OSSTF/FEESO’s Women’s Advocate Program

Image of various women positioned in 3 overlapping circles on a teal background.

Members supporting members

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) believes that the union has a role to play in assisting members who are experiencing workplace sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, and abuse. One way the Federation demonstrates this commitment is through our Women’s Advocate Program.

The Women’s Advocate Program was developed to provide support to members experiencing or impacted by domestic violence. OSSTF/FEESO knows, in addition to employers, unions have a role to play in protecting and supporting women in need. The Federation has trained up to five Women’s Advocates to work in every District. The OSSTF/FEESO program is based on the work initiated by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) under the leadership of Marie Clarke Walker.

Through extensive and ongoing training, Advocates gain the ability and confidence to aid and assist members of the Federation in a unique way that was not previously available in the union. With an increased awareness of the seriousness and pervasiveness of domestic abuse, intimate partner abuse, and violence against women over the last decade, time had come for the establishment of a program led by members for members. One Advocate says, “OSSTF/FEESO is creating a mini power source whose purpose is to increase the light that is shone on the issue and to provide the vital information needed by our members in crisis. The value is not finitely measurable in terms of its worth. When one femicide is averted, the cost is irrelevant.”

Women’s Advocates are not counsellors, rather they are trained to assess the immediate needs of a member at risk, offer local resources specializing in domestic violence, and identify how an adverse situation can affect co-workers. The reality is that a worksite can be the only safe space for a member dealing with domestic violence and the only place they feel they can reach out for help.

However, Advocates don’t stop there. They can also be a support for a member who may perceive a co-worker is in danger but is uncertain about what to do. They can also act as the bridge between union and administration, and can help when building a safety plan for a member in crisis. The Women’s Advocate can provide assistance in navigating the service sector as well as supports available from the employer, from government services, and from those services offered in the member’s own community. They can provide necessary information and resources for a woman to find shelter, income support, and medical assistance for herself and her dependents, when needed.

The role of the Advocate can be challenging­—having conversations about domestic partner abuse and workplace harassment is difficult, full stop. People often find it difficult to engage in this type of conversation because it can be very uncomfortable. As a member, if you find yourself having to step into a conversation with a Women’s Advocate, you are either admitting there is a problem, or you know of a problem. Either way, you’ve admitted to someone that you need help. That can be scary which is why members often avoid it. This is exactly why having specially trained Women’s Advocates is so vital—it provides a resource that comes without judgement, a resource in the Federation’s membership that is there to listen, to help, and to advocate for safe next steps. The Advocates start by listening, believing, and taking time to let the member lead the discussion. Advocates want members to feel safe, respected, and to know they are not alone.

One of the greatest challenges the program and Advocates face is member awareness of the existence of the Women’s Advocate Program. As the program has rolled out, increasing awareness has led to a growth in engagement with Advocates. Members are reaching out to their local Women’s Advocates and women are getting help. This in itself signals not only a success for the program, but more importantly, the increased safety of OSSTF/FEESO members. Perhaps an even greater challenge is the backlash and sexism that the program can face. It should be noted that the program recognizes that men, trans persons, and non-binary individuals also experience workplace sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, and domestic abuse, and provides support to those individuals.

Advocates can also provide support for the perpetrators of abuse. The long history of abuse teaches us that toxic patterns of behaviour continue unless there is a therapeutic intervention. The program has resources for everyone. The services are available to all members of the Federation, as either a member seeking personal support or a member seeking to get help for a colleague. Being available to all OSSTF/FEESO members means the impact of the program is significant. Intimate/domestic partner violence and workplace harassment are not just a she/her concern. It also happens to men and members of the 2SLGBTQI+ community. When we have direct and informed conversations about domestic violence with members, we remove the stigma and build an allyship. Members stop saying I didn’t know what to do and start asking how they can help. The school community becomes a part of the solution. This includes having informed conversations with those who may be perpetrators of this violence, and helping them access the supports available to them to help change behaviours.

One of the program’s goals is to break down attitudes and behaviours that perpetuate sexism and violence. The Women’s Advocate Program is valuable in inserting the reality of women’s lived experiences of violence in a settler colonial country that likes to pride itself on being peaceful and diplomatic. Inserting the reality women need services to address intimate partner and domestic violence into the programs and services OSSTF/FEESO offers at the District level both politicizes and raises awareness. Situating the program in the understanding that this issue can trickle from the home into the workplace and that it can possibly endanger co-workers, also allows the Women’s Advocate to work with the employer. This cross-sectional work is vital to ensuring no warning signs are missed and goes a long way to protecting workplaces and workers.

The more aware union members and the public are that OSSTF/FEESO is part of the movement to protect women from violence, the more barriers will be broken. Shining a light on the issue, sharing that we have trained Advocates who can help those in need, that we are knowledgeable about the issues, the law, and women’s rights, will ultimately reduce the sexism and violence towards women. It is about engaging in assumption and behavioural change.

The Women’s Advocate Program has all­owed OSSTF/FEESO to provide hope to members that when they are ready something better is just around the corner. Becoming a Women’s Advocate is an opportunity to provide support to other union members in a way that might save lives or prevent needless injury and trauma. It is an opportunity for training and information about community services. It can also be a path to other roles within the union. It is an opportunity to gain knowledge, understanding, and expertise in working to prevent domestic/intimate partner violence, workplace sexual harassment, and other forms of sexism.

OSSTF/FEESO members can access their Women’s Advocate by contacting their District office.

About Tracey Germa with Donna Beischlag, Erin Klein, and Julia McCrea
Tracey Germa (she/her), OSSTF/FEESO Communications and Political Action Department With: Donna Beischlag (she/her) Educational Assistant, District 17, Simcoe; Erin Klein (she/elle/her/they) Teacher, District 17, Simcoe; Julia McCrea, (she/her) President, Occasional Teachers’ Bargaining Unit, District 13, Durham

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