After being away from my office for two weeks, travelling the country for various meetings all having to do with women`s rights, feminism and the role of States and Governments, I came to my desk and sat down to check my messages. The first message to play was from a colleague from British Columbia, I`m yet to meet in person. Her message? She was calling to gauge my interest in discussing the re-establishment of a national immigrant and ‘visible minority’ (racialized) women’s voice/organization/coalition.
As a bit of background, the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada (NOIVMWC) was established in the eighties and existed for almost two decades. Its influence waned by the early 2000s and it eventually met the same fate as so many of our feminist women’s organizations across the country with the gutting of Status of Women Canada by the previous Conservative government.
Losing both NOIVMWC and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), Canada’s premier feminist organization, set back the cause of Canadian women organizing in ways we’re still grappling with. But a window of opportunity has opened, and Canadian women - including Indigenous, Black and women of colour, immigrant and refugee women, Lesbian Bisexual and Trans women and women with disabilities all seem to be of one mind: We must not let this political moment pass without capitalizing on it. The what, how, who and for whom remains up for debate.
This was the topic of the many conversations I have had over the past two weeks. First at the W7 meeting of Canadian feminists and invited international women’s organizations convened by the federal government to inform Canada’s positions at the upcoming G7 meetings; and more recently at the second gathering of the Gender Equity Network Canada (GENC) in Halifax. This latter group is comprised of 150 women identified through a number of policy and research projects funded by Status of Women Canada. The aim of the network is to identify key national public policy priorities to address gender inequities in Canadian society. This initiative is funded for three years, with 2018 being year 2. There are to be at least six meetings over the life of the project. The initiative is led by the Canadian Women’s Foundation which acts as convenor.
Gender Equity Network
Prior to the GENC meeting, a few of us from Toronto met to confer on how we can use this opportunity provided by the initiative to advance the discussion about the creation of a national feminist organization. We continued this discussion during an Ontario caucus on the second day of the gathering in Halifax, with over twenty women from our province attending and contributing to the conversation. There was general agreement that we needed to continue the discussion with our colleagues from other provinces. We noted that the women from Quebec in particular were having similar discussions.
But there was a consensus that as an Ontario caucus our more urgent political task was the upcoming Ontario provincial election and the implications it holds for progressive movements and organizations. There was great concern that the gains made in labour laws, in the amplification of the critical issue of violence against women, the policy and legislative gains on antiracism, and the prioritizing of Indigenous issues would all be lost if we were to elect a non-progressive government.
We discussed the need for community education on the issues so that people make an informed decision when they cast their ballots. We thought it important to counteract the misinformation particularly on social media, and to optimize our reach by working in concert with each other, promoting the positions of various organizations and coalitions and continuing the building of a progressive, anti-colonial, anti-racist and inclusive feminist movement here in Ontario.
A practical example of how organizations can aid this work is the website established by the Ontario Non-Profit Network which houses the election priorities from various sources, a very useful advocacy tool.
At the W7 we heard from Prime Minister Trudeau who reiterated his commitment to advancing feminist principles here in Canada and abroad including in trade negotiations and other areas of international cooperation. He called for us as feminists – both local and international to push the member States to take bold positions and reminded us as Canadian organizations that other interests are pushing hard on agendas that may not align with our feminist visions of Canada. This was a welcome reminder that often times as women we undermine our own struggles by being timid, not wanting to overreach, and seeking compromise before we’ve even landed on firm positions.
We will remind our government of this message from the PM when we receive pushback about our advocacy work and/or when we voice opposition to government policies that negatively impact or ignore the plight of marginalized communities and individuals including migrant workers and women with precarious immigration status.
During the two days of meetings our discussions covered a diverse range of issues from intersectional organizing to violence against women and girls; women’s economic empowerment to environmental racism; sexual and reproductive health and rights to peace and security; women’s migration experience to meanings of feminism and how we come together as international feminists across our various social locations and understandings of feminism. Discussions were robust and not all issues - abortions and women’s inherent rights and agency over their bodies for example - had consensus.
A document titled Feminist Visions for the G7 has been drafted and we’re continuing the debates re language and priorities.
While the focus was on shared international priorities to which we wanted the seven member States of the G7 to pay attention, the discussion by the Canadian women in the room kept returning to the absence of a national feminist organization that would focus all the various efforts of women’s organizing across the country.
Let me pause here, to clarify that we acknowledge the effective and longstanding work of women-focused organizations like the Canadian Women’s Foundation and YWCA Canada who continue to fund and offer support (in the case of CWF) and develop resources and programs (in the case of YWCA) to and for women-centred programs and agencies.
But an explicitly activist feminist organization concerned with public policy as it impacts women’s lives, that would serve to coalesce our diverse issues is missing and the absence is greatly felt. We need a pan-Canadian organization to unleash the potential of Status of Women Canada and reinsert a feminist identity in its mandate and culture. We need this national organization to galvanize the progressive spirit and lift the voices of diverse women from coast to coast to coast.
As a women’s movement we have been cowed by the heavy-handed approach of the previous federal government, but as I said at the beginning of this rant, a window of opportunity has been thrown open. Let us jump through and open wide the doors, ensuring that our vision of a new Canadian feminism and its organization is inclusive of all. This means an organization that is at its core anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-ableist. An organization committed to anti-oppression work.
Let us unleash our collective imagination as a progressive movement for change!