Friday, September 21

Tories slammed over demise of women's groups

Opposition parties decried the demise of a leading women's group today, calling the Conservative government ``Neanderthal" and "misogynist" for cutting off federal support for advocacy and research on women's issues.

The latest organization to close its doors is the 33-year-old National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL), which lost a critical $300,000 a year after Status of Women Canada changed its funding rules last fall.

The government announced last fall that groups that do advocacy and research work would no longer qualify, in favour of groups – including for-profit ones – that provide direct services.

  • "I didn't get into politics, I didn't spend 30 years in volunteer work because Harper, a Neanderthal, would come and take that away from us," said Liberal MP Maria Minna.
    "Canada has to move forward and Neanderthal is yesterday's man and this man has got to go!"
  • Nicole Demers of the Bloc Quebecois was equally harsh: "It's high time to expose this crass misogynism and send these retrogrades to the backbenches."
  • New Democrat MP Irene Mathyssen said the loss of NAWL will "turn back the clock" on women's equality. She accused the Tories of ``abandoning" women.
  • But the minister in charge of Status of Women Canada suggested the organization itself is to blame for its current situation. Josee Verner encouraged NAWL to submit an application for funding this year, despite the change in criteria. "The association has been self-financed since 1998, the government is not responsible for the closure of its office," Verner insisted. "The closure is a result of its inability to receive adequate financing for its operations through fundraising."

Not true, said board member Louise Riendeau. She said NAWL relied almost entirely on government money, and fundraising amounted to a few thousand dollars a year.
Riendeau added that the group has exclusively done research and advocacy on law reform, making it a pointless exercise to try and get cash unless its entire mission is changed.

However, Vernor spokesman Andrew House said the group has applied for non-advocacy funding in the past and could do so again. He said NAWL got $290,000 in 2006 for a non-advocacy project called Strengthening Canada Through Poverty Reduction and Enhanced Security for Women.

Several women's groups have also been reduced to a few volunteers on cellphones, such as the New Brunswick Coalition of Transition Houses and the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women. Some expect to grind to a halt within the year, including the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action.

The Conservative government also shut down the Court Challenges Program, which helped fund minority groups who wanted to mount constitutional challenges.

It's position has been that there is a large enough body of research and statistics out there about obstacles to women's participation in society – now is the time to put money into direct services such as job training assistance for new immigrants. It beefed up the funding envelope for such projects by $5 million in the last budget, bringing it to $15.3 million.

"The way our government decided to work is to make sure that concrete results will be achieved for women in difficulty," Verner said.

LINK: Toronto Star

Susan Riley, The Ottawa CitizenPublished: Friday, September 21, 2007

Yesterday, the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL) became the latest victim -- on the heels of the Law Reform Commission, the Court Challenges program and other advocacy groups for minorities -- of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ideologically-driven funding cuts.
And nothing, especially not the vintage feminist epithets directed his way at a NAWL press conference -- "paternalistic," "misogynist," "totalitarian" -- is going to change his mind. As to the charge that Harper is "silencing women"-- if only it were that simple.

If women, feminist women, have fallen silent, it is not because a handful of worthy organizations fighting for their rights is now being denied federal funding. It is because of widespread complacency, a sense that the battles have been won, that women no longer need special advocacy. It is because feminist ideas -- if not the still-radioactive label -- have become mainstream. The prime minister may be exploiting that complacency, but he didn't, alone, create it.

In the 34 years since NAWL was formed, it has made noticeable progress -- reforms to laws concerning custody, rape, workplace harassment and access to abortion. Most political parties today ardently court women candidates. Any politician who utters a sexist remark faces career suicide. (Even well-known political consultant Warren Kinsella got into trouble recently for joking that a woman MPP would "rather be home baking cookies.")

Beneath this reassuring surface, however, there are contradictory statistics and important nuances -- in short, the kind of research findings that were NAWL's specialty. Women still make 73 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. Women are still routinely killed, raped and assaulted -- there were reports of two more incidents yesterday, for a total of 300 sexual assaults in this region this year. Only 20 per cent of federal politicians are women; corporate boardrooms remain as male-dominated as ever. The list is too familiar: the acute poverty of many aboriginal women, the shortage of child care despite the Harper government's token $100-a-month baby bonus, subtle but real obstacles to ambitious young women intent on non-traditional careers, continued resistance to pay equity.

Conservatives say there is nothing stopping aggrieved groups from raising money privately -- and they have a point. Most environmental groups operate as private charities; in fact, some believe that to take money from government would compromise their work. Fifty per cent of the population is female and not all women are poor. Indeed, NAWL counts many lawyers among its ranks. It might be liberating to be free of this strained dependency on a government that loathes everything it stands for.

It isn't that easy, says NAWL board member Pamela Cross. "Women of this country are the poor people of this country," she says. Many are already over-committed and exhausted. It isn't realistic to imagine replacing NAWL's $300,000 annual funding (and four staff) through bake sales and quilt raffles. As for the success of green fund-raisers: "Environmentalists have more favour with the public than we do."

Which is exactly the problem. Bloc MP Nicole Demers, her party's women's critic, expressed "deep anger that defending the rights of women has become 'obsolete'." This potent myth has allowed government to cut funding to unfriendly organizations (including the respected Child Care Advocacy group) with relative impunity. The Tories have also changed the funding criteria at the Status of Women bureau to favour "concrete," short-lived projects over grants to organizations devoted to profound change.

This shouldn't surprise anyone, least of all feminists. Harper only blinks if he fears political damage -- as he has on the environment and in his overtures to Quebec. (Even then, his course corrections tend to be more rhetorical than real.) He is convinced the groups he is targeting are irrelevant, out of touch with mainstream Canada. It doesn't help that much of NAWL's work is low-profile, academic and only quietly useful to politicians and equality-seeking groups. (Nor is his the first government to attack these groups. It was the Liberals who eliminated funding for the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.)

NAWL's disappearance will hasten the erosion of feminist influence at the centre of power. It will be up to feminist politicians, academics and volunteer groups to try to fill the gap -- and find new ways to reach a large and potentially receptive audience, starting with new language. The polls suggest many women, in particular, remain cool toward Harper -- not only, or even primarily, because of his war on feminism. It could be Afghanistan, or health care, or some careless remark: something will rekindle the feminist flame.

Susan Riley's column runs Monday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail:

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