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420 & Harm Reduction

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In the spirit of 420, and the recent focus on the decriminalization of marijuana, talking about harm reduction: what it means and why we believe in it seems like a good idea.

To start, harm reduction can be described “as a strategy directed toward individuals or groups that aims to reduce the harms associated with certain behaviours”. It’s simply a set of practical strategies and ideas that are aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with harm. It’s humane, realistic and a proven approach to addressing issues of substance abuse. Some examples of harm reduction are:

  • Free condoms;
  • Needle-exchange programs;
  • Designated driver programs;
  • Bans on smoking in public places to reduce exposure to second-hand smoke;
  • Access to and use of methadone and supervised injection sites.

Harm reduction is important to us because when we view substance use as a response to violence and abuse, it shifts the approach from focusing on substance use as a problem to seeing substance use as a woman’s harm reduction strategy. In our experience, we know women have learned to adapt to experiences of abuse and violence in order to survive, escape and cope. Some women have shared that they would use substances to avoid feeling the physical and emotional pain of being harmed by a partner.

For us, we know that in women’s shelters, for example, substance use among women has been estimated to range from 33 per cent to 86 per cent and approximately two-thirds of women accessing anti-violence services report that they began their problematic substance use following experiences of violence in their relationships. Most research indicates that substance use is disproportionately high among people experiencing homelessness and those that are using substances are more likely to face housing instability.

So imagine trying to tell someone who is experiencing homelessness or has experienced violence, along with the significant instability that comes with both, the only way they can get housing is by being sober, but to cope with the trauma they’ve experienced they use substances. It seems wholly unfair to demand angelic behaviour while knowing the challenging situations a person faces every day.

When we support vulnerable women without the requirement of being sober to access services, we know we take steps in support women as they need our support. We ensure their safety first, and if they chose, we support them with their substance use.

Harm reduction gives vulnerable women the chance to survive and the possibility of a bright future by meeting them where they are and as they need. Engaging in harm reduction principles actually allows us to keep our communities safer and our citizens healthier. The proof is in the pudding.

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Calling for a #SafeRedMile

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It’s been two years since the Calgary Flames clinched a playoff position and we are so excited to cheer them on against the Anaheim Ducks! People are bustling with joy and bringing a new energy and excitement to the city. As we gear up to cheer on the Flames tonight, we also want to cheer for a #SafeRedMile for all of our city’s hockey fans.

#SafeRedMile began as a hashtag from women in Calgary who were frustrated with the harassment they saw during the Red Mile celebrations in 2015 and in 2004. It was initially a callout to people saying “If you see any problems with sexual harassment along the Red Mile, tweet about it and include the mayor in the conversation.” The campaign took off from there and included the Calgary Flames calling for a respectful behaviour from their fans stating ‘if you support the Flames, you don’t support harassment.’

Through great grassroots efforts by committed women, we’ve seen the #SafeRedMile trend move from playoff hockey to the Calgary Stampede with the introduction of #SafeStampede as a means of reminding everyone that we all deserve to celebrate without fear of harassment. We want to see this kind of support throughout the Flames playoff run where we come together as a community and say no to all harassment.

Women and girls are most often the targets of sexual harassment from rude jokes, sexual remarks, cat-calling, whistling or forced sexual contact. Women shouldn’t have to choose between cheering for the Flames and feeling safe in their community.

We respect each woman’s right to determine how she wishes to celebrate, dress and show her body, we vigorously object to demeaning, exploitive behaviours aimed at coercing more from women than they’re prepared to share.

This year, let’s promote respectful, harassment-free behaviour from all the Calgary Flames fans. Let’s make sure we watch out for each other and act in the best interests of ourselves, our sisters, friends and daughters.

Good referees call the offsides.

If you or anyone you know has been impacted by sexual violence please call Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse support and information line at 403-237-5888 (Toll-Free at 1-877-237-5888).

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Alberta receives C, but is that fair?

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It’s that time of year where report cards are out, and we’re all taking notice. Today’s report card focuses on the strengths and weaknesses in the socio-economic performance of Canada and its provinces and territories. Alberta received a C, but that grade doesn’t speak to the overall socio-economic health of our province and of its inhabitants. Those living in Alberta who are women, ethnically diverse or a person with a disability have a much poorer showing on their quality of life scorecards than their Caucasian male counterparts.

