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Government and RNC organized letter to board of directors, says former executive director of St. John’s Status of Women Council
Jenny Wright, the former executive director of the St. John’s Status of Women Council, says government and the police colluded to pressure her to leave her position.
Last week, the Independent reported that Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Joe Boland and Linda Ross, the former CEO of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, spearheaded efforts to write a letter to the board of directors of the St. John’s Status of Women Council (SJSWC) with concerns about Wright’s leadership position.
The letter was signed by Boland and Ross, along with representatives from eight community organizations expressing their frustration with Wright’s advocacy work.
The letter was sent to the SJSWC in November 2018. Wright resigned as executive director of the council in March.
Wright says the letter in question was not the sole reason she left the SJSWC, but it was a factor.
“It makes it very difficult to continue to do the work that you’re doing, when you have high-ranking people in government and police pushing back,” she said.
“I was aware of it since back in November. It did play a role, about how frustrating it is trying to do any work, of doing any work in the landscape of what is St. John’s right now and how the police and government are literally colluding to push back against activists. It was time to think, where can I do my best work? Where can I be of best use?”
Not long after leaving her position with the council, Wright moved to Halifax to become executive director of the midwifery council of Nova Scotia. She has also co-founded The Landing in St. John’s, a counselling and training centre to support vulnerable people in the workplace.
Wright says she believes a differing stance on the rights of sex workers is at the core of the divide that led to her leaving her position.
“The feminist movement as a push for gender equality has always been divisive. Many of us cannot agree what gender equality looks like, nor can we agree on the path to get there. The inclusion of trans women and the inclusion of sex worker rights are the two hot points in feminism, in the community, and in the state that divides,” said Wright.
“So, yes, it’s definitely informed by that. I’ve always taken a stance that sex workers have a right to all of the services, to all their human rights, to live without stigma, to live with labour rights. And that’s never going to change.”
Linda Ross was one of the signatories of the letter when she was CEO of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women (PACSW). The article in the Independent outlines her close involvement in the idea to write the letter in the first place, along with Boland.
An access to information request from the Independent cites an exchange between Boland and a woman presumed to be Ross, responding to an article posted by VOCM that appeared to give positive coverage for Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), which provides support for sex workers.
The following is an excerpt of that portion of the article.
““Talk about glorifying the ‘work’: What message does this send to an impressionable young girl wanting to have spending money!!” (Ross) 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.”
The Telegram attempted to contact Ross for comment starting on Wednesday and placed more than a dozen calls to her office in three days.
On Wednesday, both Ross and Status of Women Minister Carol Anne Haley left a funding announcement for Thrive – another group that signed the letter to pressure Wright – without taking any questions from reporters.
Instead of the requested interview, The Telegram was provided with a written response attributed to Haley.
“It is our understanding that the letter and meeting in question involved representatives from a number of community organizations, which included the former head of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women,” reads the statement.
“Given Ms. Ross no longer occupies that position, and is in fact a deputy minister with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, it is not appropriate for her to comment on this matter in her current capacity.”
The statement also says the provincial government had nothing to do with Wright’s departure, despite PACSW being established by the provincial government in 1980 and governed by the Status of Women Advisory Council Act, with the board reporting directly to Haley.
As of yet, Ross has not agreed to an interview. Boland will hold a news conference with reporters on Wednesday.
Laura Winters, the current executive director of the SJSWC, says she is seeking a meeting with Boland to discuss her concerns. She said the SJSWC is concerned about the attitudes of the signatories toward SHOP.
“The specific targeting of the SHOP program has led to feelings of vulnerability here. It’s caused deep harm within the community. In many ways, the statements made within that article by government representatives really devalue the exceptional work of SHOP,” she said.
“They also further stigmatized sex-working women, women engaged in the sex industry, and survivors of exploitation — those that SHOP serves. They really went counter to the pillars of our shared goals around anti-oppression work, harm reduction work. Those goals we thought we shared.”
Winters said that of all the women’s advocacy groups providing programs and services to women in this province, SHOP is the only that has not received continued, sustained funding from the provincial government.
Paula Sheppard Thibeau, executive director of the Corner Brook Status of Women Council and head of the Provincial Action Network on the Status of Women (PANSOW), says she’s worried that any of the nine groups represented by PANSOW could have just as easily been targeted by those in power.
“This could have been any of us, as executive directors and activists across this province. These actions are quite concerning and we need to know that there is a renewed commitment that this will not continue to occur,” she said.
Thibeau says there’s no reason Wright should have been targeted for her views on sex work.
“The actions that were undertaken by Jenny were well within her job description and were not illegal in any sense,” she said.
“(It’s concerning) to see a police force and a government department or agency collaborated to bring people together to send a letter to her employer, basically asking for her to be removed from her position.”
As for whether the chief of police of the RNC has any business determining who the executive director of the St. John’s Status of Women’s Council is, Wright said, “Absolutely not. The role of the police, their mandate, their sole mandate and their sole legislation, is to uphold the Criminal Code. Their advocacy work should be around policing, policing budgets. It has absolutely nothing to do with what community groups are doing, or specifically the head of one community group. It’s dangerous.”