What it’s like to be a woman in St. Catharines



The US federal election had promised to be a major milestone in politics for women, with a female candidate, Hillary Clinton, seeming to be the obvious choice at least as far spectators outside of the country thought. Her dreams of ‘shattering the glass ceiling’ were not reached. Though she won the popular vote, the American Electoral College goes by state votes, rather than overall popularity and Republican candidate Donald Trump was elected instead. His platform included hate-speech, attacks on women and threats to long-standing abortion laws. In her concession speech, Clinton spoke about American values of freedom and equality, saying that while Americans should support their new president and give him a chance, they should not forget what makes the country what it is.

“To all the little girls who are watching this,” said Clinton, to a crowd of supporters holding back tears, “Never doubt that you are valuable, and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”

Since the election, American women have rushed out to get longer-lasting forms of birth control, such as the IUD, in fear that they won’t have access in the future. Protests have clogged the street of New York. Women say they do not feel secure. North of the border, Canadian women are feeling the impact the election has had on our neighbours.

Kate McIntruff, Ph.D is a Senior Researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the author of the Centre’s report The Best and Worst Places to be a Woman in Canada 2016; The Gender Gap in Canada’s 25 Biggest Cities. These cities encompass 67 per cent of the Canadian population. The study includes looks at issues important to women including economic security, leadership and representation, educational attainment, health, and personal security. St. Catharines was ranked 19th.

When it comes to political matters, women in Canada are underrepresented. The highest ranking city included in the report was Abbotsford, British Columbia, with 44 per cent representation in local government for women. According to the report, there are zero cities in Canada in which men and women are equally represented. This is the statistic that costs St. Catharines the most in overall ranking. Just 13 per cent, or two out of 13, of city councillors are women.

“They have only slightly better representation among regional municipalities,” says McIntruff in her report. The rest of the Niagara region boasts 20 per cent representation in local government.

In the business world, women still find it difficult to get where they want to be, though some cities are faring better than others. Women now make up 48 per cent of the workforce in Canada. Despite this, in St. Catharines, women make up on 33 per cent of senior management positions. Kingston, Ontario, which ranked the highest for women in the workforce, still has only 43 per cent of senior management positions belonging to women.

When it comes to the number of women with full time employment, St. Catharines and Niagara ranked the lowest of any of the 25 cities, with only 36 per cent of women in the area holding full-time employment. In the St. Catharines-Niagara Region the gender gap for employment levels is actually smaller than the national average. In general, employment levels are low for everyone in the region. Statistics Canada sets the unemployment rate in the region at 8.3 per cent, making it the second highest in Ontario and the fifth highest in Canada as a whole.

The wage gap, which is the difference between what men and women in similar positions earn, is smaller in the Niagara region,however people here earn less money on average than people in the rest of the country. According to McIntruff’s report, women earn about 75 per cent of men’s wages. 15 per cent of women in the city live below the poverty line, versus nine per cent of men, a gap slightly higher than the national average.

The study also looked at the personal safety of women in each city. Violent crime rates have gone down in Canada, but rates of sexual violence, says McIntruff, have held steady for the last 20 years. This means that while cases of assault in general are lower as the population of Canada increases, there is actually the same percentage of violent sexual crimes across the country. More than 500,000 women in Canada have been sexually assaulted in the last five years.

McIntruff says it is estimated that the annual cost of sexual assault and intimate partner violence in Canada is $12 billion. The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, an American organization aimed at stopping sexual violence throughout the country, explains this cost in a number of ways.

“Sexual violence survivors experience reduced income in adulthood as a result of victimization in adolescence,” says the alliance on their website. “Sexual abuse interferes with women’s ability to work. Fifty percent of sexual violence victims had to quit or were forced to leave their jobs in the year following their assaults due to the severity of their reactions.” Despite this cost to women, Federal government spending on the issue caps out around $200 million.

“We need to do more than advise young women to lean in,” says McIntruff. “We need to demonstrate that they aren’t going to be threatened, harassed or assaulted when they do.”

While this report could give no specific details or statistics about violence against women in any of the 25 cities, McIntruff said it’s for good reason.

“Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in Canada. Statistics Canada estimates that only one in 10 sexual assaults are reported to the police. Domestic violence is also under-reported, with only one in five incidents reported to the police,” says McIntruff in her report. She suggests that directly surveying populations is the best way to get the real numbers, but that is not done very often. Based on the overall numbers for Canada, McIntruff estimates that there were about 7,700 sexual assaults and 13,600 incidents of intimate partner violence in St. Catharines in the last five years. This same statistic is used to calculate the numbers in all 25 cities included in the report. Therefore, when calculating this statistic into overall numbers, cities with a lower population come out looking better than cities with a higher population. In reality, the report shows all cities with the same percentage of sexual assaults and intimate partner violence. However, that might not be the case. Some cities may have higher rates, some may have lower. Because of underreporting, this estimate is likely to be much lower than the actual rates, both in the 25 cities reviewed and in Canada as a whole.

Along with the wage gap and assaults, McIntruff studied homelessness, which experts say is on the rise in the Niagara region. A report from the Canadian Homelessness Research Network in 2013 said that while the number of people using shelters across the country stayed the same between 2005 and 2009, the average length of an individual’s stay had increased. The Shoebox project, a charitable organization that collects and distributes shoeboxes full of gifts to women who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness in communities across Canada and the US., was founded by Caroline, Jessica, Vanessa and Katy Mulroney in 2011, says that homelessness in Niagara has increased by 130 per cent in the last 5 years and that over 6000 families were on St. Catharines’ affordable housing waitlist.

Deborah Swartz, the local co-coordinator for the Shoebox Project was introduced to the organization by an associate and fell in love with it.