The How Canada Performs: A Report Card on Canada pointed out the depressing reality of Alberta’s gender wage gap, 24.6 per cent, which was the third-highest gender age gap among all 26 regions in the report. It needs to be pointed out that the report only identifies a few measures on wage discrepancy, but fails to account for the whole story. The wage gap is exacerbated by the resource sector with many high paid, male-dominated careers, labour force participation from mothers is sensitive to accessible and affordable childcare and the devaluing of domestic jobs which women are primarily responsible for.

A different report from Parkland Institute in 2016 calculates the gender income gap for women and men working full-time, full-year as closer to 41 per cent which means that women on average make $31,100 less than men. Women make 41 per cent less than men on top of working a ‘double day’ when you consider the domestic duties and caregiving that occur in addition to a career. Those domestic duties, often known as ‘women’s work,’ equal to about 35 hours of unpaid work weekly. Compare that to the men who only bear about 17 hours for the same work.

All in all, it seems like a ‘D’ for Alberta on the gender wage gap might even be too high. There is a clear argument that Alberta is failing women who want equal pay for equal work.

Moving onto another bone of contention on the ‘A’ grade Alberta received for its poverty work. To start, sure, Alberta has a low percentage of our total population that lives in poverty, but that completely overshadows the living costs in the province which are so dependent on the resource sector. Calgary, in particular, is known for its high housing costs when the resource sector is booming and how unaffordable the city becomes with high wage earners driving rent sky high.

In case you’re not convinced, let’s look at the facts from Enough for All Calgary:

  • In Calgary about 1 in 10 people live in poverty
  • 1 in 5 Calgarians are concerned about not having enough money for food
  • 1 in 3 Calgarians are concerned about not having enough money for housing
  • 48 per cent of Canadians would struggle to pay their bills if their paycheck was delayed by a week.

These statistics paint a fuller picture of poverty in Alberta. We also know that when women live in poverty, so do their children and when we talk about poverty, the gender wage gap and our ‘score’ we need to speak honestly and represent the facts.

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A Culture of Check Boxes: Immigration

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This week we are featuring a blog on intersectionality and privilege as it relates to the immigrant experience in a country as diverse as Canada. The blog comes from one of YW’s team members who had the opportunity to present on this very topic, entitled “Immigrant, minority, developing country, racialized minority: The fallacy and reality”. We are thrilled to share her perspective and thoughts. Enjoy!

Not another Box Please!

The past three and a half years as an immigrant have been a great experience of understanding, learning and appreciating this new beautiful land and culture where I choose to migrate. I was often told before immigrating to Canada about its incredible diversity. I have been witness to diversity at its maximum, to the extent that I have never experienced before. On the flip side, there is an ongoing experience of being viewed stereotypically and being placed into a box.

“Indian woman”

“Doesn’t understand English”

“Has an accent”

“From a developing country”

These stereotypes, as stereotypes go, are based on a lack of knowledge along with Western media, ideas, perspectives and a sense of superiority in how the Western world’s views the developing world without recognizing its own privilege. I have felt viewed as someone from the 1960’s and being put under the very subtle, but constant pressure of having to prove myself as equal.

However, what I would like to invite you all to reflect on is whether Calgary and Edmonton are the same? Or Alberta and British Columbia? While we know these cities are in the same province and the provinces are in the same country, we also know that they are each still so diverse and unique in nature. Similarly, I encourage each one of you to apply this law of diversity to each immigrant that you meet. Each of us are so diverse and different in form, colour, culture, religion, values, education, work experience and life experiences.

Now the question “how are we supposed to know what diversity each person we meet hold individually?” Clearly this is not something we can do within reason. What we can do is to stop ourselves and check whether we are putting people into several boxes that they may not belong in. Boxes that we are attribute to a person we don’t know that try to define who they are based on what we are comfortable with.

Instead, let’s ask and learn more about their background, try and answer the questions we don’t know. Let’s embrace the individuality of each person instead of labelling and judging them at every turn.

