A feminist since the age of fourteen, MLA Laurie Blakeman has 40 years of activism under her belt. She is an unrepentant, some would say “militant” feminist and social advocate who has worked to make changes both inside and outside the political realm. She was first elected as a Liberal to her home riding of Edmonton Centre in 1997 and since that time she has served on House committees, as a Shadow Minister for Environment and Culture & Community Spirit, and as both the Official Opposition Deputy and House Leader. She has also performed the duties of Executive Director for the Alberta Advisory Council on Women’s Issues. It is no wonder that she received the 1999 YWCA Woman of Distinction Award, an early distinction for a long career of creating change for women and all citizens. You can learn more about her here. MLA Laurie Blakeman graciously agreed to chat with me. When we managed to connect and here’s what she had to say:
Q: How and why did you get involved in politics?
A: Anyone who’s interested in changing the world they live in will eventually get involved in a number of different things. I got involved in several organizations, walked in a lot of marches, wrote a lot of letters, made a lot of speeches, but at a certain point, I felt that I wasn’t about to move my issues any further without getting involved in organized politics. So, I did the research, found a party, and joined a young campaign team that worked to elect a new female representative. At that point, I was asked to join the constituency board for that party and ran for that riding four years later. I now know that running and winning that first time is pretty special. A lot of great politicians fail many times before they win and it’s very important that they stuck with it.
Q: Why do you think women should get involved in politics?
A: People are still active in changing public policy, but I see an abandonment or mistrust of organized politics. This is a mistake. Maybe because they are impatient, wanting a bigger voice sooner, there’s an increase in women participating in special interest groups instead of politics. It also used to be the politics were one of the only places that women could change their world and now women are able to be leaders in other fields and industries. Now politics have to compete to get the bright women into the field and right now they aren’t doing well attracting them. However, while you can affect some changes in legislation outside organized politics, you’re working one ring out. More women need to be involved in politics and if the structures don’t work for you, change it. To me, not having women on committees was not acceptable. No women with economics degrees for committees? No. Go out and find them. I raise the issues, ask the questions and put in the work to make system changes. There’s a lot of people remaining one circle out from actually changing policy. Yes, it’s a male set up, adversarial, and combative. Women can be combative. I’ve been very successful in changing policy, and from the opposition the whole time. There’s less hooplah when it happens, but that doesn’t mean it’s not success.
Q: What issue do you see as particularly important for women?
A: We’re continuing to seek choice, access and opportunity. Ultimately, we’re trying to get women to participate fully in our province, and our country. That happens in a social, legal, and economic way. For example, we’re not going to have full participation if many women are working minimum wage jobs, but the province refuses to increase minimum wage. In fact, too much time is spent on the social issues as opposed to legal or economic. Equal legal and economic access and opportunity are crucial. If women can’t earn the same amount, you have less access to full citizenship. You have less access to buying power, higher education, positions of power, etc. Pay attention to women’s economic status. That’ sabout choie as well. That’s about being about to stay at home and be respectd ffor that and making that economic choice.
Q: Have you ever experienced any discrimination as a woman in politics? If so, describe your experiences and how you handled them.
A: I never know how to response; it’s kind a “Duh”. Of course I’ve experienced it. You have a public profile so that other people can throw stones at you and I am still a minority in my workplace. Others have the advantage of making more money and having fewer expectations about their time. In reality, every politician could do with a wife, but I don’t get that, so I’m still doing the work at home that my colleagues don’t do.
Specifically, I have had a member attempt to assault me in the House in front of other members, without consequence. There was also no help from the Speaker or Sergeant-at-arms, and that allowed for a long period of targeted verbal harassment that went on over a year. No one did anything to help until I went back into the community and explained what had happened. Women’s organizations rallied around me. Neither the structures that were in place within government nor the officials designated to deal with this helped me, but the women who were running events and organizations worked to create a place where I could work safely and even triumphantly. I would be surprised if something like the assault happened today, but then I was surprised that it happened then.
Q: What is your Dream for Women?
A: The full and equal participation of women in the life of… fill in the blank. The city, the province, the country. Everything aspect.
Women have to come a lot further in their economic and legal status. The Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] allows for that, but if we hadn’t had women working to make those changes in the Charter, we wouldn’t have section 15. That’s about a legal standing and you need that legal standing before you can enforce these equalities. We’re been able to do that, but we’re still behind. Political representation is part of that legal heading and we haven’t reached that critical mass yet. I started in a caucus that was 50% women and have been in one where I’ve been the only one, and I can tell you it’s a lot easier when there’s 50% women.
Q: What advice do you have for young women?
A: Just do it. Politics, it’s a busy life. There are more things to do than you have time for, but in reality there’s only a few people between you and what you want. If you want to do it, you can. If you’re waiting for someone to show you a way or help you out or organize until it’s perfect, you’ll wait a hell of a long time. No one has time to tell you how, and there’s never a perfect time. Just do it. If you’re trying to change the world, go out and start changing it. If you really want to do something, you say I’ll do it, you do the work, and you’ll get it. Look to yourself. Go back to your roots. You have to change the structures that led to problems. I did that.
Finally, anger is a great energizer, and I recommend it. Anger is a great energizer, and I recommend it. I think women are often too nice and we do get angry, and we some see anger as not a quality that women should have, but that anger can be energizing to action and if we embraced our inner anger more often we’d get more done. We also have to embrace the inner joy, of course. However, how do I keep going? Outrage is a great energizer. We need a lot of energy and we have a lot of things to be done. I thought there’d be a lot more done by now, but we have far to go still.
MLA Blakeman also happens to have a Youtube channel where citizens can watch politics in action. Check it out an example!
Here she’s a talking about gender reassignment surgery issues in Alberta and its funding in the province through healthcare. However, she has a number of videos on a broad spectrum of issues, from censorship to human rights. They’re definitely worth a look.