This year marks a feminist milestone: 100 years ago, women in Alberta were granted the right to vote. The local crop of International Women’s Day activities for 2016 is centred around that achievement—yet a darker cloud looms over the proceedings. Political, economic and social equality for women is still fiction in many instances: indigenous women didn’t get the right to vote until decades later in 1960; Edmonton currently has only one female city councillor; in 2015, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) rated Edmonton as one of the worst places in Canada to be a woman; compared to the national average, Edmonton women and girls experience higher rates of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation and sex trafficking; at the time of writing this article—and on the eve of International Women’s Day—Oxfam Canada and the CCPA released a new report stating that Canada’s wage gap has increased; women earn 72 percent of what men earn, compared to 74.4 percent in 2009.
Seeking inspiration in film, Michelle Brewer is hoping to incite changes that go beyond a one-day celebration.
“When I see these films, I’m reminded of how our achievements were hard-won, and I think sometimes we get forgetful of that, so these films are really great antidotes to amnesia,” she says. “Changes going forward might have to be hard-won too, and when I see the courage of these women I feel called upon.”
Brewer, a women’s rights activist and current PhD candidate in social-political philosophy at the Universität-Potsdam in Germany, is the sole organizer of the inaugural You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down film festival. The festival spans three (non-consecutive) evenings and features film screenings at Metro Cinema. It kicked off on International Women’s Day with the 2015 British film Suffragette. March 15 centres on indigenous women: attendees are encouraged to wear red in recognition of missing and murdered indigenous women, and the screening features a pair of Canadian films: Spirit of the Blue Bird (2011) and Unnatural and Accidental (2006). The final day of the festival, March 22, showcases the 2014 American documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which traces the rise of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s.
Various events also precede and follow the film screenings. March 15 will feature a curated art exhibit and music from local women artists, as well as a Q&A session after the show with the filmmakers and two local activists. The pre-show on March 22 encompasses a tabling of Edmonton organizations that promote women and girls.
A portion of the March 15 proceeds will go toward the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women; part of the March 22 proceeds will go to the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.
It’s an ambitious, packed three days—all the more impressive when you consider that Brewer put it all together on her own, though she notes that she partnered with other local women and organizations in the later days of her planning, and the response was very positive. She hopes that this festival serves as the start of a much larger movement to help make systematic, permanent changes in the health and welfare of women in Edmonton. She cites the necessity of making significant advances concerning Muslim and indigenous women in particular; regarding the latter, she notes that this year, Edmonton is expected to surpass Winnipeg as the Canadian city with the highest population of indigenous people.
“We need to take heed of that and again, because we’re an innovative city, our mayor should be making that central and making that our positive,” Brewer says. “And the most vulnerable population is indigenous women. I’m also thinking of all the Muslim women we have in Edmonton, and how we can make the city welcoming for our newcomers, because our most vulnerable is our kind of yardstick or thermometer of how we are as a society, so I think we need to think about these two groups of women.”
It can be overwhelming, Brewer admits, to consider the sheer scope of these issues and the number of smaller factors contributing to them. But because there are so many pieces to the puzzle, Brewer also notes there are, therefore, many different ways to begin addressing them.
“I also have a passion around food and body-image issues; that’s my main thing that I do,” Brewer says, mentioning that she teaches mindful eating courses throughout the city. “I hardly can talk to a woman who doesn’t feel limited about her appearance, and I feel like the macro dynamics of women’s oppression are micro dynamics of how we talk to ourselves and how we live with ourselves. If we could get over our self-criticism and our self-judgment, we would change the world. I’m hoping that seeing courageous women inspires all of us to be courageous.”
Regarding the detractors who feel threatened by, or are otherwise opposed to, feminist action (International Women’s Day’s annual round of Twitter trolls springs to mind), Brewer notes that she actually finds that resistance heartening, in a way.
“It helped me to see that the same resistances come up all the time and the same counter arguments come up all the time—and yet once we’ve made the advancements, we don’t think the counter arguments hold anymore,” she explains. “So it’s interesting to see that and think that our fear around transgender stuff, our fear around other stuff, will pass—and once it does, we forget that it was a work of intellectual labour to get to that place, of social and intellectual labour to make these achievements.”
Ultimately, Brewer extends an open invitation to anyone who wants to reach out to her about turning You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down into a larger movement.
“I’m just one person, by myself, with some really good ideas, but I think we need more ideas and enthusiasm, and action. I want to hear what we can do with this,” Brewer says. “Let’s not lose this enthusiasm. I keep thinking, we are this amazing city of visionaries and innovators, and let’s apply that here, on this topic.”
Tue, Mar 15 & Tue, Mar 22
(7 pm; pre-show at 5:30 pm)
Metro Cinema; festival pass $25 or regular Metro prices