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MurielChanging the system from inside and out

Muriel says:

I grew up in small mining towns in B.C., Washington state and northern Manitoba. I was born during the Great Depression but did not know what that was until many years later. My second decade brought World War II and all ages were caught up in the war effort. Our parents bought Victory Bonds and we kids bought war savings stamps which we carefully pasted into little books.

I was the child of professionals, my father being a mining engineer and my mother a nurse, but community life, and the attitude of my parents, were great levelers. Company houses were of similar size, rent was nominal, we all shopped at the company store, and issues relating to money rarely arose. That was until the Strike when families of the newly formed Union and families of Management (my father was by then the Superintendent) were pitted against one another in struggles over wages and working conditions. Fortunately, my father was a very humane manager and probably sympathized more with the workers than with the distant mine owners in New York. He gave me my first insight into what the bargaining process could be: tough but fair discussions between parties over how best to share the available resources.

My first brush with money came when I and a friend, as pre-schoolers, found we could charge ice cream cones at the company store and then bury the bill. The size of the end of the month store bill shocked my parents but their questioning got to the bottom of our escapade and they put a stop to it. I must say they treated us in a very kindly manner. I think they were more amused than angry at our enterprise.

As a female I grew up thinking anything was possible but all the models I saw were of married women or of women wanting to get married. With puberty and growing attractions to the opposite sex, even I thought becoming a partner with my place in the home with hordes of children would not be a such a bad fate.

The unreality of earning my own living extended beyond my university graduation. I had become engaged to my fiancé who was completing his first year in Oxford. I went to London to find work. With my BAHons. I ended up waiting on table for three months at the Cumberland Hotel where tips and the cash from my War Savings Stamps enabled me to survive because my pay was less than my rent. After Christmas I lucked into inheriting a job tutoring the Canadian High Commissioner's daughter. The pay though not princely was enough to cover my rent and food.

After we married and my husband finished his degree we returned to Canada just before producing a daughter with the promise of a teaching salary (for my husband) of $3600 a year! We were both rather other-worldly when it came to money, never craving a lot. I think the fact that both of us grew up in professional households where there was enough and many interests beyond making a living freed us from undue ambition for wealth. We were probably, in retrospect, rather unrealistic about what it would cost to raise a family, but the fates were kind to us. We had three more daughters and though we were never flush with money over the following years we managed swimming and music lessons, glasses and teeth straightening without going into debt.

As my children grew up I did some tutoring and essay marking and then was invited by a friend to join a women's international affairs study group. For eight years we studied different areas of the world and different global themes. We wrote papers for one another on different facets of an issue or region and would hold annual conferences with a women's group from Minneapolis. I was launched on a passionate journey to understand global events. This path led me to activism with the YWCA and the feminism it expressed at a World Conference in 1975 just after the first UN World Conference on Women in Mexico City. With the Y's social action committee, I worked in defense of underpaid and overworked immigrant home workers and supported the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. You can imagine my disgust when I found that the Y's Executive Director was refused credit at a local bank because she had no man to sign for her. During this period, I also read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring which introduced me to the need to protect our environment.

Throughout the 1970s, the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women introduced me to the need for and the means to bring about greater economic equity for women. It was through the economic analysis in that report, provided by Winnipeg economist June Menzies, that many of us learnt to understand the plight of urban middle-class women, in so many ways privileged, in so many other ways barred from economic, legal and political equality.

The NDP became for me my preferred political arm to bring about social justice not only for women, but also for all people suffering from the inequality and instability of the market-based economic system. Partisan political activity dominated my life for the next two decades. I was a three time candidate, provincial party President, policy committee member, federal council member and finally elected member of the legislature and Cabinet Minister from 1981 to 1988.

For seven years I had the privilege, and the daunting task, of trying to put my political values and proposals for social and economic justice into practice. Whether in charge of economic development, community services and corrections, or housing, status of women and labour, I tried to remember and apply the principles of social justice through fairer taxes, fairer working conditions and pay, needed services of good quality, adequate affordable housing etc. - all are components. There are so many competing claims on limited resources and all one's colleagues to persuade; differences of experience and priorities between males and females, rural and urban. But to be there at the decision making table, with the opportunity to make one's case the best way one knows how, is exhilarating and well worth the shortage of sleep, frustration and premature aging. More women need to do it so the odds against women's voices being heard can be reduced.

I did not start to earn a regular salary until I was 48. For three years as a high school counselor and seven years as a Cabinet Minister, I could put substantial sums into my own bank account. By then my husband had opened a joint account for us. I was more than willing to put my fair share into the household expenses, more than my fair share if necessary, but I wanted to have my own bank account, the freedom to spend as I chose, buy gifts for the grandchildren, make my own mistakes.

Now I am a widow. I miss my husband of 50 years very dearly. Of necessity, I am in complete control of my own finances. The 'economy' has been good to me personally, largely because I made a fortunate marriage, had good health and education and a supportive family. I have been free enough to choose to 'work' hard in a voluntary capacity for causes in which I believe. As a family, we have been able to save and so benefit from the miracles of compound interest. Still, I believe most profoundly that I would be much happier if the national and international systems which have supported us could be reformed to benefit others more equitably.

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