goes through all of that. But what was important to me was that it wasn’t from the people that I work with every day in the trenches. It wasn’t fellow front line workers or leaders who are in the arena doing the work every day, and it wasn’t members of the community that I worked really hard to serve.”
Wright feels the letter was an effort to silence her.
“It wasn’t about accountability, it was about punishing. It was punitive in nature, and it was about shutting me up,” she declares. “Government and police were punishing me for pushing against the status quo, which is my job, my mandate, and it continues to be—speaking truth to power in a very loud and effective way. They wanted me silenced, and quieted down.”
“I know police and state were angry and continue to be angry on my position about the horrible state of gender equality in this province,” she concludes. “I had no intention on being quiet about that, and they don’t like that. And I chose, and I continue to choose, that my feminism isn’t about aligning with power. My feminism is about dismantling the institutions that oppress women and families and communities. And especially marginalized folks. And that’s really inconvenient.”
Lean In, or Stand Out?
Wright feels the letter reveals a divide in the feminist community about whether advocacy groups can be effective when they align themselves closely with government.
“Many organizations, community-based organizations, feminist organizations, think they’ve made it when they are friendly or aligned with government and state. When they’re at proclamations. When they’re shaking hands. When they’re getting credit from police and state,” Wright explains. “This is the worst part about capital-w white feminism. We see ‘making it’ as no longer being digging-in-the-dirt grassroots, trying to be heard. Instead we see it as saying ‘I can have lunch with the Minister of Justice.’ And what happens when you do that is you forget that the people that you serve—the women who have experienced violence from the police, of which there are many, or from the government—are watching what you’re doing. And that trust is broken. They know that you’re not going to be there and continue to smash down the systems that are harming them if you have a meeting with somebody in the government.
“They’re the ones that are harmed by the state, you’re the voice to bust that down with their guidance. And when you forget that role, you do so much harm.
“As activists, who are we learning from now? Indigenous and racialized women that are starting grassroots movements that are receiving no money from the government. No accolades from the police. They’re the ones that can continue to speak truth to power in a really positive way and therefore spur change,” she continues. “But the minute you engage in this non-profit industrial complex you just become part of a system that is continuing to marginalize women. You can pretend you’re not, but you are. And this is a stance that doesn’t make you a positive friend at the table, either with government, police, or some community groups.”
Sheppard-Thibeau, ED of the Corner Brook Status of Women Council, concurs with the importance of community advocacy groups maintaining clear boundaries with government. But she also acknowledges the difficulty of doing this in practice.
“I think it’s always a balancing act,” Sheppard-Thibeau tells the Independent. “We also have to understand that government is also our primary funder. So we also walk that line: if we speak out too loudly, will we have funds removed? What does that mean for the continuation of our services to those that really need it? So I think we’re constantly trying to balance that line.”
“Sometimes it is about picking your battles or trying to find allies that can help bolster your claim,” she concludes. “But also I think it’s about having some really honest and frank discussions about what your roles sometimes are, and understanding that sometimes you have to agree to disagree.”
“This History is Fierce”
Wright says concerns like those expressed by Kennedy about the chilling effect of the letter are serious, and that such fears can impede equality work in the province. She cited other examples of outspoken women being fired or pressured to leave their jobs as a result of their comments on social media or in the press.
“It does silence. This is a small community, and for people that want to live and work here and be activists here the whole time, you don’t want to think: if I push it, if I do the wrong tweet I’ll suddenly be profiled by the police,” she confesses. “I’m super worried about some of the really young, fantastic women that are here in town, really out there pushing the barriers, speaking truth to power, they’re organizing, they’re activists whether it’s through unions or social justice groups, they’re already receiving a huge amount of backlash from the community and now they have to be wary—and I want them to be wary—that the institutions supposedly in place to protect them and keep them safe in fact are not going to do that.
“I’m worried about young activists coming up, which then makes me really concerned,” Wright continues. “How far does this surveillance by police and the state push back any movement on gender equality in this province? I’m telling you it’s going to be decades.”
Wright has taken on a new role as Executive Director of the Midwifery Regulatory Council of Nova Scotia. She has also started a private practice with a colleague, The Landing, and will continue working between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. (“The future is bright. I’m still here, still loud,” she says.)
Despite the difficulties of recent months, she looks back proudly on her work with SJSWC.
“There is such a beauty and responsibility in sitting in that [executive director] chair. That’s fifty years of feminist history. You carry the weight of it,” Wright reminisces. “The documents in the building, everything from them storming the secretary of state’s office to the early workshops they were doing for queer couples in the early 80s here, and how to have a divorce, and major legislative changes they did. To me I always honour that in a profound way, having had a chance to sit in that seat of history.”
“Newfoundland women have such a rich history of kicking ass and getting shit done. Whether as part of an organization or outside of it, this history is fierce.”
Photo: “RNC Public Order Unit” from gornc.ca.
Newfoundland and Labrador is a small province, and can become smaller for those who go against the grain. Following editorial assessment in each case, the Independent guarantees anonymity for those who require it.
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