ROGERSVILLE – In a village of fewer than 1,200 people between Moncton and Miramichi, an innovative program is helping women like 65-year-old Jocelyn Bourque and 39-year-old Annie Arseneault build their skills and gain confidence.
Femmes Fortes, a municipality-backed program that offers free workshops for women, gained Rogersville the Francophone Association of New Brunswick Municipalities’ innovation prize in October 2019. It has offered 50 workshops since it launched in the fall of 2018.
The sessions cover everything from stress management, meditation and budget cooking for a family, to car maintenance, interview preparation, resume writing and starting a business. They’re offered to women of all ages and backgrounds. Instructors of the workshops are either community members or businesses that volunteered, or are professionals paid by the program.
Bourque has taken part in six or seven workshops. She particularly liked the one on construction, which was run by carpenters.
“I just adored construction,” she said. “We started around 1 pm I would say and by 5 pm we went home with our garden box.”
Bourque said in addition to being part of a community of women who wants to learn, the knowledge from the workshops also gives her more confidence.
“It’s very rewarding to me to learn something new and that you can do it no matter how old you are,” she said. “It gives you more confidence and more independence because you learn that you can do a lot by yourself.”
“Now I’d be more willing to try other things, something that I thought at first I can’t do, or I don’t have the skills for,” she added.
Arseneault, a working mom who participated in 12 workshops, agreed. She also liked the construction workshop, in addition to ones covering a wide range of things from wills and power of attorney, work-life balance and stress management.
“I really, really enjoyed construction. It was one of my bucket list items to be able to use machinery, to be able to build something by myself,” she said.
Arseneault said she took part because she wants to gain knowledge on various topics for herself, but also to share with her family and colleagues.
She also likes the sense of community the program has encouraged. Each of the workshops she had attended had 20 to 30 participants, said Arseneault, who had also run one workshop.
“I really think this is very positive for the community and there was a need,” she said. “We sometimes forget how dependent we can be on our husbands, our fathers or fathers-in-law – those male figures in our lives, that we forget that us women, we’re able to do those stuff.”
It helps that the workshops are free and are offered locally, too.
Bourque said learning skills like construction, legal matters and others would often require a drive to Moncton or Miramichi. And the sessions often cost.
Arseneault says she was able to attend so many of these workshops because they are free.
It’s important to keep the workshops accessible, including by making it free and child-friendly, said Angèle McCaie, the municipality’s manager who started the program.
“Sometimes just taking that first step to come to a session, to step out of your comfort zone is already so difficult. Some of these women are isolated. There’s so many obstacles in their life for them to even get to this session, that I don’t want to put any other obstacle in their way,” McCaie said.
Besides, once the word is out, many people in the community don’t mind giving their time and expertise for free, she said.
A Personal Inspiration
McCaie was inspired by her aunt, who, upon seeing McCaie change her own windshield wiper, told her she doesn’t know how to do that. McCaie’s uncle had passed away two years prior and her aunt had become dependent on him for things like car maintenance.
“I think we can do better than that for women. I think we can help each other out and create more independence and more confidence in these women,” McCaie said. “It kind of started with the widows, I was thinking what can we offer them now that they’re maybe alone or they have different challenges, and how can they address those challenges.”
After receiving seed money through a government grant and conducting public consultations, the project turned into one offered to women from all backgrounds and ages.
Approximately 40 women were consulted and McCaie came out with a long list of things they want to learn.
“We have mental health courses – anxiety, depression, self confidence. They wanted to learn how to do house maintenance, and construction and mechanics, and all of these non-traditional skills that we don’t tend to learn,” she said.
“They also wanted to learn things like how to make bread, how to sew, things like that that might be lost over the years. We had a lot of women offering their expertise, too.”
“Everyone has something that they can teach anyone else…There’s real value to all this wealth of knowledge that women across generations have,” McCaie added.
She’s now supported by her colleagues and other community members to run the program. She regularly works with the local chamber of commerce and businesses. Companies like RBC, and organizations like Opportunities New Brunswick, for example, have offered workshops on starting a small business, and other topics.
“We have to do partnerships for it to work…We’re so isolated here and I think that’s the only way that we can get anything done,” she said.
Femmes Fortes is now a movement, McCaie said, with 200 t-shirts showing the program’s logo sold and more on order. More women who weren’t reached before have come to join the program as well.
“We’ve had comments from people who said they were able to come out of their shell, and it really helped them with their resume and have the courage to apply for a different job,” she said.
She plans to continue offering workshops and says she’s willing to help other municipalities implement similar programs.
“I think there’s a growing need to have this type of service. I think we owe it to our citizens to try to help them out and try to help them develop as citizens and people,” she said.