In our work, in our home life and outside of the country we need to refrain from labelling and judging those we meet along our journey. During my stay in Canada I have learnt and realised that diversity is beautiful and enriching. My ability to understand and appreciate different cultures has increased folds.

It is my humble opinion that nurturing the skill of understanding and appreciating diversity is an indispensable life skill in Canada, which would essentially add to the quality of life of those involved.  All it takes is the conscious effort to genuinely connect to an individual. They may be diverse and different from who you are but I suspect you’ll learn that we are all similar in the need to be treated as equals. Let’s open up our hearts and minds and find common ground amongst the rich diversity we share.      

Anne Sureshkumar

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Think Big! Lead Now!: Recapping a weekend in Ontario

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“’No’ is a complete sentence.”

“Your daughter is going to face violence if she shows who she is.”

“Who you are makes a difference, all you need to do is show up.”

These are some of the powerful words that YWCA Canada Think Big! Lead Now! Delegates heard over their three-day leadership conference in the beautiful town of Muskoka, ON. Travelling an hour and a half north of Toronto to a beautiful lakeside community, more than 140 delegates from across Canada gathered to celebrate the incredible accomplishments of women and learn what leadership means to them. YW Calgary was thrilled to have three team members accepted as delegates from two different department areas: marketing and communications along with shelter and housing.

Before a 7 a.m. flight, all of the delegates were bleary eyed, excited but not knowing what to expect. We were excited to go east but had no idea what to expect. One of the YW attendees talked about going into “this conference with little expectations” because her experience was that trainings are often filled with basic information that minimally impact her work. Another delegate talked about simply being excited to “meet other young women from around the country who have similar interests”. Seemingly, the theme among us was nervous anticipation before we touched down in Toronto.

The summit itself ran like a well-oiled machine filled with a level of expertise from the speakers that resonated with each young woman in similar, yet different ways. We found inspiration in the powerful, poetic words from Zoey Roy; some of us found a connection with women leaders spearheading projects in their communities. A project that stood one of us was a “letters for survivor’s project”. The project asked people to write anonymous letters to survivors of sexual assault and post them in public spaces for people to read. The letters hope to provide support for survivors who may not have had support when they needed it most.

There was also much conversation about the way the world makes women compete with one another and brings out each and every one of our insecurities. We are told and taught to feel insecure and hate the powerful, accomplished and intelligent women who stand next to us. We are programmed to rank and compete instead of embracing and befriending these other women. One of the most powerful lessons I took from the conference was “I don’t shine if you don’t shine” in our relationships with other women. Let’s celebrate each other’s accomplishments and lift each other up.

While the conference was marketed about building leadership, the most inspiring acts of leadership came from young women who used their voices in ways they may not have before. From sharing hilarious stories self-grooming gone wrong, to powerful feminist manifestos and letters of self-love, the young women embodied being brave, bold and inspiring women.

If you have a daughter, a sister, a friend, a cousin or a woman in your life that would be interested in learning more about leadership, share Think Big! Lead Now! With them. They will learn what it means to be a leader their way while hanging out with some of Canada’s future leaders.

The future is female.


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Working to Make Life Better: Budget 2017

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Brace yourself, we’re about to talk budgets.

In case you had accidentally stuck your head in the sand to avoid hearing about the ‘out of control spending’ or the ‘soaring debt’ some media outlets reported, Budget 2017 dropped yesterday. Most criticism coming from individuals, think-tanks and other interested parties in Alberta tends to focus on balanced budgets, the bottom line and short term thinking instead of long term success and support of those who need it most.

“Working to Make Life Better” is being positioned as a shock absorber budget: focused on maintaining public services and investing in infrastructure. Budget 2017 arrives as Alberta enters Year 3 of this economic downtown which has greatly impacted individuals, families, government and nonprofits, including YW Calgary.

A “no surprises” document, Budget 2017 maintained funding support for social services which aid some of Alberta’s most vulnerable. Women fleeing abuse and homelessness rely on shelters, counselling programs and parenting supports offered by the YW and our partners to start moving forward in their lives.

We are relieved government has upheld its commitment to supporting Albertan’s access to these vital social and living supports.

