Tuesday, March 22, 2016

NAC attack: As Canada's premier, mass-based feminist organization, the national action committee on the status of women, fights for its life, writer Elizabeth Carlyle suggests that young women have a vital role to play in rejuvenating the organization

Canada's National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) is under attack from so many sides it is in danger of collapse.

For more than a decade, Canada's largest feminist and women's rights organization, comprised of hundreds of women's groups from coast to coast, has been struggling through strategic funding cuts and racist, divide-and-conquer tactics to undermine the development of feminism in Canada.

Like so many frontlines and advocacy non-governmental organizations that used to be supported by state dollars, NAC can no longer rely on public funds to support its operations. While the European Union has vastly increased the core funding it makes available to organizations like NAC, Canadian federal and provincial governments, across all major political parties, have erected more and more hoops through which to jump for funding, and have just plain old axed budgets. Today, NAC relies on dwindling membership fees and donations (member organizations have been affected by the same funding cuts as the umbrella body), individual donors, and government funding on a project-by-project basis.

Unlike many other NGOs, the mere mention of the core of NAC's mandate sends most politicians' eyes rolling and funding bodies running: the "F" word. Feminism.

Having already contributed to undermining NAC by putting women's faces to Progressive Conservative and now Liberal government funding cuts, the small-"I" liberal feminists dealt another, equally crushing blow. It came in the form of bitter internal strife and soul-searching. When Sunera Thobani, a woman of colour, was elected as NAC president in 1995, the racist leanings of sizeable segments of the women's movement were exposed and exacerbated. Women's and even self-described feminist organizations, felt that Thobani could nor represent all women in NAC. She was seen by these organizations as a special-interest candidate that would allow NAC to be overrun by special-interest groups. They feared Thobani's marginalization in society would rub off on NAC. Instead of supporting a new direction for NAC, too many trumpeted that she would not have the political clout to do the job. An alarming number of organizations, already spooked by the declining fortunes of the national umbrella group, walked away from NAC and never came back.

Despite the vocal support of such staunch and savvy alumni as former NAC president and media personality Judy Rebick, Thobani laboured under constant criticism and, worse, fear. Even though the 1996 Women's March Against Poverty was wildly successful in unifying and mobilizing women and supporters of women's rights and social justice across the country; the rift was already deep. Women from the immigrant, ethnic-minority, workers-of-colour, and lesbian communities were trying to internationalize and modernize NAC at a time when it most needed to build its base and reach out, but the old guard recoiled. Sensing its vulnerability, the Liberals on Parliament Hill openly mocked NAC, denied even the most modest funding requests, sent back-benchers to NAG lobby sessions, and aggressively defamed the organization in public.

Throughout this turmoil brewing inside and out, labour, the sexual-assault crisis centres, women's studies faculty and students, and a handful of other sectors remained unflinching in their support of NAC. Aboriginal women and anti-poverty organizations began to join.

Today, membership is down from about 800 member organizations in the early nineties to 650 organizations today. NAC's 25year-old provincial counterpart, the Manitoba Action Committee on the Status of Women, closed its offices throughout Manitoba under cover of deafening silence in 1999. Annual general meetings of NAC used to be full to the rafters, assembling upwards of 700 women under one roof At the October, 2001 general meeting, there were barely 100 voting delegates.

Understandably, the organization has gone -- or rather has been driven -- into bunker mode, struggling against an all-out mediaand government-driven assault. NAG staff have been through a yoyo sequence of lay-offs and recalls, and work under incredible pressure. The limits of solidarity donations are strained and project funding is inadequate to cover basic operational costs.

Yet, amidst all this, NAC has survived. Against all odds and despite the best efforts of the federal government, the organization has continued to provide a broad, national voice to women's concerns and demands. During the successful World March of Women 2000, coordinated by the organization of women of Quebec (FFQ) and pan-Canadian and international coordinating committees of which NAC was a part, NAC was front and centre, speaking out on poverty and violence against women. Tens of thousands of women across Canada and Quebec and millions more around the world participated in the World March of Women. NAC also helped shed international light on Canada's shameful record on poverty in a campaign that contrasted Canada's social policies to its reputation as one of the most desirable countries in which to live. NAC has begun to bring the demands of Aboriginal women to the fore, working with Aboriginal women's groups to highlight issues such as child apprehensions by the state, local leadership structures that ar e prejudiced against Aboriginal women, poverty in Aboriginal communities, support services for Aboriginal women and domestic violence.

Ultimately, though, if NAC is to survive and gain strength, young women must play a key role in continuing the fightback, both within NAC as a structure and as feminists in general.

At its last general meeting, the most compelling and articulate speeches on plenary floor were delivered by young women. On October 16, 2001 NAC elected its first young woman president, Denise Campbell.

It may be too early to tell, but Campbell's election, and the renewed fight against the backlash on campuses inspired by professor Sunera Thobani's brave words of opposition to the war against terrorism, could lay the foundations for the renewal of the Canadian feminist and women's movements.

I am part of the generation that is part of this "new wave," but that also has some concrete, if thin, ties to the feminism of the seventies and eighties. When I was teenager, I took access to abortion for granted, until my older and wiser friend Barb reamed me out. She explained to me the mammoth battle that women had waged, the male violence with which their efforts were met, and her years in the trenches protesting outside anti-abortion bookstores, politicians' offices and hospitals.

