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Canada's Feminists Tighten Ranks

Top activist targets sexual discrimination, poverty, racism, and violence against women. INTERVIEW

FLYING around Canada giving speeches and rallying women to the banner of equality, Judy Rebick is leading a feminist charge that has a lot of people mad at her.

But as president of the Toronto-based National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), the nation's largest women's group, Ms. Rebick says she cannot afford a thin skin.

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That's good because NAC gets as well as it gives. In June, for example, NAC's first leader, who headed the group decades ago, denounced it for not being militant enough. Last month, however, some of its demands were called "shrill" and "strident" by a conservative columnist.

Caught in the crossfire, Ms. Rebick, who sports a quick smile and a faster retort, seems unaffected. Her group's agenda is too large for her to slow down and worry about such criticism. Combatting violence and discrimination toward women are top priorities along with fighting the "feminization of poverty," she says.

All three issues are crystallizing in Canada's public consciousness, she says, just as the 21-year-old Canadian women's movement has begun in the last two-to-five years to coalesce into a tighter, more cohesive political force. Society resists change

"Canadian society has been more resistant to change in a lot of ways than other Western societies, and as a result the women's movement has had to fight harder and therefore become stronger," Rebick says. "I think there is a strengthening of women fighting for their rights everywhere around the world. But I think the Canadian women's movement is fairly unusual in its strength."

Propelling NAC and the nation's women's movement, Rebick says, are shifts in Canada:

* The rise of the New Democratic Party, which has long supported many women's goals, and has lent legitimacy to many of them, including the push for a national day-care system.

* Laissez-faire economics embraced by the conservative government, and increasingly unpopular in Canada, are seen as the cause of many of the harsh economic problems facing women, especially minority women.

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* Societal sensitivities, changing as Canada has become a more multicultural society, have meshed with women's concerns about discrimination and racism.

"The combination of all those things and our ability to organize brought a new credibility to the women's movement," Rebick says. "I think we saw that through the constitutional debate."

Lobbying the federal government on behalf of affiliated groups nationwide, NAC is not a group composed of individual members as is the National Organization of Women in the United States. NAC has built a web of affiliations with about 500 of the more than 2,500 women's groups in Canada.

Four million to 5 million women are active in the Canadian women's movement. Groups linked to NAC include 3 million women or more, says Jill Vickers, a professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Now in her third year as president of NAC, Rebick says the greater prominence women's views took during constitutional meetings in cities across Canada this year shows their growing influence. Professor Vickers, who has written a forthcoming book about NAC, describes Rebick as "probably the second most effective leader in NAC's history."

"[Rebick] has been quite good at getting things on the public-political agenda," she says.

Rebick, however, complains that the country still does not have a comprehensive day-care program. And the constitutional meetings were only "a brief window of democracy" before the government wrenched the process away to proceed with its own agenda, she says. Government ministers counter that NAC and others "hijacked" those early public forums where citizens shared their vision on Canada's future structure. The government, which funds many social-movement groups, including NAC, cut NAC's funding by 50 pe rcent several years ago.

With the constitutional pact set and beginning ratification NAC's focus has shifted to core concerns. "The key issue right now for the women's movement is violence against women," Rebick says. The incident that galvanized women, she says, was the "Montreal massacre" of 14 female engineering students by an anti-feminist gunman at the University of Montreal in 1989.

"It brought the problem home, and we accelerated our efforts," she says. "Every woman in the country felt assaulted." Tough calls

Hewing close to that bedrock concern, Rebick and NAC have made some tough calls. Despite, for example, supporting native self-government during constitutional talks, NAC split with native leaders over individual rights. Many aboriginal women are worried about losing legal protection against abuse if tribes become become a "third order of government" under which "collective rights" supercede Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, akin to the US Bill of Rights.

In its outspoken pursuit of remedies for anti-woman violence, NAC a year and a half ago helped win a tough new rape-shield law to protect women who bring rape charges from sexual discrimination in court. Yet even on an easy-to-agree-to point like curbing violence, Rebick and NAC are caught in controversy.

Rebick's group withdrew its support earlier this summer for the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women when the government refused NAC's demand that more minority women, and women with disabilities, be added to the panel. Rebick says NAC will still evaluate and support the panel's recommendations if possible.

Behind and beneath many of NAC's efforts to fight violence and discrimination against women is Canada's fast changing cultural landscape. The country's multi-ethnic influx of the past decade has radically changed NAC's former white, middle-class outlook and priorities, Rebick says. Today 30 percent of NAC's executive board are women of color or women with disabiliites.

"Multiculturalism is ... the government's term to make racial diversity a song and dance," Rebick says. "The government doesn't want to say there is racism. But there is. And I think increasingly it will become a central issue."

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