International Women’s Day: A Reflection on Island Women’s History

Courage. Strength. Perseverance. Resistance. Change. These essential words come to mind on International Women’s Day, March 8th. International Women’s Day is 101 years old today. It is a day rooted in women’s activism for rights and their global struggle for equality. International Women’s Day is declared by the United Nations and recognized worldwide.

On PEI on International Women’s Day, PEI’s Acadian and Francophone women have given us the opportunity to reflect on three centuries of action by women in their community. At noon today, a bilingual event at Confederation Centre Public Library will celebrate the new book Les Acadiennes de l’Île-du-Prince Édouard : Trois siècles d’action, written by Jacinthe Laforest et Georges Arsenault and published by Actions Femmes Î.-P.-É.

In 1720, 30 women and four young girls were recruited among 145 people from France to move to an island known to colonizers as Île-Saint Jean and to its Mi’kmaq inhabitants as Epekwit’k. In 1758, after years of struggle, famine, cooperation, and survival, 3,000 members of a community now 4,350 members strong were brutally deported. Children, pregnant women, senior women, those with disabilities: none were spared. As the book tells us, some women had the misfortune to give birth on the ships that held them captive. Others held sick or dying children in their arms.

From those who escaped deportation and stayed on the Island, and from those who against all odds returned, resilient families and communities grew. Les Acadiennes de l’Île-du-Prince Édouard provides pictures, profiles, and dramatic stories of individual women and organizations. These women carried women’s equality forward at home, in education, in religious communities, in caregiving and healthcare work, and in all their hard work at home, on farms, and outside the home. Their music, arts, crafts, and service to others enriched their lives.

Acadian women’s accomplishments have been major: raising families that continue tradition, securing girls’ opportunities in education, pioneering cooperatives, and securing the right to French-language schools, among many others.

The stories of all our pasts include stories of courage, strength, perseverance, and resistance. The stories of the Acadians joined the stories of the Mi’kmaq who preceded them and the British, Scottish, Irish, and African colonists, immigrants, exiles, refugees, and slaves who followed them in the next century. Centuries after added newcomers from Asia, other parts of Europe, and the Middle East, including my own extended family from Lebanon. Today, newcomers arrive from every continent, for every possible reason.

Whether born here or newly arrived, the women of Prince Edward Island have had diverse and varied experiences of equality – and of discrimination. We need their stories. We need their courage to make new lives, their strength and perseverance to overcome challenges, their resistance to the way things have always been.

We can only imagine how society on PEI will have changed 300 years from now.

The actions we take now, as individuals and as groups, will shape that future. Lessons from the past – the examples of courage, strength, perseverance, and resistance of women such as the Island’s Acadian women – show us the dedicated work and effort that create social change. If we want to see human rights, equity, and justice in 300 years, what we do today will make a difference.

Today, I will be celebrating with other women at International Women’s Day events. I will also take part in activities I believe will bring about social change, to improve the status of Prince Edward Island women and move women towards greater equality. I will join women who are working for elimination of poverty, for diversity and inclusion of marginalized groups, for reproductive rights, for better representation of women in government, and for other causes. We are mindful of the many women around the world who are still struggling for basic human rights, and we stand in solidarity with them. Together, we advocate for change and call on all our courage, strength, perseverance, and resistance.

At a potluck this evening, women from many backgrounds will share stories about International Women’s Day and what it means to us.

By sharing their stories of action, the Island’s Acadian and Francophone women show us how much the Island community has benefitted from their courage, strength, perseverance, and resistance. Félicitations to Actions Femmes Î.-P.-É. for this book, and merci beaucoup.

Diane Kays
Chairperson, PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women

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