Wednesday, November 7

Oda ignored officials on changes to women's agency....Verner's no better!

Conservative minister Bev Oda ignored the advice of her departmental officials last year when she changed the objectives and funding criteria for Status of Women Canada's main granting program, changes that included deleting references to the word equality.

Only a few months before the Tories transformed the terms, conditions and objectives of the Women's Program, former Status of Women co-ordinator Florence Ievers recommended to Oda that they stay exactly the same. Her memo to Oda was obtained by The Canadian Press through Access to Information legislation. Oda has since been replaced in the portfolio by Josee Verner.

"Maintain the current WP (Women's Program) mandate, objectives and areas of focus," Ievers wrote in June 2006, as part of a scheduled review of the terms and conditions.

Ievers also noted that her recommendations be carried out "within existing resource levels."

During the same time period of government deliberations on the program, an online campaign had been started by a number of social conservatives, including REAL Women of Canada, to axe Status of Women Canada altogether.

By September, the Tories had cut $5 million from the agency's administrative budget and had moved to rewrite the mandate of the Women's Program, a funding envelope that distributes money to organizations across the country.

The word "equality" disappeared from all literature, and groups that did advocacy or research work on women's issues were no longer eligible to receive cash.

The four previous objectives of the Women's Program, which included helping women's organizations get involved in the public policy process and increasing public awareness of women's equality, were replaced with a single line: "To achieve the full participation of women in the economic, social and cultural life of Canada."

For the first time, for-profit organizations also became eligible for funding. None of the changes was recommended to Oda by officials in their memo.

Verner emphasized in an interview Wednesday that her government wants to see funding go to projects that provide direct services to women.

"The officials offer advice, not direction, and what we decided to do was to offer to every woman a practical support for concrete results for them," Verner said.

In the past several months, a number of women's organizations, including the National Association of Women and the Law and the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, have closed their doors or laid off staff because their core funding dried up. They argue that without their advocacy work over the decades, many legal gains made by women would not have been achieved.

"Instead of (Oda) listening to the people who knew what they were talking about, she was driven by this anti-equality ideology of the governing party, and clearly her marching orders were contrary to the best interests of the women of this country," said NDP Status of Women critic Irene Mathyssen

Both Oda and Verner have explained that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms already guarantees women's equality, therefore it was unnecessary to have it spelled out in the agency's objectives, and terms and conditions.

The department felt differently.

"The Women's Program remains relevant in the current context where considerable work remains to be done to advance women's equality and where women's groups and their issues have become increasingly diverse and strategies complex," Ievers wrote in the memo, referring to an evaluation of the program that had been undertaken.

The government has faced stiff opposition to the changes at Status of Women from all opposition parties and women's groups across the country. In the last federal budget, the Conservatives announced they would put $10 million more into the Women's Program, effectively increasing the agency's total budget by $5 million.

"What we decided to do is to take money from the bureaucracy, and direct the money towards Canadian women for projects that can change their lives," said Verner.
Verner pointed out that the government has initiated a mentoring program for aboriginal women, one to combat violence against young women and girls, and another to protect women with intellectual challenges.

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