And while “holding the line” is critical (and praiseworthy) we’ll continue to advocate with our funders and donors for the resources necessary to support women in need more intensively, with the right help at the right time. The needs of vulnerable people are great. We’ll also continue to remind our Government partners where their funding commitments fall short of the true cost of providing such help.

The rightly celebrated Alberta Child Benefit also stuck in this budget and is of direct benefit to many mothers and families we work with providing up to $2,785 annually per household and support nearly 200,000 children.

But children aren’t poor alone so we’ll keep up our lobbying for increases to government benefits such as Income Support. Budget 2017 marks five straight years where the monthly benefit available to individuals who are temporarily not working or unable to work has been stuck at $627. Think of the costs for basic needs which have changed since 2012 and how far $600 bucks could go. It’s woefully inadequate and results in people – more than 50,000 in January – being trapped in indignity.

Nothing has changed, the day after the budget, for women and families who need temporary support from their neighbours (that’s us, fellow Albertans) and our leaders. People who are poor matter and this budget could not (and did not) turn its back on their needs.

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100 Years of International Women’s Day

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“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made… It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

#BeBoldforChange. Being bold is not new to the many women and men who work at YW Calgary, but bold was the theme from YW’s 4th annual International Women’s Day event, CELEBRATE. Being bold and being outspoken is easy when you know that in Calgary women make 68 per cent less than men in similar roles, when we know that Calgary has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Canada, when we know that women only make up 26 per cent of leadership positions in the House of Commons and when we know that women disproportionately face threats of violence and harassment online. Despite the many accomplishments and strides women have made in the last 100 years, there continues to be a need for loud and bold voices ready to challenge the norm.

At YW’s CELEBRATE, being bold was also a common theme throughout, with many YW team members showing solidarity for A Day without Woman by wearing the colour red. CELEBRATE saw women and men from across Calgary, Alberta and Canada join YW at The Bow to honour the many inspiring women in our lives, the work that has been done and acknowledge the work ahead.

The formal part of the event demonstrated the fearless leadership YW has at its helm through Rebecca Morley’s, YW board chair, introduction of Her Honour Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell as a bold advocate of change. Her Honour, then took time to talk about the women who have inspired her to be bold in her life. Her Honour spoke about her aunt who never had much money, but would always give as much as she could to support those in need. Her Honour spoke about the importance of giving as much as possible whether it’s time, money or vocal support and its ability to truly affect change. The formal portion of the event ended with YW CEO Sue Tomney challenging the crowd of supporters to be unafraid in using their voices to challenge the status quo.

Today, tomorrow and the day after that, we remain steadfast in our mission to support women thriving in safe and equitable communities where they have choices, are economically secure and free from violence. It is easy to be discouraged when turning on the news, or listening to the radio, or browsing social media and bearing witness to the vitriol and hate that continues to target women. It is easy to be discouraged, but resist and continue to resist. When we stand together, use our voices loudly to advocate for change and challenge the status quo, we can affect change. Every day we choose to lift the most vulnerable populations up, we resist. Every time we click with compassion, we resist. Each time we choose to support an organization with time or money, we resist.

We want to thank our supporters for their time, energy and boldness in attending CELEBRATE. We also want to thank Hillberg & Berk, Blink Restaurant, RnR Wellness, Azuridge Estate Hotel, Highlander Wine and Spirits and for their amazing donation to our raffle prize. We want to thank Neil Zeller Photography for the brilliant photos capturing the evening reception and Downtown Glam (aks Traci Zeller) for the wonderful International Women’s Day YW bracelets. Thank you to the many volunteers who helped the event run smoothly. Finally, thank you to Encana Corporation for donating their beautiful space and their support throughout the evening. We could not have done this without the generous support we received.

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The 4-1-1 on Family Access Services: Featuring Stacey Ashton

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Safe visitation is something that you don’t often know about until you need to know. Visitation and monitored-exchanges occur when there are concerns for a child’s safety, or well-being to ensure that a child can maintain contact with a parent in a safe environment. Visitation offers support to families who have been exposed to family violence or are struggling with volatile custody situations. YW Calgary, through our Family Access Services provides an opportunity for children to visit with the non-custodial parent in a safe and secure environment. We wanted to get to the meat of what visitation is, what Family Access Services does and why it’s a critical service to Calgarians, we spoke with Stacey Ashton who is the supervisor of Family Access Services and Child Support Programs.

