Minister’s roundtable in Wilmot discusses women’s role in rural economic development

Maryam Monsef, federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development, led a roundtable discussion with 20 female community representatives.

Kitchener-Conestoga MP Tim Louis, who organized the roundtable discussion, with Wilmot councillor/farm owner Jenn Pfenning, and Maryam Monsef, federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development.

How can women be drivers of economic development, and what challenges do they face in rural areas?

Those were the main topics of conversation as Maryam Monsef, federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development, visited Pfenning’s Organic Farm in New Hamburg on Feb. 21 to lead a roundtable discussion with 19 invited female community representatives. The event was hosted by Jenn Pfenning, Director of Human Resources, Operations and Marketing at the farm. She is also a Township of Wilmot councillor.

Attendees included Kitchener-Conestoga MP Tim Louis, Region of Waterloo chair Karen Redman, North Dumfries mayor Sue Foxton, Woolwich mayor Sandy Shantz, plus Pfenning’s fellow Wilmot councillors Angie Hallman and Cheryl Gordijk.

Monsef asked everyone to introduce themselves and state one thing they want to see the federal government change.

Pfenning began by talking about migrant foreign workers, some of whom are employed on her family’s farm. “Change their description from ‘low skilled’”, she requested. “They are anything but low skilled. They have skills we can’t find locally.” She added that migrant workers have no protection under Employment Insurance, but are still required to pay into it. They also face potentially abusive employers with no recourse other than being sent home.

Cathy Harrington, Executive Director of Community Care Concepts, said that work needs to be done on maintaining social connections and addressing isolation in rural areas.

Wilmot Family Resource Centre Executive Director Trisha Robinson talked about gender equality, saying “Women are no safer today than 30 years ago.” She also spoke about improving early learning and the childcare network, at which point Monsef invited Robinson to Ottawa in September for a lobbying event.

Redman said it’s important to recognize the synergy between rural and urban areas, and that we maintain sovereignty of our money and food.

Hallman raised concerns over cannabis legislation that “impacts rural Ontario the most”, and she looked forward to federal and municipal governments working together to find a solution.

The environment was mentioned several times during the discussion. Tova Davidson, Executive Director of Sustainable Waterloo Region, spoke proudly of the success in reducing the region’s carbon footprint, adding that businesses need to set carbon footprint targets.

Gordijk stressed the need to protect water and farming. She mentioned a meromictic lake in the ward she represents, which has layers of water that don’t intermix, unlike most freshwater lakes. Failure to protect it could have devastating effects on biodiversity. Sunfish Lake in the northern part of the township is one of only 36 meromictic lakes in the world.

Topics also included affordable public transit in rural areas, the gas tax, human trafficking, women’s safety, and improved high-speed internet access. Monsef mentioned the Universal Broadband Fund, which will invest $500 million to help connect thousands of communities.

The roundtable was organized by Tim Louis MP after he learned Monsef would be attending meetings nearby. Louis sits on the Liberal women’s caucus.

The minister asked attendees to stay in touch with Louis so he could advocate for them in Ottawa. “Only 16 percent of Canadian entrepreneurs are women,” she noted, saying she wants that imbalance addressed.

Gordijk acknowledged the minister for her support, and said she felt “excited and inspired by today’s discussion.” Hallman thanked Monsef and Louis “for today’s meeting focused on our region’s rural challenges. Solutions were discussed to move us forward on many of the issues.”

Pfenning was equally enthusiastic. “This was really incredible,” she said afterwards. “Getting all these people with all these ideas in one room is something we haven’t done enough of, and we need to do more of it. Let’s not wait for a minister to show up. Let’s convene this same group again.”