CANADA

Declining influence

Ottawa shuts out the feminist lobby

LISA VAN DUSEN October 9 1989
CANADA

Declining influence

Ottawa shuts out the feminist lobby

LISA VAN DUSEN October 9 1989

Declining influence

Ottawa shuts out the feminist lobby

The relationship was short-lived. Beginning in May, 1985, representatives of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) had three annual meetings with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, at which they offered advice on women’s issues. But NAC’s final encounter with the head of the government that provides most of its budget was in May of 1987. Since then, relations between the Tories and NAC have deteriorated. Now, not only is Mulroney not consulting with the organization, but last April his government announced that its annual $600,000 operating grant from Ottawa would be cut in half by 1992. And as Parliament prepares to deal this fall with a number of issues that will profoundly affect women—including abortion and proposed changes to the unemployment insurance program—some feminists are concerned that Canada’s largest, most visible women’s group no longer has the ear of the government.

For his part, Secretary of State Gerry Weiner says that the cuts were simply part of the government's overall attack on the federal deficit. But other observers say that NAC made itself an easy target for the Conservatives by urging women to vote against free trade—and Mulroney—in the 1988 election. At the same time, NAC’s lobbying tactics have been the subject of controversy on Parliament Hill—and not just with the government. During the organization’s annual “Lobby Day”—an accountability session in which representatives

from NAC’s nearly 600 member groups question MPs on issues of concern to women— members of all three parties have endured booing and hissing from the audience. And although Barbara McDougall, the minister responsible for the status of women, drew headlines—and the wrath of the NAC executive— for boycotting the most recent Lobby Day in May, Halifax Liberal MP Mary Clancy said that a number of her newly elected colleagues were equally annoyed by the proceedings. Said Clancy: “Being overly confrontational doesn’t get you very far with most people.”

That view is clearly shared by other feminists. Said Ontario MPP Chaviva Hosek, president of NAC from 1984 to 1986: “I felt the way the lobby was done was counterproductive and not particularly effective. No party was happy with it.” But the current president of NAC, Lynn Kaye, counters that confrontation is sometimes inevitable. “If we had private, cozy meetings with them [the politicians],” Kaye said, “we would still be asking the same questions.” Kaye added that NAC should not be punished for speaking out on issues like

free trade, which it says will result in the loss of thousands of jobs for women, mostly in the service sector. Said Kaye: “NAC was created to monitor the government and educate Canadian women. Our funding should not be cut for performing that task successfully.”

Other feminists said that the organization has hurt its own cause by appearing to be a divided house, citing as an example NAC’s much-publicized 1988 annual general meeting during which grassroots members from across the country complained bitterly that the organization was being nm by g a mostly Ontario-based, left-leaning ! elite. Said Greta Hofmann Nemiroff, a I co-director at Dawson College in s Montreal, who was on the NAC planI ning committee from 1985 until 1987: I “The public perception of NAC has f changed for a reason. The committee g is seen now as being in the hands of a o small group who are concerned mostly with manipulating power and who have lost touch with what the women’s movement was all about.”

But even NAC’s critics say that the organization remains a force to be reckoned with. For one thing, its membership has grown to 586 women’s groups from 35 at the time of its founding in 1972. But feminists say that they are concerned that the lack of communication between NAC and the Prime Minister may limit the kind of the advice he receives—especially at a time when some important advisory positions on behalf of women remain unfilled. The presidency of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, for one, has been vacant since Sylvia Gold resigned on Aug. 31. As well, there has been no full-time adviser on women’s issues in the Prime Minister’s Office for eight months, since Denise Cole stepped down to become executive assistant to Mulroney’s chief of staff.

For her part, McDougall maintains that Mulroney is still being kept well informed on women’s issues. Said McDougall: “I talk to the Prime Minister on a regular basis and so do other women in cabinet.” But critics say that consultation is too limited and has already resulted in policy problems. Said Louise Dulude, president of NAC from 1986 to 1988: “They are now consulting polls. When you do that, you find out how many people want a child care program. You don’t find out the best way to respond to that want.” The relationship between NAC and the government is clearly a long way from being mended.

LISA VAN DUSEN