Wednesday, September 19

De-funding advocacy

Almost a year ago, the federal government announced changes to the rules for funding women's groups in Canada. Now that the dust is settling, it's time to start assessing the damage.

Behold a sad state of affairs. The losses are mounting among local, regional and national non-profit organizations dedicated to fighting discrimination and injustice.

After twenty years of valuable efforts on behalf of women and children victims of domestic violence, the New Brunswick Coalition of Transition Houses has no money left to pay for a phone line or a staff salary. The formerly-paid Coordinator is volunteering her time and her cell phone.

Crumbling infrastructure and lost community-based expertise are part of the price we pay for the federal government's decision to weaken SWC.

Just this week, the National Association of Women and the Law, a thirty year veteran of research and advocacy on pay equity, maternity and parental leave and family law, announced that it has been forced to lay off all staff and shut down its national office. The NAWL Board will keep the organization alive on a volunteer basis, but notes its capacity to consult with women's groups and advocate for feminist law reform will be greatly diminished.

This past June, the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women — a promoter and clearinghouse for research and action to advance social justice and equality for all women — laid off most of its small staff, including its dynamic and dedicated Research Coordinator.
Crumbling infrastructures and the scattering of community-based expertise are part of the price we are paying for the federal government's decision to weaken the mandate of Status of Women Canada.

For years, the SWC sought "to support action by women's organizations and other partners seeking to advance equality for women by addressing women's economic, social, political and legal situation."

Under the new mandate, the grant program aims "to facilitate women's participation in Canadian society by addressing their economic, social and cultural situation through Canadian organizations."

So actions to advance equality are out. The new funding criteria are quite explicit: organizations seeking grants can not be involved in advocacy and lobbying of municipal, provincial or federal Governments.

Are they kidding us? Inequality still plagues women in many aspects of their lives. For certain groups, notably women with disabilities and Aboriginal women, the inequalities are soul-crushing.

Women need non-governmental organizations in their corner working for bigger social change, because they are chronically under-represented at all three levels of government. How else will politicians and policy-makers be forced to take women's issues into account?

So what kind of work is now eligible for funding? Try small projects providing direct services to individual women. That includes projects run by religious and for-profit organizations.
This means, for example, "no" to funding groups that lobby for fairer salary systems for traditionally female jobs, but "yes" to programs that outfit women with clothing for their job search. Clothing programs are fine, but women's jobs must also be fairly paid so that they can afford to feed and clothe themselves and their families and put some money aside for a decent retirement.

The Harper government has tried to make advocacy a dirty word. But most of us would agree with Jackie Matthews of the New Brunswick Coalition of Transition Houses, who says, "Advocacy is part of democracy — it's a catalyst for change for the better."
Advocacy organizations work for the rights of citizens who belong to groups that experience systemic discrimination. Society as a whole is poorer when lobby groups do not have the time, resources and freedom to speak up about the needs and reality of citizens too vulnerable to be heard.

Governments that mainly deal with service delivery groups and ignore advocacy groups — as is the case in Canada to a much greater extent than in other developed countries — can be accused of maintaining problems, rather than solving them. Efforts to reduce the suffering of victims do nothing to change the conditions that create victims.

Here in New Brunswick, a handful of groups — like the Coalition of Transition Houses, the NB Child Care Coalition, the Urban Core Support Network and the NB Coalition for Pay Equity — previously shared in a modest pot of federal funding. All relied heavily on volunteers and partnerships with community, business and government organizations to stretch their meager grants.

The work of these groups has helped raise public awareness and contributed to some important policy and program improvements. Were it not for the pressure put on the provincial government by the NB Coalition of Transition Houses in recent years, for example, there would not be full funding now for the basic operational budgets of the shelters for abused women and children.

The undervaluation of women's work and the lack of quality, affordable early education and child care services have been moved up on the public reform agenda by the provincial child care and pay equity coalitions. The Urban Core Support Network, active in Saint John for more than a decade, has played a role in improving some of the social assistance benefits and increasing understanding of the impact on community development.

But of these, only the Urban Core Support Network has received some new project funding to date. Others are getting by on what's left of their grants under the old rules, or are limping along by relying on already-overworked volunteers.

The situation is particularly dramatic for groups in our province, since the New Brunswick government, unlike some others, does not provide support to advocacy groups.

Contrast New Brunswick's situation with the Newfoundland and Labrador government, for example. Since 1998, Newfoundland has funded that province's transition house coalition and eight women's centres, which help mobilize community action around women's concerns and conduct consultation and research on issues affecting the status of women in their region.

So is this the end of women's organizing for change? Hardly. The Harper government has landed some blows, but we're not out yet. Watch this space.

Ginette Petitpas-Taylor of Moncton is Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Her column on women's issues appears in the Times & Transcript every Thursday. She may be reached via email at the address below.
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