top of page

Interview With Janice Abbott - Atira Women's Organization (Canada)

Updated: Jul 4, 2023





















Ms. Janice Abbott

On February 16, 2022, we interviewed Ms. Janice Abbott. Ms. Abbott has served as the CEO of the Atira Women’s Resource Society in Vancouver, Canada since 1992. Her life has been heavily influenced by her First Nations ancestry as her grandmother was a member of the Neskonlith community of the Secwepemc Nation. Ms. Abbott has travelled all over the globe which has given her a diverse perspective and understanding of the treatment and role of women and communities around the world. She has earned a BA, journalism diploma, and many other certificates. She won an Influential Women in Business Award from Business in Vancouver in 2019 as well as being listed on the Power 50 list by Vancouver Magazine in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020.

During Ms. Abott’s time as CEO of Atira, she has completely transformed the organization. The Atira Women’s Resource Society is a non-profit organization that focuses on the effects of substance use, gender-based violence, and housing for women and children affected by these issues. It was founded in 1983 and the organization’s work is centered around its four core values: inclusive feminism, women-centered, harm reduction, and innovation. They aim to create a world free from inequalities by empowering women to participate fully and effectively in all of the decisions that affect their lives.




Gender Equality Statistics

Gender Development Index: 0.986

Gender Inequality Index: 0.080

Classification: 1; high equality in human development amongst genders


 

Interview With Janice Abbott (Shortened Transcript)

Transcript edited by Sterling Soto, Josh Fenn and Kate Moorman-Wolfe

John V. Roach Honors College (Texas Christian University)


Hannah R:

“Have you experienced sexism during your time working in the business industry which is mainly male-dominated?”



Ms. Abbott:

“The short answer is yes. I hope things are getting better for women but sexism and misogyny are still powerful institutions of oppression. We have a lot of work remaining to improve this situation. I can describe some of the things I’ve experienced, everything from microaggressions like people rolling their eyes when I speak, especially when I speak about equity and inclusion, which is a hard thing for a lot of people who have been in business a long time to hear. When I speak about sexism and racism, I get a lot of eye rolls. A lot of my work is attributed to my husband. They say that I have achieved what I have because of whom I’m married to. There’s a lot of dismissal of my work or attributions of my work to others. That is something that you will face as a woman doing this work; it is not gone.



Elizabeth M:

“Have you faced any challenges being a woman CEO?”



Ms. Abbott:

Thank you for asking that. I just wanted to add another real common experience: more than once, I have being described as being intense or angry. That is a really common experience among women who are in positions of power or CEO positions. Anything you do or any passion you bring to your work, is often described as being unfriendly, intense, or angry. I hear that all the time. So, you know if you’re advocating for something, and if you are passionately talking as a woman, you will often be described in derogatory language.”



Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

“What are the most common stereotypes about women in Canada?”



Ms. Abbott:

“I think a really common stereotype about Canadian is that we’re polite and agreeable to almost everything. I think that doubles for women. So, when you are fiercely advocating for something you believe in, like in my case it might be more programs for women and children who are fleeing violence or struggling with substance use, and you’re the least bit passionate or strongly advocating for what you believe in, you are written off as being angry or aggressive. Therefore, people are able to dismiss you.”



Abby C:

“What are the biggest challenges women face in present-day Canada?”



Ms. Abbott:

“I think there are a couple of different things here, like everywhere else in the world, I think the women’s movement (or the feminist movement) has struggled to be inclusive of Brown, Black, Indigenous, and trans women. It has also struggled to have leadership that isn’t composed of only CIS-gendered, white women. Historically, there's been a struggle to be inclusive. When we talk about the everyday lives of women in Canada and while we probably have a much stronger social safety net than you do in Texas or anywhere in the US, but women continue to be more susceptible to poverty here, and still tend to be the sole caregivers or single parents when relationships end. Women experience more violence. During the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen a record number of women murdered by their partners or ex-partners. Women continue to experience violence, disproportionate amounts of poverty, less access to living wage jobs, more likely to be single parents, and they are more likely to be inadequately or unsafely housed. All of these things remain significant issues for women.”



Brooke Johnson:

“How do you see women’s involvement or roles in Canada changing in future years?”



