After a debt-imposed five-year exile in the political wilderness, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women is revising its game plan, trying once again to become the voice of women in Canada. Some 60 women representing a smattering of NAC's 700-odd member organizations emerged from a weekend brainstorming session at the Native Canadian Centre September 29 and 30 talking about a renewed NAC.
Lynn McDonald, a keynote speaker at the meeting and past president , says the new NAC will have its work cut out for it after being inactive for so long.
To win back the public's confidence, McDonald proposes eschewing government funding in favour of donations from individual members, a daunting proposition given the group's outstanding $100,000 debt.
"The organization would have more clout if we represented a number of people who pay their dues," says McDonald, who was also the first president of the Ontario Committee on the Status of Women.
McDonald's not entirely optimistic. She says those who made the effort to show up at the meeting were not representative of women across the country.
"There were no Quebec women there, for instance."
The current political climate (socially conservative groups like REAL Women, which opposes same-sex marriage and abortion, are more in line with the present government's thinking on women's issues) poses another challenge, says Beverly Bain, a NAC executive director in the 90s .
Only last month the Harper government chopped $5 million, almost a quarter of the $23 million given to the Status of Women Canada, a federal agency that promotes gender equality and opportunities for women.
Feminist Carolyn Egan , best known for her work in the abortion rights movement in the 80s, believes NAC has historically played an important role, and fears the Harper government's recent appointment of an anti-abortion judge to the Supreme Court threatens hard-won gains on women's reproductive freedom.
Still, NAC executive director Dolly Williams says restructuring the organization at the national level to work from the bottom up with women's grassroots groups "will enable a viable and strong voice for women's equality."
Journalist and social activist June Callwood isn't so sure. She says the group has not done enough in the past to acknowledge issues such as poverty, housing and national childcare, and needs to do so if it hopes to become more relevant.
"[NAC has] not been acutely interested in the suffering of women in poverty, and that's a major issue confronting all women," says Callwood. "Until we can ensure our children get very good care, we haven't helped women very much."
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/U of T women's studies researcher Philinda Masters says NAC has the best shot at defending rights at the national level when things are deteriorating for women, especially aboriginal women.
Native Women's Association of Canada rep Sandy Morrisseau says that's especially evident for aboriginal women. "There are many gaps within the Indian Act, which discriminates against women's matrimonial rights. A lot of the poverty and hardship that aboriginal women face is because of the act."
NAC is still a work in progress, says Williams. Members will continue to meet regionally and nationally to pursue its restructuring. "We want to do it right, and we want to do it with the voice of women," she says.