Retired CUPE 728 member and founder of the Surrey IWD
event holds flyers from the first and current events.
SURREY – Women’s marches in Vancouver for International Women’s Day and to bring attention to women’s issues had been held for many years. In 1995, Ursula Kernig, a CUPE school custodian, felt that Surrey was big enough to have their own IWD event. She thought an indoor celebration closer to home would attract more women from the community. Kernig founded the IWD planning committee which began with four members who organized the first annual IWD celebration in 1995.
The planning committee was joined the next year by CUPE 402 and CUPW. Over the years committee members from other unions who came and went included clerical staff from firefighters and the Public Service Alliance. Most recently Compensation Employees’ Union joined the committee.
“For me the important part is that as well as union women, we always have women from the community as part of our planning committee, so it’s inclusive,” said Marg Bizuk, a CUPW member who chairs the IWD planning committee.
When CUPE 728 held their first International Women’s Day event twenty-five years ago, they had a hard time getting funding from their local for a women’s only event. Now the event happens thanks to funding and support from the labour movement as well as in kind donations from the community. Especially welcome are the donations of food.
Kernig says that from the beginning, the planning committee wanted all women in the community to be able to participate. “We wanted to make it free so that any woman could attend,” said Kernig, who retired in 2006. “Sometimes women living on the streets would come just for the food, which was totally fine.” The local still covers public transit expenses and provides snacks so that money is not a barrier to women attending.
Surrey’s IWD event includes a little bit of history about IWD and now includes Indigenous women’s history. CUPE provides posters and print materials to help educate about union issues and values. The first annual event included a screening of the video “Between Amigos” and guest speaker, CUPE’s own Rhonda Spence, who retired in 2015 as B.C.’s Acting Regional Director.
Most of all, the event is fun. It always includes entertainment so it’s a real celebration for women in the community. In early days the event was fairly small but now has been holding its own with over a hundred women attending.
The 2019 event was emceed by CUPE 728 member Shannon Levinsky who got involved in the planning committee after hearing Kernig speak at an IWD event about twenty years ago. She became a CUPE member five years ago and feels she has come “full circle.”
Keynote speaker was activist and feminist, the Honourable Penny Priddy who served as an MLA, Surrey Councillor and the MP for Surrey Newton. Priddy talked about the women’s movement and the 1970 Abortion Caravan that travelled from Vancouver to Ottawa, gaining women along the way.
The women carried coffins with clothes hangers to Parliament Hill. They changed into suits and nice clothing and went into the viewing area, breaking up into small groups. Someone from each group spoke about their issues and when a security guard would ask them to leave, another woman in a different location would stand up and talk. There was no way to stop all of them from speaking, so they were all heard!
Other speakers included Dr. Allison Patton, a Naturopathic Physician who talked about health issues and challenges for women.
CUPE 728 Executive at large member Shelley Saje Ricci spoke about the lack of written history of Indigenous women and shared shocking statistics that they are 12 times more likely to go missing or come into harm’s way. She talked about the theme of matriarch and highlighted four Indigenous women who are making herstory: Tear Fraser, Chastity Davis, Dr. Nadine Caron, and Jody Wilson Raybould – saying, “We are witnesses. Today is a celebration of being women – we are Woman, hear us roar!”
Local singer and entertainer Sally Melo, a member of Compensation Employees’ Union, sang “Bread and Roses.”
Entertainment included Shimmy for the Soul, who perform a variety of belly dance styles at major family friendly events in the Lower Mainland; Yamas Greek Dancers; and Flamenco Del Mar Spanish Dancers.
Kernig says it’s important to keep doing these events so that the younger generation knows the struggles of the past and understands that we’ll lose things we’ve won if we forget our past. She really appreciates support from school students who volunteer at the event. “That’s almost the most important thing to me.”
Kernig has seen improvements over the last quarter century, noting that the Women’s Centre in Surrey has grown and offers many more support services for women. They recently acquired a van that drives around at night to help women on the street in need. “We’re making progress on equal pay for work of equal value, but I’m concerned that some things are going backwards, such as the rights of women to their own bodies,” said Kernig.
“Outreach and getting in touch with others have been wonderful,” said Kernig. “Women bring their knowledge and connections and that’s how we are able to keep things going.”
Read Ursula Kernig’s 2019 presentation about the life of Clara Zetkin, who initiated the celebration of International Women’s Day.
Visit the CUPE BC gallery to view photos.