Critics question gender composition of new Alberta economic recovery council

Critics are questioning why only two of the 12 members of Alberta’s Economic Recovery Council are women, when half the province’s population is female who critics say are being disproportionately affected by job losses. 

These same critics also question why Premier Jason Kenney appointed union official Bob Blakely to the council after he made sexist comments about the former federal labour minister’s backside at a news conference last year to announce funding for women in the trades.

“Surely you could have found even a mediocre woman who could have done this work as opposed to somebody who has got such a blatantly sexist blight on their record,” University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas said referring to Blakely. 

University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas. (Submitted by Melanee Thomas)

Blakely’s appointment, and the male-skewed composition of the council “just shows that there is absolutely no care [about gendered policy issues]. There is no concern. It is just something that this government chooses not to see as relevant to its operations,” Thomas said. 

Kenney announced Alberta’s Economic Recovery Council in March. It is to provide advice to guide the province through the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the energy price crash. 

A government release said the council is comprised “of policy and industry experts” who “will also focus on strategies for long-term recovery from the crisis, including efforts to accelerate diversification of the Alberta economy.”

The council members include economist and Imperial Oil board member Jack Mintz, former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, as well as several prominent Alberta businessmen. The two women members are Nancy Southern, chair and CEO of ATCO, and Zainul Mawji, who is president of Telus Home Solutions.

Disproportionate job losses for women 

Thomas, University of Alberta political scientist Linda Trimble and University of Alberta women’s and gender studies professor Lise Gotell all observed that the job losses resulting first from government fiscal restraint, and then from the pandemic, disproportionately affect women who work in government, health care, education, social services and the restaurant and retail trades. 

The academics wondered if the composition of this panel will recognize and address that fact.

“It is a very homogenous group,” Gotell said of the council. 

“I think it is likely to produce a group think that will support the government’s economic agenda, which is really myopically focused on sectors of the economy like oil and gas and construction as economic drivers.”

Gotell said those fields are dominated by men.

Thomas noted that the Kenney government has focused its messaging and economic policy on job losses in the oil industry.

“I have always thought that this government has privileged masculinity and very particular kinds of masculinity right out of the gate,” she said.

“I have always thought that this government has privileged masculinity and very particular kinds of masculinity right out of the gate,” she said.– University of Alberta women’s and gender studies professor Lise Gotell

“This is the [attitude that] oil and gas workers are our number one workers and other jobs just don’t count, particularly in the public sector.Those tend to be more feminized, more likely to have women doing them.”

Thomas said if she was being “super cynical” she might conclude that the UCP government addresses gender in economic policy “just enough to head off critiques that they are being deliberately exclusionary.” 

Appointee made sexist comments at news conference

The academics saved their sharpest criticism for the appointment of Edmonton union official Bob Blakely.

“You have got to question the wisdom of Premier [Jason] Kenney appointing someone who engaged in really crude sexist locker room talk at a federal event announcing investment in women in trade,” Gotell said.

“At the very least I think it suggests that the government doesn’t really see sexism as being an important issue.”

Blakely was the Canadian operating officer for Canada’s Building Trades Union on Feb. 21, 2019 and was introducing Hajdu at a federal funding announcement in Winnipeg to promote women in the building trades. 

As CBC News reported, with TV cameras rolling, Blakely recalled that when he was a boy, his father told him, “Your real friends are the ones who tell you the truth — the ones who know the right answer to, ‘Do I look fat in these pants?'”

Hadju, he said, was “from plain-spoken Thunder Bay, where people actually tell you, ‘Yes, you look fat in those pants,'” he said.

Hajdu then stood and said, “Well, do I look fat in these pants, or what?”

Blakely took a step backward, peered down at Hajdu’s backside and said “I’m going to get in trouble for this, but no.” 

A senior Canadian union official joked about the appearance of federal cabinet minister Patty Hajdu’s buttocks during a press conference on Thursday. 1:22

​Blakely later returned to the podium to apologize, saying he and Hajdu knew each other and shared the “same weird sense of humour.

“I did something that could be offensive to somebody else and if I offended anybody, I’m sorry.”

But following his apology, Blakely ended the news conference by stating he got to hug three beautiful women, including Hajdu and two other speakers.

At the time, Hajdu expressed no concern with Blakely’s comments and instead focused on the funding for women in the trades.

“The success of women in the workplace depends on all of us to work together and support each other to change long-standing norms,” Hajdu said in a statement after the news conference.

Blakely retired from the building trades union, where he had worked for 20 years, on March 1, 2019, eight days after the news conference. 

Appointment sends wrong message to women: critics

Trimble said the appointment of Blakely “sends the message that respect for women is not high on the list of priorities when it comes to determining the meritoriousness of the appointee.”

Thomas said Blakely’s appointment “sends a very clear message that this particular government does not think very carefully about the role of gender in public policy and the advice that it gets.”

All three academics noted that Blakely, in his apology, did not acknowledge his statements were overtly sexist. 

University of Alberta political scientist Linda Trimble. (University of Alberta)

“He made a mistake. People are allowed to make mistakes,” Trimble said, but she said Blakely’s “so-called apology” shows “he simply didn’t get it.” 

“He didn’t understand what was wrong with what he did,” Trimble said.

“And so not recognizing one’s sexism indicates that he is not going to be able to grasp the kind of sexism that women experience in the workplace and in the business world in particular.”

Blakely on Wednesday declined an interview request. He said he was bound by a non-disclosure agreement with the building trades union.

In an emailed statement, Christine Myatt, a press secretary for Kenney, said  “we’re not re-hashing some story from over a year ago.”

Blakely, she said, “is a long-time leader in the Canadian organized labour movement. The perspective of the trades is obviously important for the work of the economic recovery council.”

Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour said Blakely would not have been his choice for the council.

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