Ms. Abbott:

“There are a number of things we are advocating for as women across Canada. I’m involved in a number of Pan-Canadian initiatives around creating equity for women. One of the big pieces we’re advocating for is a guaranteed annual income, which is basically an end to poverty. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the concept of a guaranteed annual income, but that is our number one task. We are also advocating and have won battles regarding $10-a-day childcare. Earlier this year, the federal government announced that it would support a rollout of$10-a-day daycare across the country. That’s huge for women, especially for single moms to be able to afford to put their kids in safe, nurturing daycares. Guaranteed annual income, access to daycare, and access to living wage jobs, exemplifies the headway we are making right now. We have a long way to go, but this is what we are working on now.”



Emma Grace R:

“What issue regarding women are you most passionate about?”



Ms. Abbott:

“Given the work that I do, I think ending violence against women but more particularly women who are disproportionately impacted by gendered violence like indigenous women, Black and Brown women, and women who are struggling with substance use. Substance use often goes hand in hand with violence. Substance use is one way women cope to deal with trauma including intergenerational trauma - violence that’s happened in their families historically in Canada. You may be aware that after a long time of advocating, we (as a country and as Indigenous people) are in the process of finding the bodies of children who were buried at residential schools. Almost every couple of weeks, we are finding more children’s bodies buried around residential schools. This is historical and the intergenerational trauma impacts women today. It impacts how women parent, their quality of life, and their sense of self. For me, walking alongside others heal from intergenerational trauma such as the genocide of Indigenous people in residential schools, is probably what I care most about right now.”



Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

“Can you give us a basic idea about Canadian residential schools?”



Ms. Abbott:

“So, for more than 100 years, and they did this in the US as well, starting at the end of the 1800s reaching the late 1990s, the children of First Nations, Métis and Inuit were removed from their homes and sent to residential schools. The idea of residential schools was that the children would be assimilated. The children weren’t allowed to speak their languages. Many kids experienced horrific violence and sexual abuse. Many kids died in the residential schools from illnesses like tuberculosis and others from violence. Many First Nations, Métis and Inuit went out into the bush to hide their children from the officers who would come and forcefully remove their children, often taking them to residential schools miles away from their home communities. We have seen residential school court settlements in the last decade, so the federal government has now provided settlements for the survivors of residential schools. The school that some of my ancestors attended, which is an Indian residential school in the interior of British Columbia, was the first to announce the discovery of buried children. We’ve long known these children were there. They were just identified through ground penetrating radar earlier this year. There were 255 children buried around that school, so this is a genocide enacted against First Nations people in this land. This also happened in the US, so I really encourage you all to learn about that.”



Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

“Ms. Abbott, we are talking about residential schools which are public schools financed by the national government, right?



Ms. Abbott:

“They were run primarily by religious orders and were segregated so that only Indigenous (First Nations) children attended the schools, which were paid for by the Federal Government.



Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

“The number of students depended on the school, right? What's the maximum and minimum that we can find in one of these residential schools.”



Ms. Abbott:

“So there were bigger or regional residential schools in places like Kamloops, which is a city of about 1000,000 people that's in the south-central part of BC. That would have been a regional school and they would have had children coming from all over the interior of BC. That school might have had a couple hundred children in it in a year. There were also smaller schools in places like Haida Gwaii, which is an island nation that's just off the north coast of BC and that would have been a day school. So, because it was in a remote community, that school maybe had 30 or maybe 50 kids and the kids were forced to go there. As I say, they were punished for speaking their language and essentially taught to be white and to assimilate.”



Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

“How is the Canadian Government dealing with this?”



Ms. Abbott:

“So, the Canadian Government agreed years ago to pay for the ground penetrating radar process so that Indigenous nations could find and identify their lost and murdered children. That process is ongoing and we will continue to have announcements from historical residential schools around the country who have identified buried bodies around their schools. One of the main things that we're working on at Atira and that we really need to address in school, is that there are more First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children taken into care now than ever attended residential schools. So, the stealing of Indigenous children continues to this day, except it's just through the child protection system. So, one of the things we're working really hard on at Atira is forming programs where the sole goal is to keep women and children together. We know that in the Downtown Eastside, which is an inner city community in Vancouver where we work, there is a significant amount of drug use. In the housing that we operate in the area, about 85% of the women that we house grew up in the foster care system and or have children in the foster care system. So, we know that there's a direct link between being taken away from your parents and losing your children to poverty, violence, struggles with substance use and mental wellness. As a result, we strongly believe that in the future, women must be able to parent their children and children must have parents in their lives. Fortunately, the federal and provincial governments are beginning to understand this, and programs are being funded and reviews of the child protection system are ongoing with a goal to support parents, specifically First Nations parents, so they can raise their children. But unfortunately, the progress is slow.”



