Toronto Star

Sunday, November 22, 1998

Liberals quietly feed NAC to barracudas

By Michelle Landsberg

BRIAN MULRONEY didn't quite have the nerve to do it; R.E.A.L. Women, whose dearest goal it was, could never quite achieve it; the Reform party never held enough power to swing the axe. But they are smiling now, since the Chrétien Liberals are stealthily carrying out one of the key aims of far-right Canadian pressure groups. They are gutting the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC).

Quietly, last April, the government removed ``core funding'' - reliable, ongoing support money - from women's organizations in Canada. Notable among those targeted was NAC, the umbrella organization that serves as the lobby group for 650 women's organizations across the country.

NAC raises 70 per cent of its own annual budget, with the usual back-breaking volunteer rat race of banquets, auctions and direct mail pleas. But it's hamstrung without that 30 per cent - roughly a quarter of a million - that it counted on, for 15 years, for its basic democratic structure of national executive meetings. The office is on the verge of shutting down; meetings are unaffordable; money to mount a Web site vanished into government smoke and mirrors. The nation's most significant and powerful voice for women has effectively been stifled, unable to hire a communications officer.

For eight months, since the federal government did its three-card monte shuffle with the core funding, NAC has been forced to struggle for ``project money.'' Since April, it has come up with one proposal after another. Each one was microscopically examined, politically vetted and rejected by bureaucrats seemingly determined to shield the government from feminist critiques. No grants have yet been forthcoming. To force a major national organization to depend on project money is another way of feeding it to the barracudas. Death comes bite by bite.

Last week, president Joan Grant-Cummings was put through a round of hostile meetings with Liberal MPs, some of whom angrily rebuked NAC for publicly nailing the Liberals' inaction on women's issues.

Well, we're a long way from achieving justice for women in a country where the government itself balks at honouring the pay equity laws. We're a long way from ``No. 1'' status when the United Nations itself takes note of women's poverty in Canada, when the average full-time pay for a Canadian woman is $9,000 less than the average male wage, when 40 per cent of women now work in ``non-standard'' (part-time, temporary or multiple jobs) and one in three women will become single mothers - of whom 57 per cent live in poverty.

How shabby, how grotesque, when proud and wealthy Canada, with a budget surplus mounting into the billions, wants to nickel and dime its primary women's lobby group into oblivion.

What a sad change in the political climate! NAC began in headier days when Trudeau Liberals believed in strengthening grassroots advocacy groups so that democracy could spread and deepen. Now, the oxygen of public support for social change has leaked away like air from a withering balloon.

All progressive groups, from unions to the NDP, have been pushed to the shadowy margins. Feminism is under pressure, partly because challenging gender injustice no longer delivers the intoxicating shock of the new. In fact, old but still unremedied injustices now sound dustily stale.

What feminism did accomplish, in the sixties and seventies, was to open doors for the well-educated women who, just like all the others, had been squashed down and locked out. As these fortunate women rose in the work force, moving into middle management or assistant professorships (or snagging jobs as newspaper columnists), they could shrug off the ties of sisterhood.

Meanwhile, NAC got more and more radical to confront the rapidly escalating cruelties of the new economy. No wonder the government, suffering the stings of NAC attacks on all its neglected women's issues, turned cranky. Riskily, but rightly, NAC also faced up to to its own lack of diversity, widening its embrace of those women (many of colour) who had not shared the feminist sunshine with middle-class white professionals.

Along the way to getting tougher and more political, NAC lost some of its fair-weather feminist supporters. It began to be easy for successful career women to say that ``NAC didn't represent them.'' And perhaps it really didn't represent any longer the economic interests of the ``I'm all right, Jill,'' well-off types.

NAC, however, does staunchly and sanely represent the majority of Canadian women. I think it's entitled to a fair share of the tax money women are pouring into the government's coffers, so it can lobby the government on our behalf.

Just last week, I urged readers to fax letters of support to Dr. Hedy Fry, secretary of state for the status of women, for her sensible stand on custody and access issues. Well, back to the fax machines, sisters! Every member organization of NAC and every individual who cherishes ideals of equality should now urge Dr. Fry (fax 613-995-0056) to honour her government's commitments to the women of Canada. Restore NAC's core funding now. And hands off NAC's action plans.

Michele Landsberg's column usually appears Saturday in the Life section and Sunday in the A section. E-mail: