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Campaign school adds Aboriginal component

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Paul Barnsley, Raven's Eye Writer, VANCOUVER







A four-day workshop at Simon Fraser University's downtown Harbour Centre, beginning Jan. 25, will allow women with an interest in politics to learn the tricks of the trade.

Chief Sophie Pierre of the St. Mary's First Nation will be the keynote speaker at the opening reception. Viola Thomas, the first woman elected president of the United Native Nations, British Columbia, is on the list of scheduled presenters.

It's the third year for the Women's Campaign School, only the second non-partisan school of its kind in North America. Charlene Brisson, the president of the Canadian Women Voters Congress (the group that operates the school in partnership with the university) attended the non-partisan school at Yale University four years ago. She returned to Canada on a mission to give Canadian women the chance to improve their participation rate in politics.

Joanne Silver, the school chair, said women are still not fully participating in the various political processes across the country.

"Women are 52 per cent of the population and, I haven't got the stats from the last election, but prior to that, 21 per cent of all federal, provincial and municipal politics were women. And, as Viola [Thomas] pointed out to me, the First Nations women have an even bigger place to go," Silver said. "When the gender balance is there it will change the shape of politics."

Silver said the school is actively encouraging First Nations women to get involved for the first time this year.

"We address provincial, municipal and federal, but the part that was missing was the First Nations," she said. "So we talked to some women and invited them in and got our eyes opened. First Nations government is another segment of government in this land that is a player.

"So when these women come to the campaign school they're from all parties, from Reform to NDP. They're learning the same skills. They're creating a dialogue, so when they're elected they know each other. That, in addition to all of the skills."

Aboriginal women who attend the school will find they can learn lessons from those with experience in mainstream politics that they can apply in First Nation politics.

"It's about mainstream politics but some of the same issues that women face in mainstream politics are faced by women trying to be elected within First Nations' governments," Silver explained.

Women believe they can change the face of established political processes by removing some of the confrontational attitudes, something Silver sees as a male approach.

"As we move forward in this century with land claims and self government, women who have networked together in learning campaign skills will be sitting across the table from each other doing land claims and doing respectful government - our government, your government. My vision is, by bringing First Nations government into our curriculum, the basis will be laid there for non-confrontational discussions as we go forward," Silver said.

Political parties conduct similar schools for potential candidates, but a non-partisan school allows people of all political ideologies to learn how it's done. And since women are under-represented and relative newcomers to the corridors of power, this school is important.

"There's a couple of things here. It's learning the skills to get into politics or to assist people in campaigns. And not just elected politics. We prepare women to sit on boards or sit on commissions and it's all the same skills. The important thing about it is that it's non-partisan," she said. "It's the only one in Canada. They have schools within parties and they have schools for women within parties. But there's no place where women can come together across parties and learn skills."

Silver left no doubt that she believes the world of politics will be a nicer, more humane place when women gain full access.

"It's about changing the game. At our opening, the very first school, [Senator] Pat Carney spoke One of the things she said is that when the percentage of women, which I didn't know, but when the percentage of women within a room at a meeting gets to be over 36 per cent, gender stops being an issue," she said.

Having worked in the Speaker's office in the British Columbia legislature, Silver has seen the difference women can make in government.

"Even though there's that conflict that happens in the house, outside of the house, on committees, on boards, on working groups, women across parties just got together and got things done," she said.

The opening reception on Jan. 25 is open to the public at no charge.

There are bursaries available to overcome barriers women may encounter in attending the school.

Silver defined barrier as being "anything that would prevent a woman who wants to be involved from being involved."

To register or for more information, call Vaune Adams at (604) 291-5069.