Globe and Mail

Canadian women of both genders duke it out at the UN

Saturday, March 27, 1999
The Globe and Mail

So the phone rings. And it's this pal of mine who works for the United Nations Population Fund in New York. She's got a rather bald question: "What is up with Canada?"

Seems there's a conference this week at the UN, a follow-up to the 1994 World Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. And Canada has sent a big delegation: government types and lots of non-government organizations (NGOs in bureaucratese). And the biggest NGO delegation is Real Women, the traditionalist group that champions "the rights of families" and opposes abortion.

But delegations from other countries are a little confused, because apparently the majority of Real Women's 21 registered delegates are, in fact, men. Then there are other Canadian women who call themselves Fake Women. But the fake women really are women, unlike a lot of the Real women.

"The jokes are flying thick and fast in the corridors," my pal reports. "That a real Canadian woman is really a transsexual. The Canadians say they're real women, but their names are Lawrence and Andrew and Father Menton. But you know, we're an inclusive bunch at the UN. We welcome diversity."

There's more. It seems the Canadian women, both the female women and the other kind, don't get along. "The Real women have been going around telling everyone the official Canadian delegation is full of crazed lesbians," she says. "It's all extremely bizarre."

Indeed. So I get on the phone. First, I reach Real's national vice-president Gwendolyn Landolt in the New York offices of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, where she is doing a quick bit of writing. With a sigh in her patient, grade-school-teacher's kind of voice, she agrees that relations are strained.

Real accuses the government delegation of advancing a population-control agenda, thinly cloaked in the rhetoric of women's rights. Fearful of a population explosion in the developing world and a concomittant erosion of power in the First World, Canada and its First World allies are determined to check Third World population, she says.

Whereas Real, she says, is much more concerned about development and health, and they've been working flat out, meeting behind the scenes with delegates from the Third World to spread the message that the majority of Canadians don't think like the government delegation. Ms. Landolt also calls the Foreign Affairs Department a "private fiefdom of the minister and bureaucrats," intent on advancing a left-wing feminist agenda of which the rest of the country is ignorant.

So what about this lesbian thing? Sounding uncomfortable, she says of the official Canadian team, "They have been trying to promote a gay agenda internationally."

And are Real Women actually men? Ms. Landolt will say only Real does allow men to be associate members and that a few have come along; in fact, 15 of Real Women's 21 delegates are men. "We let them come if they have the money and they want to attend, providing they know we're in charge," she says with a laugh. "The men do the running around and we do the thinking. We're women-dominated, you might say."

On to the Fake women. Seems "Feminists Alive And Kicking For Equality" came together largely as a poke at the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. They include the likes of Katherine McDonald, of Action Canada for Population and Development, and they're still poking.

What does the government have to say? There are 13 people in the official Canadian delegation, including representatives from Foreign Affairs, CIDA and Health Canada. (Five of them are men, incidentally.) "We don't ourselves have the sense that other delegations are asking questions about Canada," a grave senior official with the delegation assures me on the phone. (I'd tell you which senior official he was, but I'm asked not to by the senior official, because he's not the Official Spokesperson. The Official Spokesperson is not available for comment. Which you might think would be a fairly important requirement for an Official Spokesperson.)

The debates between the pro-life camp and the reproductive rights forces, are not new ones, and dog every such conference. But the old hands agree this one is particularly weird. "It's a little embarrassing to be Canadian," says a weary Bonnie Johnson, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada and an NGO delegate, back in her hotel room after a day of meetings. "We're ignoring the Real women the best we can. And they tell such whoppers that nobody believes them. They keep saying they're the biggest women's organization in Canada. And I think, right, you're so big you had to bring men?"

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