UCP cancel plans to kill Persons Case Scholarship. Sort of.

And just when we were starting to think they hate women.

Last week, the Alberta government announced a new scholarship programme centred around gender equality.

Funding for the Leaders in Equality Award of Distinction Program will be $225,000, available for up to 90 Alberta students through 2 streams:

  • Up to 50 students in the Women in STEM stream
  • Up to 40 students in the Persons Case Scholarship stream

As part of the application process, applicants to either stream must include two letters of recommendation, as well as a personal essay outlining how they’re advancing equality in their chosen field. Awards are based on the letters and the essay.

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Successful applicants to either stream will each receive $2,500.

The Women in STEM stream was actually announced as an award last September. The 50 awards are intended for women under the age of 30 who are studying in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in an approved Alberta postsecondary institution.

When the government announced the award last September, they received some backlash.

A CBC article published a week after the announcement claimed that the government intended to cancel the Persons Case Scholarship and use the funding for a new scholarship for Women Building Futures, an Edmonton-based non-profit organization that helps women enter the building trades.

This followed an announcement the previous year that the government would give the non-profit $10 million over 4 years, a quarter of which would be awarded in the 2019–2020 budget year.

In a 7 October 2020 op-ed in the News Advertiser, a newspaper in Vegreville, UCP MLA Jackie Armstrong–Homeniuk framed the change to the Persons Case Scholarship as “The Ministry of Advanced Education is partnering with Women Building Futures to provide a Persons Case Scholarship.”

There was pushback from members of the official opposition, such as this Facebook post from Rachel Notley:

CBC NEWS: The UCP government is ending a scholarship set up 40 years ago to commemorate a pivotal case that advanced the rights of Canadian women.

The Persons Case Scholarship was launched in 1979, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Persons Case when Albertans Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards won their fight for some women to be appointed to the Canadian Senate. The women became known as the Famous Five.

The scholarship awarded $2,500 grants to 40 post-secondary male and female students who were either working to advance gender equality through their academic work or training for a field that was traditionally under-represented by their gender.

(That last part was only kind of true: the $2,500 was a recent change by the UCP—see below. It was up to $5,000 during the NDP administration, which I’m kind of surprised Notley didn’t know.)

The Alberta NDP Twitter account published this Twitter thread regarding the CBC article:

Janis Irwin, opposition critic for women and LGBTQ2S+ issues, tweeted this:

And David Shepherd, the opposition health critic, sent this tweet:

UCP staffers took to Twitter to defend the changes. Matt Wolf, Jason Kenney’s executive director of issues management, said that the money was going to be used in STEM fields and the trades instead of the scholarship.

Laurie Chandler, who was the press secretary to the minister of advanced education as of 19 June 2020, tweeted that the new scholarship was going to fields where women were underrepresented, “as it should be”.

Eliza Snider, who was the minister’s press secretary as of 18 August 2020, tweeted something similar:

The Persons Case Scholarship was established in 1979 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Persons Case, when the Famous Five — Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, and Henrietta Muir Edwards — won the right for some women to be recognized as persons.

The scholarship has changed over the years. For example, a 4 January 1985 Calgary Herald article reported that the scholarship was worth a combined $20,000 at the time and gave students up to $1,200.

In 2013, the Alberta Student Aid website claimed that individual scholarships were valued up to $5000. As well, students had to be “enrolled in a program that is either non-traditional for their sex, or a program that will contribute to the advancement of women”.

In September 2016, Alberta Student Aid claimed that the scholarship awarded up to $10,000 per student. While awards were based on an applicant’s program of studies, academic achievement, and a personal essay outlining how their studies, activities, and community involvement contributed to the advancement of women, there no longer seemed to be specific enrolment requirements for any of those.

For the 2017–2018 school year, the NDP government changed funding to between $1,000 and $5,000 per scholarship and made the eligibility requirements stricter: applicants had to identify as a woman (otherwise known as “be a woman”) and be enrolled in a programme that advanced gender equality and promoted the self-advocacy of women through either one of two ways:

  1. A contribution to one of Alberta Status of Women’s mandate areas:
    • Women’s economic security
    • Women’s leadership and democratic participation
    • Eliminating violence against women and girls
  2. A field of study where the applicant’s gender is under-represented or disadvantaged

At some point between May 2019 and August 2019, the UCP government changed the scholarship value from up to $5,000 to an even $2,500 for each award.

Which brings us back to last year’s CBC article. If the point of the Women in STEM award was to replace the Persons Case Scholarship, why do we have both still?

Well, I couldn’t find any evidence anywhere that the scholarship ever ended up getting cancelled. Student Aid Alberta still had it listed on their website as recently as November, two months after the CBC article went to press.

Since that article was published, the UCP had further changed the Persons Case Scholarship by removing needing to be a woman and restricting studies to “a program where their gender is underrepresented”.

So, what that means now is we basically have two streams designed to increase enrolment of women: one stream for STEM studies, and one stream for—well, I’m not quite sure. What other programmes are there where women are underrepresented? Women made up 64% of undergrad students in non-STEM—so-called BHASE—programmes (at least in Canada), so that can’t be it. Trades then?

I guess Matt Wolf was right after all: it did get repurposed to STEM and trades.

And while it’s great that combining the two streams under one programme “streamlines the application process for students and reduces red tape”, it kinda sucks that now there’s no scholarship for women who want to study in programmes that advance gender equality and promote the self-advocacy of women.

But at least we’ll have more women welders to fill the demand of -40,000 construction jobs in Alberta.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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