Dr. Sola-Corbacho:

“We are talking about an issue that began almost a century ago.”



Ms. Abbott:

“Yeah, in the 1800s.”



Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

“You introduced gender-based violence as one of the most important issues that you wish to help put an end to. So, what is the Canadian government doing to help put an end to this issue that’s prevalent all over the world, specifically through the education system?”



Ms. Abbott:

“I think we’re still struggling to figure out the education piece and this has to do with a right-wing element in our population that doesn’t want their children learning about gender and relationships in school. They strongly believe that this education should happen at home between parents and children. So that’s a struggle but we are making progress in schools to include all genders and talk about violence against women and healthy relationships. However, I still think we focus too much on intervention and not enough on prevention. We still have quite a way to go but I absolutely agree that the way to end gendered violence is to grow healthy children.”



Lanie:

“Has traveling the world influenced how you see women’s social issues?”



Ms. Abbott:

“Absolutely. It’s just helped how I view the world. It's important to understand that we're not at the center of everything. There are healthy, happy functioning communities around the world that are completely different from our own and that have different values and ways of being together and we can learn a lot from them. So, there are a lot of awesome ways that women and children are included in communities that are nothing like what we do, and I think it’s really important to understand this and include some of what we learn from them in our own lives.”



Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

“Do you think that sometimes, in the area of gender equality, the Western World is imposing values on other cultures?”



Ms. Abbott:

“Yeah. I spent eight weeks in Mongolia, which is a remote country with few tourists. The biggest city, Ulaanbaatar, has about a million inhabitants but when I was there in 2016, Mongolia was the only country in the world where people were leaving the city and going back to the countryside. The traditional culture in Mongolia is semi-nomadic, so many people move with the seasons and with their herds. In this culture, a person’s wealth is measured in the animals they have and the quality of their relationships. So, when I spent time in Western Mongolia, where there’s no tourists just isolated land, and watched the division of labor and the relationships between people, I just came to understand that there are different ways of doing things and that these different ways work too.”



Brooke J:

“You said that there’s so much negativity about women's roles, but in the previous question you described some positives you’ve experienced in wonderful communities in different countries. I was wondering if you could describe an example of one of these positives?”



Ms. Abbott:

“One of the best stories I heard was in the South Pacific. This is about a community’s way of dealing with violence against women, which was a fairly odd thing to happen in this community. Also, this is maybe one of the advantages of small, healthy communities. In this situation, there was a man who was assaulting his partner, and the community gathered in a circle around the home where they lived and stood there inviting him out to learn a different way to be in a relationship. So, that’s one example I can think of. You know, the longer I do this work and the older I get, the less I believe in solutions that are crime-oriented and putting people in prison. And you’ll also see examples of how communities address or resolve violence against women without involving police or prison and I think that’s a far better way when we look at things like restorative justice. This is where the community requires conversation and talks and relationship building to address gender-based violence in their community. So, restorative justice and communities holding each other accountable for healthy communities, I think, are some of the examples.”



Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

“After traveling and knowing so many places, have you ever thought of leaving the Western World to live in another place?”



Ms. Abbott:

“Yeah, every day. The older I get, the more realistic it seems. So, you know, I’ve been working and raising my own child and she’s grown now, so new possibilities exist. I was a single mom for most of my parenting time so all kinds of possibilities exist for me now and I spend a lot of time imagining what place I’d go to if I was going to live somewhere for a couple of years.”



Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

“So, so far you don’t have an answer for that, a precise place, a precise community?”



Ms. Abbott:

“No, I don’t.”



Dr. Sola-Corbacho:

“Yeah, and that means that you have many alternatives.”



Ms. Abbott:

“Yeah...”



Abby:

“How have you seen discrimination in different ways as you’ve traveled?”



