Wednesday, June 6

Women's agency a victim of changing priorities: report

Status of Women Canada, the country's main agency for women's equality, seems to have been on the verge of imploding even before government budget cuts last fall.

A pair of reports from 2005 and 2006 say the agency's own staff labelled it "a relic of the past" and that its effectiveness was hobbled as gender equity slipped from being "a top-of-the-agenda issue" in Ottawa.

Opposition MPs have called changes to the agency by the Conservative government last fall an ideological move to promote a socially conservative agenda.

However, the documents obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act suggest the agency was due for a major shake-up even before the Tories decided on an overhaul.

A 2006 internal memo posed the question "Where is the organization today?"

The answers: "Unknown; getting worse - low and lowering profile both within and outside of government - lots of turnover with employees - no real stability - concerned about institutional stability - high turnover results in loss of corporate memory."

"We're not showing results . . . we don't have the authority to make things happen."

The documents cited staff burnout, including people leaving out of frustration, a "defeatist attitude" and lack of political leadership, no "clear vision of where it's going and how it plans to get there," and "inefficient attention to results and accountability."

The consulting firm Sussex Circle was commissioned in 2005 to look at the agency. It interviewed officials from the Privy Council and Treasury Board as well as the agency's senior management and staff.

The 2005 study quoted officials as calling the agency a "a relic," an institution that may once have served an important purpose, but whose mission and mandate needed to be rethought or updated.

James Mitchell, author of the reports, declined to comment.

Despite the call for rethinking the agency, the documents also highlighted some successes, including its work with aboriginal women and potential for a turnaround after creation of the Commons committee on the status of women in 2004.

But the reports concluded that gender equality was no longer a headline political issue for the federal government.

The 2005 study, completed before last year's federal election, said gender equality "ought still to be a matter of serious concern to the government, but in a different way than, say, 30 years ago."

"Other issues of equality and rights, notably related to the rights and circumstances of immigrants and people of colour, have become more prominent in the public mind and on the government agenda."

The Liberals, who were in power when this study was commissioned, say they don't agree with the criticisms.

"It was under our government that we introduced parental leave, early learning and child-care programs to ensure that women are more self-sufficient and to address poverty of women," said Maria Minna, Liberal critic for the status of women.

Bev Oda, the Conservative minister for the status of women, said the government reviewed all of the reports when it considered changes to the agency.

"I think it just shows that the Liberal government was out of touch all along and not aware of the real issues that women face," she said.

The Conservatives appear to have adopted some of the documents' suggestions.

Helene Dwyer-Renaud, one of the agency's directors, wrote in an e-mail to Mitchell, the report's author, that her vision of the agency would not include the women's issues advocacy work, but rather an integration of gender policy into all government departments.

"So, based on that, do you need separate ministerial services? Who wants to be the minister of a phasing-out department?" she wrote.

While the Conservatives didn't do away with the women's program, many women's rights groups protested the removal of women's equality from the program's mandate and the end to funding for advocacy, lobbying and research by women's groups.

Critics also opposed the closure of 12 of 16 regional offices and $5 million in funding cuts.

But in the 2007 federal budget, the Conservatives reversed the cuts by pledging $20 million over two years and said they supported the "full participation"of women in the economic, social and cultural life of Canada."

Catherine Tillsley, executive director of the National Council of Women of Canada, said she still worries about the agency's future. Where it was once a ministry, it's slipped to the status of a program.

"I think we're going to lose Status of Women Canada entirely," she said. "I think that's the goal of the Conservatives."

She said women have yet to achieve full equality, citing pay inequity and violence against women as examples.

LINK: 570 News

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