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Thursday, June 17, 1999

NAC's subsidized revolt

Martin loney

In the wake of NAC's recent conference, it is time to review the group's claim to speak for three million Canadian women, including the poor, immigrants, lesbians, refugees, aboriginals and so-called women of colour. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women exemplifies what Salman Rushdie has termed "behalfism." The group is so confident of its right to speak on behalf of such diverse constituencies it sees no contradiction in demanding the government bankroll its protests. NAC is simply too poor to help -- though even at a loonie a head it could quadruple its budget.

Listening to NAC's spin, it might be thought that in some previous golden era the group actually funded its efforts from grassroots support. Alas not. NAC is a Trudeau-era legacy, an organization whose birth, in 1972, was entirely dependent on federal largesse. In 1980, for example, while NAC successfully lobbied to increase federal funding to feminist groups to $4.1-million, it raised a mere $7,800 from "friends of NAC."

Government funding allowed a group of upwardly mobile feminists to create a platform from which they could claim to speak for Canadian women. NAC was never based on memberships or constrained by the need to shape its policies to appeal to a broad constituency. With funding assured, NAC was free to pursue whatever fashionable causes seized its fancy, to chart ever more radical positions and to turn its back on those who failed to embrace the cacophony of grievance that came to dominate its deliberations.

Organizations whose funding is not tied to membership offer attractive targets to those seeking influence and employment. In the late '80s, Judy Rebick, NAC's president, proclaimed the urgency of addressing the needs of "doubly-disadvantaged" women, NAC-speak for those who face not only the extraordinary burden of gender, but also of race. Just as NAC's views on women's oppression are immune to counter evidence, so those who now came forward as the truly oppressed found it unnecessary to provide evidence of their victim status. Analysis of 1986 census data indicated that Canadian-born visible minority women actually earned more than their white counterparts.

The coronation of Rebick's chosen heir, Sunera Thobani, in 1993, marked a determined acceleration in NAC's racial politics. Canada may be the most successful multi-ethnic society in the world, but at NAC, race is the central preoccupation. Thobani, in her four short years in Canada, had already made her mark in Vancouver where, in the name of anti-racism, the Vancouver Status of Women organization replaced white staff members with "women of colour." Under her leadership, NAC dictated that every committee must have a "woman of colour" co-chair. Hitherto the belief that skin colour should provide qualification or disqualification had been the preserve of racial theorists, NAC's singular legacy has been to bring this into the mainstream.

Thobani claimed the right to lead NAC because the movement could only "forge ahead under the leadership of the women most marginalized in society." Why a PhD student at Simon Fraser University might be thought to meet this requirement is unclear. Thobani lasted a scant three years at NAC before becoming the first graduate student in Canada to be appointed to a chair -- while still registered as a student at the same university.

There was never any question about the racial qualification required of NAC's next president, Joan Grant-Cummings, but changes were afoot that threatened to unmask the whole charade. Spurred on by Liberal MP John Bryden's investigations into the "multi-million dollar system of bureaucratic patronage" that had funded a host of unrepresentative advocacy groups, government departments came under pressure to cease core funding. In future, funds were to be available only for specific projects. This is the background to the farrago, which saw NAC's leaders threaten to close shop if the government didn't pony up the cash for their revolution.

In the short term NAC's aggressive response has paid off. The government has continued to provide funding under the guise of supporting a NAC "research" program to the tune of $281,000, a sum larger than the previous core funding. In return, NAC will report its scholarly findings on the effects of globalization and government policies on Canadian women.

The good news for taxpayers is that from now on NAC will have to seek specific project funding. This time NAC faced Status of Women Minister Hedy Fry and Heritage Minister Sheila Copps -- future ministers may prove less pliable. Canadians might then see the development of an inclusive feminist movement, funded by its members. The politics of such a group will be a few country miles from those who recently suggested that in prosecuting alleged criminals, Canada was engaged in the "ethnic cleansing" of Canadians of Jamaican origin.

Martin Loney's most recent book is The Pursuit of Division: Race, Gender and Preferential Hiring in Canada.

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