Ms. Abbott:

“So, the first time I went to London, which was in the 90s, they were still kind of in the throes of the IRA Separatist movement, and I remember being really taken aback by going into train stations and having army folks with rifles at the entrance so you could put your stuff away. I feel like that is a kind of oppression that made me feel unsafe, not because of the IRA, but because everywhere I went there were British Army officers with assault rifles watching our every move. That was certainly one form of discrimination. Honestly, guns are a mystery to me, guns are an absolute mystery to me, I do not understand them. Being in Texas, I was in San Antonio, which was an awesome little city, but walking into restaurants and seeing signs asking people to put their guns out or that you could not have a concealed weapon in the restaurant also felt like oppression to me. I know a lot of Americans would argue that it's freedom, but to me it felt like oppression. Sitting in a restaurant knowing people had guns around me and someone could get angry and shoot another at any minute made me feel unsafe when I was there. Those are some forms of oppression I’ve experienced.

When I think about some of the more remote places I have traveled and the way those communities interact with each other, it is significantly different than how we might interact with each other here. In Mongolia as an example, there are very specific gender roles in the communities, very specific gender roles, but it didn’t feel oppressive to me. When folks woke up in the morning, people had jobs to do. The animals had to be taken out, they had to go to pasture, something had to be killed for dinner. So oftentimes, women would stay behind and slaughter the sheep or whatever and clean it and get it ready for dinner and the men would be taking the animals out to pasture for the day and bringing them back in. Across my time being there and watching that routine, even though the gender roles were very specific, it didn’t feel oppressive to me. It felt like it worked, and it worked for the folks who were there. There are different ways of doing things and they're not always the same.”



Elizabeth M:

“What advice would you give young women about to join the workforce?”



Ms. Abbott:

“I know it's hard when you're young but be confident about who you are. Don't get cowed by people when you're pushing or you're advocating for something you believe in, whether it's an argument about a proforma or an argument about a social program you're working on, it doesn't really matter. If you feel strong, don't be afraid of people who roll their eyes at you, or who tell you you're angry’ or who tell you to smile harder’ or ‘be nicer’. You really need to be confident in who you are and confident in what you're doing and not listen to everybody who is going to tell you to behave differently, to be nicer, to smile wider, to be more collaborative. It is important to be collaborative, but people must be collaborative with you. Don't be afraid of who you are and don't feel pressure to be someone you're not because other people want you to be that way.”



Brooke S:

“How does your First Nations ancestry integrate into your life today?”



Ms. Abbott:

“I looked at that question, and I was sort of puzzling over it on the weekend. You know, who you are influences everything in your life. I grew up with my grandmother, I was the oldest granddaughter and so had a certain kind of relationship with her. It's just integrated into everything I am, what she taught me, what I learned from her. Unfortunately, my grandmother died when I was 20 and one of my greatest regrets is that I wasn't as curious at the age of 20 as I am now about some of the things that she was sharing with me and teaching me. Now I'm having to go back and learn some of that cultural stuff from her community, which is small. She was a member of a community of the Secwepemc Nation, which is a huge nation whose territory spans almost the entire central part of British Columbia from almost the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, and so the communities are extremely diverse within the Secwepemc Nation. I’ve learned a little bit from other Secwepemc people who aren’t part of my grandmother’s community. I'm still learning about that part of myself but growing up with my grandmother and with my large extended family, it's just part of who you are and how you view the world. It's different, those of you who aren't from the Western culture will understand, it's a different way of viewing the world that's based on what you learned when you grew up.”



Stu L:

“What are the biggest cultural differences you've noticed between where you grew up and where you currently live now.”



Ms. Abbott:

“I grew up in a little resource-based town on the coast of BC, it was amazing. It wasn't little-little, it was just isolated. I think there are about 15,000 or 18,000 people in Powell River. It's literally a 25-minute flight from Vancouver but it takes five hours to get there by car because you have to drive, take a ferry, drive, take a ferry, then drive again to get there. There's no road into it, although it is on the mainland. There are probably many of you who grew up in small towns, and so you know what a small town is like. There are lots of awesome things about them like the freedom to run around and a certain feeling of safety that probably didn't really exist, but you feel safe. You know, being able to get on your bike and leave home at nine in the morning and not come back until dinnertime would never happen in a city like Vancouver. But there are also bad things. Everybody knows your business and people can be mean and stuff you do is remembered 50 years later. There are all those sorts of positive things that come with growing up in small towns and all sorts of negative things. Cities are the same way and Vancouver is not a huge city, I think, in greater Vancouver, there are about two and a half million people, so it's not a huge city. We certainly live in a, geographically speaking, absolutely beautiful area. You can be skiing in the morning and swimming in the afternoon in May because there's still snow in the mountains, but it's warm enough on the beach to go in and have a swim in the ocean. It's an awesome place to live but it's not a city that's big enough to be invisible in either. It's not like New York.”



Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

“How difficult is it to be a single mother in Canada in 2022?”



Ms. Abbott:

“It’s pretty difficult. Some of the things that make it the most difficult are being addressed now, slowly. Putting your child in full-time daycare is probably about 1,200 to 1,300 dollars a month. You can imagine the wage you have to earn to be able to go to work. If you have two or three children and you're the only wage earner and the only person who's paying for that stuff, it can make more sense to stay at home and be on income assistance, because you can't afford it. You can't afford to have your kids in daycare, it's just too expensive. We do have subsidies available for daycare but it's not a full subsidy. The Federal Government initiated a $10/day daycare program earlier this year. That will take a couple of years to roll out that will certainly make it easier for women, single moms, to go to work. We have one $10/day daycare program within Atira. We have six daycares we operate, six trauma-informed daycares, but only one of them has been put on the $10/day daycare list and it's busy.

Often if you're on income assistance, the amount is low, so in a city like Vancouver, we have about a 0.6% vacancy rate. It's a very popular place to live. People invest in housing as a commodity. We have a lot of people who buy condos and homes as investments, and many of them leave them empty. We have an acute housing crisis in this city. The average price of a home in Vancouver right now, a single-family home, is $1.5 million. That's getting a low-end home. A one-bedroom condo, a 600 or 700 square foot, one-bedroom condo probably costs about $700,000 or $750,000 depending on where in the city you are. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is probably about $2100 or $2200 a month. So, imagine if you're a single mom and you need an apartment with two or three bedrooms. Imagine what that's going to cost you. We have mandatory child support payments, but just because we have them and because they're pursued aggressively doesn't mean all dads pay child support. Then, we have a crazy taxing of your child support, so your partner gets to deduct the child support from their taxes and the custodial parent has to claim them. It's not easy. We do have a way more robust social safety net than you do in the US, so we do have income assistance or what you might call welfare. We do have public health care, so you don't have to pay to see a doctor or go to the hospital. But it's not easy.”



Stu L:

“Out of all the issues you focus on, which do you consider to be your biggest priority and why?”



Ms. Abbott:

“Our biggest priority is keeping women and children together. This is because 85% of the women that we house, grew up in the foster care system and have children in the foster care system. We see the relationship between being apprehended from your parents or losing your children: poverty, struggles with substance use, struggles with mental wellness. We firmly believe that as a society it's a lot less expensive across time to support people to parent their children than it is to remove them. It will start to heal that intergenerational trauma that we talked about earlier, particularly related to residential schools, the foster care system, and removing children from their parents.”



Stu L:

“In what ways do you feel like you encourage women to be leaders, both in terms of the company’s internal organization and the women that come to Atira for help?”



Ms. Abbott:

“We have a hiring philosophy that focuses on hiring women with lived expertise. Atira is a group of five entities. Atira Women's Resource Society hires only women but we have four other entities, and so we also have a lot of male and non-binary employees as well. We focus on hiring folks with lived expertise, which means that you don't necessarily have to have a university degree to work here, what you have to do is have a lot of life experience. Lots of our staff do have advanced education but we feel like to honor our mandate it's important to provide opportunities to women who otherwise might not be able to get a job or might not be able to get a living wage job with benefits, with holidays, with a pension. I think that's probably the most important thing we do. It is hiring folks who access our services when they're ready for employment.”



Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

“Imagine. Tomorrow somebody knocks on your door. You found out that you are the new Prime Minister of Canada, what is the first thing that you would do with that power?”



Ms. Abbott:

“That's what I call the magic wand question. The very first thing I would do is implement a guaranteed annual income, we need to lift people out of poverty. People need to have a safe adequate place to live, they need to have enough food to eat. That’s the only way we're going to build healthy communities and healthy families. So, on my first day in office, I would implement a guaranteed annual income for everybody, irrespective of whether they work. If they're working in minimum wage jobs, we would top up their salary, so that they would have, as I say, guaranteed annual income that's the very first thing I would do.”



Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

“Thank you very much for sharing your time with us. Thank you very much for doing what you are doing.



Ms. Abbott:

“Thank you, it was great to meet you all, some of your names and some of your faces. Go learn about residential schools, that's the last thing I'll leave with you, go learn about residential schools in the US.”

75 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page