“It helps them feel loved,” says Swartz. “It helps them feel that people are thinking about them and give them some hope and some inspiration. So often women living in shelters are being supported by outreach services, they’re in hard situations of abuse or mental health issues, and this box can mean so much to them as an act of kindness.”

Since their inception they have collected and distributed over 55,000 boxes.  There are drop-off locations all over St. Catharines says Swartz, but to get more involved people can come to the shoebox party.

“We’re running a shoebox drop-off party and we’re collecting donations as well,” says Swartz.  Examples of products for the boxes, she says, include toothpaste, fuzzy socks, nail polish, skin creams, “Anything you think a woman would say ‘wow this is so nice!’”

The party is from 12 to 2 on Sunday Dec. 11 in the community room at the Real Canadian Superstore on Louth Street in St. Catharines. The Project will be accepting completed, unsealed boxes and donations. Last year the project brought in over 400 completed boxes at the party and Swartz says this year’s goal is even higher at 500 boxes.

The reality is that although the project is making great strides and helping a lot of women in the region, they can’t help everyone.  “I thought to myself ‘surely we don’t have 500 homeless women in St. Catharines for Christmas,” said Swartz, “but Gillian’s place supports over 2000 women per year.” Gillian’s place is a local shelter for abused women and children and only one of many places the Shoebox Project aims to help. “We’re just putting a dent in the number of women that are in need.”

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report paints a rather bleak picture of St. Catharines and the surrounding Niagara region. Local business owner Sarah Jarvis of Craft Arts Market says it’s not all doom and gloom. Jarvis moved to the Niagara region 10 years ago, and felt she had to go back to Toronto for a while.

“I wanted to find some inspiration to bring back to the sort of culturally dead downtown,” she said. “I went back to Toronto for a year and a half to gather some ideas and inspiration, and came back and opened [my business]. I wanted to bring back something that we needed here.”

For Jarvis, running a business in St. Catharines has been challenging. “Starting a business for anybody here is a challenge because there’s a mix of a lot of old policies and procedures…that are slowly changing over into new ones.”

Once she got her business going though, Jarvis said it was much easier. Cutting through the red tape and contending with landlords who raise rent but have no interest in improving properties were the most difficult parts.

“I’m a big fan of community and downtown,” Jarvis says. When she first arrived, before the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre and Brock University’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing arts were opened, Jarvis says there wasn’t a lot of culture in the city.

“Hamilton was [like] St. Catharines [is now].They’ve come a long way,” says Jarvis of St. Catharines’ neighbour city that is successfully making the transition from being an old steel town to a haven for creative people of all varieties. Hamilton, still in transition, ranked 13th in the study, right in the middle of the pack when it comes to quality of life for women.

“It’s only been a few years. They’ve worked really hard at [improving] their downtown. Because it became so expensive to live in Toronto a lot of people moved to Hamilton, a lot of the artists [for example]. Artists are always famous for bringing life to the areas that no one cares about, the cheap areas. You bring artists to a downtown and it’s known that they bring it to life.” Jarvis says that is the path St. Catharines is on now, building a downtown focused on community, art and staying local.

“There’s still that gentlemen’s club here, when you look at who is really running the city,” she says. “But we have a really great mayor, he’s young and he’s really trying to make an effort to change that old style of thinking, and that’s great. It’s promising and it’s what we’ve wanted.” Adding more women to the decision making process though, says Jarvis, will help make decisions more effective and get things done.

“I think in ten years [St. Catharines] will be a whole different city. I think there will be a lot of people retiring soon and leaving vacancies open to younger people who see things differently,” she says. “When you look at who we have right now running our city, they just don’t have that in them. They’re not approaching it in the same sort of urbanized, modern way.”

When young people come to power in the city, Jarvis says things will be different. That upswing in culture in the downtown core will improve things across the board. She says environmental awareness, sustainability, and accessibility will be improved in the whole city.

“There’s a lot of extremely powerful, brilliant women in St. Catharines,” says Jarvis. “I’m starting to know more women entrepreneurs than there are men. The women of St. Catharines are the ones that are really taking the risks and getting things done…Once women here can get into some powerful positions where we can make significant changes, a new generation of people in general, will make the right changes.”

Gillian Kemp, Relationship Manager at the Goodman School of Business at Brock University, agrees, pointing to millennials as a hope for the future.

“You’ve got to fight to change the culture,” Kemp says. “[Young people] want to make a difference in the world, they want a work-life balance, and they don’t believe those things are mutually exclusive….but it’s still such a long way out.”

Kemp was a single mom of four when she came to Brock for her MBA, where she said she didn’t notice a difference in the way men and women were treated.

“The playing field isn’t level yet,” Kemp says. “Men don’t seem to have to hold the responsibility for the family that women do….I do feel frustrated for women who are trying to move ahead and are hitting those barriers.” Kemp says if she finds a wall, she doesn’t stop to break it down, she finds another way around. Young people, though, should not accept the same standards of living that previous generations did.

“I’ve seen a number of strong young women entrepreneurs,” she says. “I think there’s been a culture shift…They may not create big businesses, but they are employing other people and adding to the economic impact in the region. They’re making a life for themselves that suits what they want.”

Things are changing for women, but with the results of last week’s US presidential election the world has entered a new era. McIntruff’s report shows that the status of women is in no way secure in Canada or the United States.

“We can tell our daughters it’s a new world,” writes McIntruff, “but they have eyes. And this is what they see.”

For more information on The Shoebox Project St. Catharines, how you can contribute, and where you can drop off your donation, visit http://www.shoeboxproject.com/st-catharines.html or follow them on

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