National Post

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Tuesday, June 08, 1999

NAC serenades, then berates MPs

Sheldon Alberts
National Post

"All we want is our fair share. We'll stay out of Hedy's hair. With one enormous cheque. Oh, wouldn't it be lovely."
-- NAC lobbying chorus

OTTAWA - A group of Liberal cabinet ministers was booed and hissed yesterday by angry members of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, who chanted a song demanding the government write the group "one enormous cheque" to support its lobby efforts on behalf of Canadian feminists.

During a raucous and confrontational one-hour "lobby" session on Parliament Hill, about 60 NAC supporters accused the Liberals of betraying their longstanding commitment to launch a national child- care program, disregarding the human rights of sex trade workers and waging a war of ethnic cleansing against Jamaican-Canadian men.

While some MPs fired back with their own criticisms of NAC's in-your-face tactics, many others -- spooked by memories of past confrontations -- didn't even show up.

"I think the government is shirking its responsibility. They are afraid to be confronted by women's real feelings and women's experiences," said Joan Grant-Cummings, the president of NAC, an umbrella group representing 700 women's organizations.

"This is what this [meeting] is about, not for us to just spit venom at the government," she said.

The NAC lobby session is an annual event on Parliament Hill, where MPs are invited to listen to concerns arising from the group's annual general meeting. In the past, when NAC was at its most influential, the meetings drew dozens of MPs and a horde of media attention.

Though invitations to this year's event were issued to all five official parties, neither the Reform party or the Tories sent any MPs.

The New Democrats sent six MPs, including leader Alexa McDonough, but many other members were unable to attend because of scheduling conflicts. The Bloc Quebecois sent seven MPs, including leader Gilles Duceppe, who was criticized for supporting the NATO bombing in Kosovo and for refusing to campaign on behalf of a national child care program outside of Quebec.

But the group saved its strongest words for the Liberals, in particular Hedy Fry, the Status of Women minister, who waged a nasty battle last year over a decision to change funding rules for NAC.

As the group of eight cabinet ministers and seven back-benchers entered the NAC meeting room, the delegates broke out in song: "All we want is our fair share. We'll stay out of Hedy's hair. With one enormous cheque. Oh, wouldn't it be lovely."

Ms. Fry said she couldn't give the group a definitive answer on the government's plan for national child care, prompting the delegates to shout "Yes or No."

They also challenged Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, to keep her 1997 pledge to launch consultations with "equality-based women's groups" on law-and-order issues.

Ms. McLellan said she planned to hold talks, but wanted to make sure the discussions included NAC and other "broadly based women's groups" from across the country, an answer that didn't sit well with the delegates.

"I am disappointed in the justice minister's allegation that NAC does not represent Canadian women," said Jenea Tallentire, a student from Simon Fraser University. "I just want to clarify that NAC represents everyone, all regions, all strata -- lesbian workers, domestic workers, immigrants, white women, women of colour, First Nations, young women, old women. We have caucuses across the spectrum."

Ms. Grant-Cummings also demanded the government repeal dangerous-persons deportation provisions within the Immigration Act because they unfairly target black men in Canada. The deportation rules were conceived in 1994 after the infamous Just Desserts shooting in Toronto, in which a gang of robbers walked into a Toronto cafe and shot 23-year-old Georgina Leimonis in the chest. A black man who was a Canadian resident, but not a citizen, was charged.

"It was brought in with very racist sentiment in our opinion about how some Canadians feel about black Jamaicans and other people of colour who they think are dirtying up the Canadian population," Ms. Grant-Cummings told Ms. McLellan. "This has been about cleansing the Canadian population."

Ms. McLellan shot back that the law was created to protect Canadians from dangerous criminals and had nothing to do with the ethnicity of offenders.

"I reject categorically the fact that one would suggest this is some kind of cleansing proposition," she said.

Ms. Fry said she takes the NAC criticism in stride, but suggested the group consider a softer approach if it wants more MPs to meet with them in future years.

"I think in some cases it may be effective and in some cases it isn't. Many people would like to finish answering their questions . . . as opposed to being shouted at," she said.

Stephane Dion, the Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, gave as good as he got in terms of criticism. Mr. Dion appeared annoyed that none of the NAC questioners spoke French.

"I hope that next time you will have some questions in French if you are going to be representative," said Mr. Dion.

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