  1. For those who don’t know, what is Family Access Services?

We recently changed the name of our Visitation Services program to Family Access Services to better reflect the services we provide.  Family Access Services provides supervised visitation to families.  Supervised visitation is contact between a parent and child that takes place in the presence of a qualified staff member who is responsible for ensuring the safety of all involved.  The service also offers monitored exchange in which staff will supervise the exchange of the child for unsupervised access visits in situations where there is conflict that might arise during the exchange.

  1. Why is it important to families in Calgary?

Services like Family Access allow children and non-custodial parents to maintain contact with each other throughout difficult family transitions.  Children deserve to have a relationship with both parents, and Family Access Services encourages this relationship by offering a safe, neutral and healthy environment for relationship building without the risk of conflict.   During times of family, transition finances can be an issue and as such program fees are determined on a sliding scale.  Fees will never be a barrier to receiving services with Family Access Services.

  1. What are the benefits of the program?

All family members will find safety, support and enjoy reduced stress and anxiety. Non-custodial parents and their children will have the opportunity to foster healthy relationships and parents do not have to have contact with one another to meet the requirements for visitation or exchange.

  1. Can you describe a little bit about what happens during a visit?

Visits are supervised by trained staff whose purpose is to facilitate a safe and positive visit between parent and child.  Staff will connect with parents to build on parenting skills and provide information and support before the visits.  Our visits are centered around building relationships through play. During a typical visit, parents and their children may play board games, participate in active play such as dress up and puppet shows, create crafts with the multitude of craft supplies available or just sit together, snuggle and read.

  1. What do you believe is the most common misconception?

One of the common misconceptions is that clients must be court ordered to utilize our services. However, we are a voluntary service meaning that as long as both parties are in agreement, they can use our services.  We also hear misconceptions about the length of our wait list.  While we do often have a wait list for our program the length of time on the list is conditional on factors such as how soon both parents contact the program to register, if there is space in the program and the schedule required.  While we cannot estimate an exact wait time due to these factors, we encourage parents on our wait list to contact us periodically to check on their status.

  1. What would you like to tell Calgarians about family access?

Family Access Services is a vital service that provides support to families during difficult family transitions.  Needing supervised visitation or monitored exchange services should not be viewed as a negative thing, rather a positive intervention required to ensure the safety of all family members while family conflict or other safety issues are ongoing.

We have attached resources if you’re interested in learning more about the Family Access Services program, click here. For more information about Family Access Monitored Exchange, click here

To contact the YW Family Access Services program, please call 403-206-2767.

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We believe survivors

We Believe You: Sexual Assault and the Justice System

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In the time it takes you to read this sentence, it’s pretty likely that a woman in Canada will be sexually assaulted and never tell police. In fact, about 460,000 women in Canada will be assaulted this year.

That figure only speaks to the number of reported sexual assaults, we know and research shows that up to 97 per cent of assaults are never reported to police. In fact, many survivors never even tell a friend of a family member. Even if a survivor reports the assault, police dismiss one in five sexual assault claims as baseless. The unfounded or baselessness of your case, often means that law enforcement simply doesn’t believe you. It can be the result of poor training, dated interviewing techniques, but it is arguably in part due to the rape culture that continues to persist. A culture that makes sexual assault and abuse normal and trivializes the experiences of survivors.

In certain scenarios, the police may not believe you, there may be judges with no criminal justice experience overseeing your case or you’ll have lawyers question your ability to recall specific events from a traumatic experience. Often this is referred to as re-victimization, where women are not believed, blamed, made to feel responsible for the assault, or subjected to callous or insensitive treatment.

However, this week, a private members bill was introduced to legislate mandatory training in sexual assault law for lawyers applying for a federally appointed judicial position. The proposed bill, Judicial Accountability through Sexual Assault Law Training Act (JUST Act) looks to require mandatory training for new judges and require the Canadian Judiciary Council to provide annual reports that detail the types of sexual assault training provided. We at YW are thrilled to see legislation that works to create a safer experience for survivors to come forward.

