Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Conversations with Senator Nancy Ruth

     It's not often I have the chance to travel to the home of a current Canadian Senator. In fact, I've only ever done it once. Needless to say, as a political junkie, it was a pretty incredible experience. Although the Honourable Nancy Ruth wasn't the first senator I had had the chance to meet, she was the first to allow me into her home to sit, and have the chance to discuss her life so far. For that, I think I'll be forever grateful. The conversation we had was powerful, and was a great start for my planned month of interviews dedicated to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning awareness.
     Only a week before meeting Senator Ruth, I had the chance to have coffee with former Canadian Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Paul Martin, who was none other than Canada's Prime Minister at the time when same-sex marriage was legalized. The topic of same-sex marriage was central to my conversation with him, too. I'll never forget a story he told me about the daughter of a close friend of his, who remained unnamed. This friends' daughter, for large aspects of her teenage life, grappled with depression and issues of self-identity. It was hard for the family, as Paul noticed, who had no idea what they could do to help. Eventually, the daughter informed her family that she was in fact gay, and the societal angst that this caused her had led to issues related to depression. Paul told me, with a sigh, just how much that story impacted his life. He asked himself "how could a government deny a young person happiness in life?"
     How could they. To me, that wasn't the question that should of been asked. To me, the question we needed to be asking was why, in the 21st century, in Canada, should children or teenagers or even adults feel the fear of being who they are, who they know themselves to be, and being with who they love? That's why I wanted to speak with Senator Nancy Ruth, and a variety of other incredible Canadians this month, a dedicated month. Senator Nancy Ruth has the distinction of being the first ever openly lesbian Canadian Senator. She's an advocate for women's rights, and the human right to love whomever you want. Here, is her story.

Senator Nancy Ruth, in the Senate Chamber.
Photo retrieved from

     Sitting down opposite Senator Ruth, she told me definitively that her sexual orientation has never effected her career. She continued by saying that if homophobia weren't still present in Canada, the distinction of being the 'first openly lesbian Senator' wouldn't be a thing. It just wouldn't matter. To me, that sort of seemed like an obvious remark, but one that I had admittedly never considered before. With that being said, Senator Ruth wanted to let me know right off that this her sexuality also wasn't a driving force in her political career. What came first was gender equality, and for her, the fight of gender quality dates back far in her life.
     Although not often, a Prime Minister will occasionally name citizens as Senators who aren't from their party, as with Senator Ruth being named by Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2005. Senator Ruth told me "it's all a game", the Senate is always weighted heavily for whatever party is in power at the time. To her, the timing of her appointment was more so from pressure on a minority government to add Conservative representation. Regardless, to her, it was an exciting moment. Her brother is The Honourable Hal Jackman, who served as the 25th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1991-1997, her late father was Harry Jackman, who served as the Member of Parliament for Rosedale from 1940- 1949, and her maternal grandfather was also a Canadian politician, Newton Rowell, serving as the Member of Parliament for Durham from 1917- 1920, and as a member of the Ontario Provincial Parliament before that. With all that in mind, I can see why she may have been excited, as her family had a history of being in positions to make change happen.
      It was for that very reason she was most excited, being able to make things happen. Senator Ruth explained some of her background to me, and I found it fascinating. We spoke for a bit about some work she did in Bali, Indonesia, in the immediate aftermath of the 1963 eruption of the volcano that makes up Mount Agung, and work she's done in numerous other nations of the world. But to her, it all came back to Canada, and her fight for the equality of women. What really drove her was rage. Leaning back on her couch, she me straight in the eyes and told me "I was angry at the stupidity of all the laws I saw and the fact that women weren't getting a fair deal. Not in wages, not in violence against women and they still don't in wages and violence against women and access to jobs. A lot of that's changed, but not enough.” She paused, and told me to think of the list she just gave, her main reasons. They didn't have anything to do with sexual orientation, a sign of the greater battle she felt needed to be fought first.

Senator Nancy Ruth
Photo by Victoria Alexander

     Now that she was a politician on Parliament Hill, she further defined her objectives. She ruled it down to "two fundamental things" that the Canadian government needed to do. First was dealing with violence against women, which is an issue for both the provincial and federal governments, with the second being "gender-based analysis of all government policies." I admittedly didn't quite know what this meant, but was informed that it related to clearly looking at everything the government is producing and enforcing and seeing if it happens to in fact be based on gender-equality or not. With that, to her, the Prime Minister of Canada, the Cabinet, Members of the Privy Council, Members of Parliament and Senators all need to be trained in this mindset so the future doesn't stay halted in the inequalities we still face today.
     In both of these regards, progress has been made, but then ceased. Senator Ruth informed me how Prime Minister Harper's previous Throne Speech touched upon the issues of violence against women, yet no definitive progress has been put in place. Her other objective had been delayed for a much different reason. The former Auditor General of Canada, Sheila Fraser, had began gender-based analysis's, and had finished five when the work was postponed, and with audits on every Canadian Senator in the works as a result of the Senate scandal, Senator Ruth feels it will be a while before they're continued. 
     A question I hadn't intended asking at first, I had the urge to ask if she (as a female politician) felt discrimination in our Canadian Parliament. To that, she laughed. She then implied it was obvious, quoting Senate Committees as an example. She pointed to how few of these were chaired by women, and even how many were vice-chaired by women, with the answer being resoundingly few. She continued how seeing as the chair of the Senate Committees were responsible for stating what's to be researched. When these are male dominated, issues regarding the rights of women are clouded or put aside. It was saddened me to hear this about our political system, so I asked what she thought it would take to change this. Her reply was definitive, "an outrage of women." In her eyes, unless women stop feeling it's not worth feeling angry about, nothing would change.

Llewyn, Senator Ruth's dog, wanted a photo too.
Photo by Victoria Alexander

     "What would you say the everyday citizen could do help with your goals, Senator Ruth?"
     "Actually doing something," she began, "Just make it happen. Do it." To that, she continued, "social activism doesn't happen through social media."
     I couldn't agree more to this, people of my generation think the problems of today can be solved behind a keyboard. I know they may help a cause, but they're not the problem solvers. It takes people outdoors, making change in person. Whether that's in regards to women's rights, the rights of same-sex couples, or whatever it may be.

    Looking back at her career in politics, The Honourable Senator Nancy Ruth told me with a sigh, "Eight years down the line, I'm a little more cynical and actually think it's a probably fairly destructive place in terms of my own soul, and wellness.” She continued by saying Parliament isn't a healthy place for people. “It's unfriendly, it's malicious”. But, as she said, she would not have access to the Cabinet unless she was there, so that's why she stayed. It's all about power. Power to get things done you want done. 
     I fully understand where she's coming from. Politics are a rough field, with hundreds of individuals holding their own agendas, representing their tens of thousands of their constituents and, in totally representing the 34 million people who call Canada their home.
     "It's easy to be a purist sitting on the outside, but when you have the weight of responsibility..." said Senator Ruth with a pause, "things get harder".

Senator Ruth and I pose for a final photo!
Photo by Victoria Alexander

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