Thoughts on the "All Our Sisters" National Conference

After the very successful "All Our Sisters" National Conference on Women and Homelessness, which was held May 9-12 in London, Ontario, author Susan Scott provided us with these thoughts on the event.

A few weeks ago I opened a fortune cookie to read the following mini homily: "Be patient; in time even an egg will walk." It didn't make much sense, but after the recent "All Our Sisters" National Conference on Women and Homelessness I'm beginning to get it.

When I wrote the book All Our Sisters: Stories of Homeless Women in Canada, I really hoped there would be instant changes not only in Canada's shelters, but also more importantly in our social system so that women and children wouldn't become homeless in the first place. Too many fairy stories involving magic wands had obviously passed under my eyes as a child.

However, after meeting a group of women in London, Ontario, I began to realize that small changes can happen. To my delight and amazement, they started to organize Canada's first homeless conference with a gendered lens and, better yet, women of experience were to be given an important voice. The opening speaker wasn't a VIP, but rather a panel of five such women ranging geographically from British Columbia to New Brunswick via the Northwest Territories and Ontario—the true experts. It was the beginning of a shortage of Kleenex supplies.

One of these women explained how she and her friends had started a women's centre and continue to run it without any government grants. The next day, Buffy Sainte-Marie echoed this sentiment telling 500 applauding women, "If it's not on the menu, go cook it yourself!"

Academics and service providers also had their say, but it was the voices of experience that rang out loudly and memorably. The women told us that they aren't heard in shelters, in the courts and at social services, and that they are treated like wilful, stupid children. "When you run out of money, you run out of your voice," said Colette Smithers of Calgary in an interview a few days later.

"I learned that the world I wanted and know can exist does exist; we built it within the four walls of the convention centre," said Katherine Brock, one of the younger presenters reflecting on the achievements of the three days. "We created a safe space for women that was without class distinctions and welcomed all emotions and experiences."

"I also learned that I have a family of women now that I can always remember when I feel displaced in this unjust world," she added.

To anyone with a voice to hear, the women's stories repeatedly illustrated how the system fails women by expecting them to jump through hoops that they don't know are being waved above their heads; by giving them just enough help to hold them down, not to lift them up; blaming and shaming them; and not recognizing and treating the trauma, which My Sisters' Place in London says affects 100 per cent of the women who use its services.

But don't be fooled: this was not a pity party.

This event was a celebration of all women and it was also a chance to identify the changes that need to occur. At least a couple of cities said they would like to hold the next conference in three years. At an individual level I think we all went home pumped to work toward a better future. "Shyness was never a problem for me," says Colette Smithers. "I intend to be more of a thorn in people’s sides."

As for that fortune cookie egg, I suddenly see a monster crack in its shell and I'm waiting in awe to see what beautiful bird will emerge.

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