It’s no wonder that sexual assault survivors have lost faith in the system and lost faith in coming forward. We need to ensure our justice system, at all levels, understand the experience of survivors at every step of their journey. Last year was filled with news stories about the handling of sexual assault cases from Jian Ghomeshi, Justice Robin Camp and his questions to a survivor on why she didn’t “keep her knees together” and the more than 60 women coming forward with sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, and we need to create a system where survivors are believed.

Believing survivors is the mission of the #IBelieveYou campaign, which works to show survivors that they are not alone and that we believe them. The campaign reported that research indicated 83 per cent of Albertans would personally start by believing a survivor. This is critical because when survivors feel safe to tell their story, they’re more likely to get help and seek justice. It makes our communities healthier and safer for everyone. YW will continue to speak up and out for and with women to ensure we all live in safe and equitable communities free from violence against women.

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Change for the Sake of Change?

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To read our letter to the Office of the Ethics Commissioner, click here. To read the call to action from the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organization’s, click here.

This week, a reminder that sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone and to avoid making change for the sake of making change. The recommended changes to the Alberta Lobbyists Act from the Office of the Ethics Commissioner are just such an example. Before you close your window because the idea of reading about policy makes you want to take a long nap, let us explain.

Lobbying is communicating with government officials to explain specific interests and positions on issues to affect public policy or government decision making. At YW Calgary, we believe we have an obligation to speak up and speak out for the women with whom we work – as well as those women we hope never to meet – to affect long-term change through strong policy development.

The Alberta Lobbyists Act was first proposed in 2007 as a way of ensuring organizations who are lobbying do so in a way that is clear and responsible. The Act is intended to increase Albertan’s confidence that government is acting with integrity in their decisions.

In 2007, non-profit organizations in Alberta brought forward serious concerns about how they would be affected. The concerns led to organizations who work for general “public benefit” being exempted from the Act. This exemption recognized the fundamental difference between lobbying for policy change aimed for public benefits – like ending homelessness – and lobbying for a commercial interest. This allowed organizations like YW Calgary to continue to develop collaborative relationships with government officials to meaningfully work to the benefit of vulnerable populations.

In 2016, the Office of the Ethics Commissioner began the process of reviewing the Lobbyists Act. After asking non-profits and other interested parties to provide input, the Commissioner recommended a number of changes including that non-profit organizations (as well as charities with five or more employees) who chose to participate in public policy advocacy activities be required to register as lobbyists. This would have a devastating impact on non-profits ability to advocate for those who struggle to speak up and speak out.

These recommended changes come after input from YW Calgary, Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organization’s (CCVO), Volunteer Alberta and the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (to name a few) specifically advised against such action. The recommendations are deeply concerning and will fundamentally change non-profits relationships with public officials. When all communication outside of a written request from government is considered lobbying, it handcuffs non-profits ability to affect change at a policy level.

As well, requiring public benefit non-profits to register as lobbyists adds a completely unnecessary layer of administrative legwork from the required tracking information: quite simply creating overhead.

For example, we would be required to report any meetings with government officials within 30 days of the meeting occurring and to release plans related to intended lobbying months in advance. Such requirements – combined with the murky manner by which public policy conversations actually materialize – often adjunct to an MLA tour or a contract review meeting with a government funder – are unrealistic.

These requirements are on top of providing critical service supports – like shelter for women fleeing abuse – and the reporting required related to such contracted service provision. If the recommendations are adopted, we predict there would be a harmful chilling of advocacy work across the sector.

Boards of Directors may fear being in violation of the Act and face a minimum $25,000 first fine. Ultimately, this impacts our clients, our ability to move the needle on issues like poverty, homelessness and ending violence against women.

YW Calgary is fervently against these proposed changes. Our partners and collaborators at Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organization’s issued a call to action for all non-profits in Alberta to write their MLA, the Chair of the Standing Policy Committee on Resource Stewardship (MLA Rod Loyola) and urge them to keep the current exemption for public benefit nonprofits. Click here to read more on why we are opposed to these changes.

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