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Kelly Bowden, head of policy for Oxfam pose for a portrait March 4, 2016 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Kelly Bowden, head of policy for Oxfam pose for a portrait March 4, 2016 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Work in Progress

Canada’s leading women’s groups seek co-ordinated advocacy Add to ...

This story is part of Work in Progress, The Globe's look at the global struggle for gender parity.

Some of Canada’s leading women’s groups are testing new ways to unite through collective lobbying campaigns to spur action on women’s issues after almost two decades without a national organization to take the lead on advocacy.

For almost 30 years after it was founded in 1972, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) played a unifying role for the feminist movement in Canada, serving as the glue to rally more than 700 member organizations to lobby governments for fundamental equality reforms, including pay equity and the inclusion of equality rights provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But the NAC closed in 2001, and advocacy work on women’s issues splintered among issue-specific organizations that worked independently or in small groups. The approach has left no major national voice to speak with a broader view on women’s causes.

Some of those groups are now saying it might be time to reconstruct a national women’s organization for Canada under a new model to give women’s issues more prominence among policy makers.

The emerging solution of choice for many is not another national organization such as NAC, but more flexible broad-based, ad-hoc alliances that come together on pressing issues and disperse after a campaign is over.

Last year, for example, about 25 organizations started talks about organizing a federal leaders’ debate on women’s issues. Word of the project, called Up for Debate, spread quickly, and to the delight of organizers, endorsements poured forth from every quarter of the women’s movement – including unions, faith-based groups, health organizations, issue-focused women’s groups and local violence shelters across Canada.

Kelly Bowden, acting director of policy at Oxfam Canada, who helped steer the alliance, said she felt a “bubbling” energy as 170 organizations came forward to lend their support, persuading her there is an untapped appetite for collective action on women’s issues in Canada after years of relative quiet amid widespread budget cuts in the sector.

“We were quite captured by the energy and creativity of this network of organizations,” Ms. Bowden said.

The alliance proved that women’s groups can unite on broad policy issues despite differences that have evolved in approaches to feminism over the past 20 years, said Kim Stanton, legal director at the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund.

“From the Up for Debate experience, I certainly think that having a broad coalition of women’s voices from across the country is really important and effective,” Ms. Stanton said. “It may be now that there are so many disparate versions of feminism that one single organization isn’t the answer. But certainly a broad-based collaboration of organizations and voices is so important.”

Other coalitions have also emerged over the past two years, notably on the issue of violence against women.

The 2015 blueprint for Canada’s national action plan on violence against women and girls, for example, was developed by a network of 22 organizations and independent experts, and recommended the federal government set up an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Late last year, almost 70 prominent individual women and women’s organizations launched the Campaign for an Equal Senate for Canada in a bid to persuade Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to achieve gender parity in the Senate by filling 22 vacant seats with women.

The approach is favoured in part because it is practical. NAC faded away over the 1990s not only because governments cut its funding, but also because it was unable to find consensus on its approach among its diverse and sometimes fractious members. Alliances can be more flexible, allowing participants to lend support when they agree with an approach, and remain on the sidelines when they do not.

Judy Rebick, who was president of NAC between 1990 and 1993, believes Canada needs some form of co-ordinated advocacy again.

She said no national organization is in a position to harness moments of public support for change and press governments to take action. For example, she said the Jian Ghomshi case led to a national conversation – much of it through social media – about why most women do not report sexual assaults, highlighting flaws in the justice system.

“In the aftermath of the Ghomeshi scandal, there was a huge response, more than I’ve ever seen, from individual women. It was comparable or even greater than the reaction after the Montreal massacre,” Ms. Rebick said.

“So we have a mainstream understanding of these issues now, but the problem is that once the outrage comes and all the ideas are out there on social media, who is bringing them together for policy options? That’s what NAC used to do.”

Cheryl Collier, a political science professor at the University of Windsor, who has written about NAC’s demise, says Canada has also lacked a forum to bring women together to hash out ideas for policy reforms.

“I see the lack of progress that is happening with this more piecemeal advocacy that we see now,” Prof. Collier says. “If there’s a group that can mobilize enough voters and get people upset enough, politicians and parties will respond. But if you can’t, there’s no reason for them to.”

Many groups operating today appear to have little appetite to build a new version of NAC because organizations do not want to devolve their autonomy to decide on an approach to public policy reforms, says Diane Hill, senior director of public engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, which funnels charitable donations to organizations that serve women.

Even if there were an appetite for a new NAC, she adds, many women’s organizations disappeared over the past decade, and funding for others is declining, so no one has the money or mandate to launch into such a complex project.

“Everything has been so stripped to the bone and everyone is so focused on the crisis situations,” Ms. Hill says.

Buoyed by enthusiasm after the election campaign last year, some of the Up for Debate participants launched a discussion on whether Canada should form some new version of NAC, said Ms. Bowden from Oxfam.

In the end, many felt a large centralized women’s organization may not suit the current era, and the wide diversity of views on women’s issues. However, there was much enthusiasm for creating more alliances to work on pressing topics, she said.

“I think the decentralized model of leveraging the strengths of different organizations worked well,” she said.

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Canada has hundreds of organizations dedicated to working on women’s causes, including issue-oriented organizations, union groups, religious and ethnic organizations. Here are a few that have become well known for their advocacy at a national level.

Native Women’s Association of Canada

Founded in 1974 with a mandate to work to advance the well-being of aboriginal women and girls through policy analysis and advocacy. The organization has been especially prominent in the past year because of its efforts to focus national attention on missing and murdered aboriginal women.

LEAF – Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund

Created in 1985, when Section 15 equality provisions were enacted in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, LEAF assists in court cases that can strengthen equality rights for women and girls. The organization has intervened in hundreds of appeal cases that set landmark precedents in areas such as violence, discrimination, reproductive freedoms and maternity benefits.

Canadian Women’s Foundation

A registered charity that distributes funds from private donors to organizations that help women who face poverty and violence. It has provided funding to more than 1,200 community programs since 1991 and to every women’s shelter in Canada, and also supports programs that empower school-aged girls.

Catalyst Canada

A leading research and advocacy organization advocating to advance more women to executive roles in business and on boards of directors. Catalyst sponsors research, hosts awards and supports companies wanting advice on how to improve diversity in their most senior ranks.

Equal Voice

Has run programs since 2001 to inspire more women to run for political office at every level in Canada. The organization also works with political parties to encourage nomination of more women, and advocates for reforms that would make it easier for more women to succeed in politics.

The Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action

A group of women’s organizations working together to hold the federal government to account for international human-rights agreements that Canada has signed. It brings women together to develop recommendations for policy changes, and has been especially active on advocacy for aboriginal women’s rights.

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