I first met Jill Piebiak in 2015 when she was subletting my room in Toronto for the summer. I noticed our apartment filling up with campaign posters and Jill deeply absorbed in her laptop. I casually asked her what she was working on and she said she was leading a campaign called “No Tax on Tampons.” She was so humble about it all, it didn’t occur to me to pepper her with questions. But I do remember having the distinct thought that she might just be the coolest person in Toronto.
Two years later as She Said Films (and me!) grows into our political activism, I am reconnecting with Jill for this She Said Notes interview and finally asking the important questions!
Remember when I ‘interviewed’ you to see if you would be an okay subletter?
Yeah, years ago!
I think the only thing I knew when we met is that you were coming from Montreal.
Yeah I was at Concordia.
But let’s go back further!
Well… I grew up in northern Alberta and I went to the University of Alberta for my degree in Political Science. Then I went to Concordia in Montreal for my Masters in Media Studies. My masters looked at how digital technology, satire and political organizing came together to influence politics. Then I moved to Toronto to work for the midterm elections and the federal elections.
And now you’re in Hamilton!
Yeah! My partner works there and I followed him since I can work from anywhere. And it really doesn’t hurt that we can live in a nice place for a third of what we’d be paying in Toronto.
Okay! I have so many questions for you. But first, I feel like we need to introduce the No Tax on Tampons campaign that you led.
Let’s start with the history. Tax on feminine hygiene products was introduced in 1991 and since then private member’s bills were brought forward consistently to remove the tax. My friends in Montreal and I had been talking about wanting to remove this tax for about two years and they became the people who did the grunt work with me. I was inspired by these friends and feminist circles that wanted to use the tools we were learning from our political backgrounds to campaign for the things we thought were important.
And it worked!
It did! July 1st 2015 is when the tax was removed.
How did you do it?
Well… we launched the campaign on January 26th 2015—the day the session went back into the House of Commons.
What does that mean—“the day the session went back into the House of Commons?”
This is the first of many times that I ask Jill to back up and explain terms she’s using. I’m getting schooled and I love it.
A session happens two to four times a year. It’s when parliamentarians debate issues and pass laws in the House of Commons. We wanted the government to pass a private member’s bill introduced by Irene Mathyssen [NDP MP from London-Fanshawe]. We needed to bring that bill forward before the budget was introduced and before an election was called.
If we didn’t succeed, the bill would be squashed and the process would have to start from square one.
And the bill was passed.
Our bill was timely!
Did it seem like it might be impossible to gather people on your side?
Jill breathes in deeply.
With issues that have always been systematic it’s not very inspiring because they’ve always been that way. We were taking on the Canadian patriarchy and Canadian parliamentary law so instead of saying all that and scaring people away, we focused on a small tangible goal: getting signatures, which would be the catalyst for making very small powerful changes.
Our story was that we were gathering signatures to bring about one small change. Our goal was to get fifty thousand signatures.
Did you ever have to shift the ‘story’ of your campaign?
We chose a narrative and stuck to it. For example, we didn’t use the words “women” and “femininity.” Instead we talked about “menstruation” in order to include the LGBTQ community. We took away any politics talk so that the campaign seemed more personal and approachable even though it was 100% supported and backed by NDP politicians. We also knew that if we framed the campaign as a “women’s cause” or a “feminine cause” we would lose the conservative women and end up seeming like liberal hippies.
Nothing wrong with liberal hippies!
Ha! Yeah, I’m proud to be one… but when signatures are at stake?!
Would you use other people’s stories to propel your own?
Sure, we’d use stories or comments that people would share with us on social media or send to us by email… things like what it meant to them that the government was making money off their bodies, that the government cared more about wedding cakes being tax-free than tampons being tax-free.
Wedding cakes are tax-free?!
Oh yeah, ‘cause wedding cakes feed so many people.
Jill and I laugh at the absurdity!
In terms of telling a story through our campaign, we used a lot of old menstruation ads, you know, to add humour. It’s absurd how ad agencies used to talk about and portray periods. I mean the reality is that if you don’t have menstruation products you lose your dignity and ability to use the public sphere. You can’t leave your house! You can’t be productive in an economic standpoint and you can’t participate in society.
What kind of resistance did you come up against?
Well, the Canadian Taxpayers Association is a conservative lobby and their biggest critique was that “this was getting nitpicky.” What they failed to understand is that we were not just talking about HST we were talking about gender discrimination. Oh, and I was trolled. So men online would leave me comments saying things like “toilet paper is essential and it’s taxed so shut up.” At one point I started explaining the difference between toilet paper and tampons and then… (She chuckles) I mean, it seems so obvious but… I just started ignoring it. I went back to focusing on the campaign.
Do you see this work as creative?
I guess? I mean building and crafting a political message is a creative process. But as someone trained in politics and campaigning it feels more strategic.
What’s the most overtly creative thing you’ve done?
Hm, tough one… for the campaign, I wrote all the graphic specs. I envisioned what the message of the campaign would look like. I pretty much became an expert at writing puns! That sort of thing. I worked with designers and scriptwriters and comedians to explain my vision.
Sounds like highly creative work to me. You were the creative director!
Jill laughs and doesn’t agree or disagree.
So what’s next for you, Jill?
I’m manager of the social media team for British Columbia’s NDP party for the next six months. After that I’ll probably go back to digital consulting for labour unions.
I’ll keep looking for you on change.org!
Okay! The No Tax on Tampons campaign is still there!
Here is the link for all the curious readers: canadianmenstruators.ca
In the end the campaign gathered 74,449 signatures! I’m inspired by Jill’s bigger picture mentality. But yet she knows that real and powerful change can happen through small actions. It can’t all be fixed at once. And if it needs fixing, start a petition, print it, sign it and send it to parliament. Anyone is capable of bringing about change!