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A regional roundtable puts focus on rural women’s issues

Jennifer Pfenning, who hosted the roundtable event at Pfennings Organic Farm, speaks to participants during the Feb. 21 visit by Maryam Monsef, the federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development. [Damon Maclean]

Rural and farm communities face a number of challenges. That applies even more so to women living in such areas. Tackling such issues was the goal of a roundtable discussion February 21 near New Hamburg.

Prompted by a visit from Maryam Monsef, the federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development, participants met at Pfennings Organic Farm. The group assembled included Woolwich Mayor Sandy Shantz and Community Care Concepts executive director Cathy Harrington.

Recently elected Kitchener-Conestoga MP Tim Louis, the sole man in the mix, was joined by his daughter Brooklyn, who had recently won an election of her own for school president. Using strategies and knowledge she earned from assisting her father with his successful campaign, Louis was also able to win herself a title.

Monsef was in attendance to hear firsthand accounts of both the troubles women are facing in the community, as well as the initiatives women are making to improve the situation.

The discussion began with an introduction from Jennifer Pfenning, who owns and runs Pfennings Organic Farm alongside her husband and their two sons, as well as her brother-in-law and his wife. She raised the issue of migrant workers’ rights.

In that vein, she challenged the label of “low-skilled workers” applied to such workers, who are essential to the farming sector. Many return year after year, but are not afforded many rights.

“If I could really just change one thing today it would be that name, because it is an awful, awful description. We are hiring them because they have the skills that we can’t find locally, but they can come here for 50 years and never have access.”

Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School principal Carolyn Salonen discussed an initiative her school had undertaken, requesting the government’s support with funding for the projects.

“We are creating an agriculture program in our school to try to fill the need in all the varieties of sectors within agriculture. We are starting with educating our kids [that] it’s not just about farming in fields. There are jobs in science and there are jobs in banking. It is a multi-industry business, so we had to put in a proposal to have a barn built on site because we need money since there is no money in the education system for what we want to do,” she said.

Other hurdles for rural areas identified by participants include transit, Internet access and entrepreneurial incentives.

Gender equality was also mentioned and a hope that better access to support networks for victims of human trafficking and domestic abuse, along with services for mental health and addiction.

Monsef noted there aren’t simple solutions for many of the issues discussed, but stressed the importance of making the effort.

“We are a minority government and everyday is about survival for us and our job here is to get the most done in a very short period of time for leaders like you so you keep going. In the unfortunate event that we don’t [get] a majority government [next election], we have planted seeds together that you will see to fruition for years to come,” she said.

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