When Susan Shiner is asked for her thoughts on receiving a Governor General’s award this week, her answer is introspective.
“It’s causing me to be very reflective on how I’ve lived my life,” she says.
Shiner has been an activist and a social worker
for much of her life. She has lived her life fighting against inequality. Women’s rights was the channel that brought her into the larger struggle of equality for all.
”A lot of what has happened in my life is because I was born with privileges that many, many, many people do not have,” she says.
Those privileges may seem small to many, but to Shiner, who seems always poignantly aware that anybody’s rights can be stripped from them, a small privilege doesn’t make it any less so.
She was nominated for the award by the St. John’s Status of Women Council.
“I believe that they nominated me because they have seen that I want to have resonance in my life and the resonance in my life is a commitment to social justice and equality for all,” Shiner says.
Shiner moved to this province in 1972 from Ontario to teach in Hawke’s Bay. In 1977 and 1978, along with three other women, Shiner organized two early folk festivals that shared music, storytelling and crafts. She travelled all over the province to invite participants to take part and also to make sure that women were strongly represented. The culture wasn’t the only thing that made an impression on her during her travels throughout the rural areas of the province. Issues of domestic violence against women also came to her attention.
“And when it came to my attention I sought shelters for the women that I met.”
An imbalance in the social structure landed directly on Shiner’s doorstep when she and her partner, Rick Page, wanted their children to have both of their surnames with a hyphen in between. Shiner was told she couldn’t — that in a married couple the child had to take the man’s name.
“I was like, ‘What business is it of anyone’s?’”
Shiner and Page made a Charter challenge. Meanwhile, her daughter Claire essentially had no name that was recognized by the government, which meant they couldn’t even get her an MCP number. Luckily, they had a doctor who agreed with their challenge and treated Claire free of charge. When they went to fill out the registration form again in 1986 for the child’s name after the provincial law had been changed, she couldn’t see a space for the woman to fill in her occupation on the form while there was a space for the man’s.
“He said there is no line on the woman’s form for occupation.,” Shiner remembers.
Inequality was alive and well.
Shiner would never be so aware of that fact perhaps than during her time working at Iris Kirby House. From 1987 to 2000, she worked as the children’s services counsellor. From the lack of jobs for women to the lack of jobs that paid enough for them to survive to issues with the court system when it came to domestic abuse cases and the police response to those case — Shriner says every day was a reminder of how much ground still had to be covered in equal rights.
“I found it absolutely essential in my work with the women and with the children at the shelter to always talk about the systemic issues in our society that supported abuse. The way society was structured kept women in abusive relationships because they lacked choice and equality,” she says.
She spoke constantly to the kids she counselled, helping to ingrain in them the idea equality was essential. Equality was right. But equality also wasn’t reality and had to be fought for.
Since 2000, she has been the family services co-ordinator at Daybreak Parent Child Centre. She still sees inequality issues on a disturbingly regular basis, although not quite with the regularity she did at Iris Kirby House. She says she doesn’t think equality is reality yet, but she sounds remarkably optimistic in her continued work towards it. The award she will receive is a Governor General’s award in commemoration of the Persons Case — the constitutional case of a group of five women which decided women were eligible to sit in the Canadian Senate.
She wants her winning of the award to reflect what’s possible.
“I want it to highlight what five women can do and as a model for what we can keep doing.”
This is a corrected version