Barb also helped wake me up to feminism and get over my trepidation about women's-only spaces. I had always thought there had to be a way other than gender segregation. My ecological sensibilities were offended by the inorganicism of gender-divided spaces. Then, as an elected representative on my university's student-union board, where I had to face daily chauvinism and power games, I came to see the women's centre as a welcome hideaway from all the male-dominated crap that went on there. By the early nineties, when the student union was having a bad year, the women's centre became the nerve-centre of all efforts on campus to organise both men and women on the Left. I felt at home in the women's centre, and recognized it as a source of strength in the struggle for women's rights.

My younger sister, not even half a generation farther away than me from the struggle for abortion rights, has a keen sense of entitlement to her rights as a woman. Having three elder sisters and growing up in the "grrrl power" generation seem to have had an impact. Even accounting roughly for personality differences, she was more confident at a younger age, more likely to ask for what she wanted, and more likely to take up "male pursuits" like the pure sciences and certain sports. Her peers seem cut from similar cloth. More remarkably, at least in some circles of the mainstream, young women are taking serious steps towards independence. As one example: I remember a lot more pressure to have a boyfriend in high school; whereas my sister and her peers seem relatively unconcerned about defining themselves in relation to young men, even in the face of unrelenting, anachronistic media images from the likes of Beverly Hills 90210.

All anecdotal evidence aside, the facts seems to be clear. Over the past decade, women have been losing ground on all major indicators of their social and economic welfare. A recent study, commissioned by NAC, spells it out: the wage gap between men and women has grown for working-class women; women's jobs are still less stable than men's; women are better educated than ever but paid less for the same work as men. Only a few, wealthy women are better off with regard to some economic indicators. And there's no evidence that any women are safer on the streets or in their own homes.

And yet young women still feel powerful. Even after shaving away the pop-culture veneer of "Spice Girl Power," young women today have discernibly different offerings to make to feminism. A case in point is the Winnipeg Take Back the Night March this year. There had recently been several killings and beatings of Aboriginal women street-walkers in Winnipeg's North End, a mostly poor, Aboriginal and immigrants' neighbourhood.

The principle organizer, a gutsy young woman named Laurie from the University of Winnipeg Women's Centre, pulled together the march on short notice, working with Aboriginal women's groups to hold the first-ever Take Back the Night march that would not visit the provincial legislature. Unfortunately, the classist and racist boils in the feminist movement blistered: Laurie received phone calls from distressed TBTN die-hards who were worried about parking their cars in the North End. Laurie was resolute but also accommodating: she offered to book a bus to shuttle people from the university to the Turtle Island Community Centre in the North End.

Even more boldly, the organizers decided to allow men to participate in the march. Until then, the march had always been a women only exercise in empowerment. The change represented an attempt to reflect the approach of the Aboriginal community to dealing with male violence against women. But it also represented the attitude of many young feminists who are interested in educating men, and are confident in the ability of the women's movement to challenge men to change, face-to-face.

I complained loudly about the presence of men at the event. Although I appreciated that Aboriginal groups had welcomed us into their space, I felt that there were other ways in which men could contribute to the evening. I felt uncomfortable with the kind of heterodominance it would lend to the event, as women urged their boyfriends or husbands to join them for the march. It ran counter to my reasons for being there: I wanted to feel powerful and safe on the streets as a woman. I had seen too many ridiculous white men's drumming circles and awkward men's caucuses at student meetings to let them ruin my night on the streets. The fact that I need 300 women with me on the street to feel comfortable there after dark was bad enough, and adding a few men just annoyed me. I raised my concerns with Laurie, and the fact that she was so unapologetic made me think again.

I remain skeptical of a certain individualized and decontextualized sense of entitlement and bravado that seems to mark the new wave. I am concerned that many young women activists (and young activists in general, for that matter) don't see the need to address government and have not yet articulated any concrete alternative to the electoral system. I am even more wary of the feminism (feminism-light?) that is not grounded in clear theory or analysis, or even defined as feminism per Se. I am also concerned about its detachment from the labour movement, its lack of involvement in women-centred organizations, and its propensity for turning out male cult-of-personality leaders like Jaggi Singh and Svend Robinson. (Both are wonderful activists in many ways, but so are lots of women that no one bothers listening to.)

Yet I am also inspired by the confident, energetic and intense attitude of the youngest of the new women's activists. Although class issues still get short shrift, not in any small part because poor women are under so much pressure that conventional methods of organising do not include them in most feminist and women's organising efforts, the new feminists have a wide scope of vision that sweeps over anti-globalization, anti-racism, reproductive rights and ecological citizenship. Canada's wealthy, mostly male, Liberal elite may have succeeded in driving a stake into the heart of the women's movement; however, it is not too late to bring NAC and feminism in Canada back from the edge. I may have to live through a few more mixed-gender Take Back the Night marches to get there, but I, for one, am up for the challenge.

Elizabeth Carlyle is a long-time student organizer. She has served as National Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students and Representative for Women's Rights and Equality of the International Union of Students.

Carlyle, Elizabeth

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