Message from the National Steering Committee
This was a year of financial challenges for the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL). A late approval on a major project negotiated with Status of Women Canada resulted in a very large unplanned deficit and the depletion of contingency funds. If ever there was a case to be made for how project funding weakens women’s organizations NAWL’s experience this year illustrates the point. NAWL and other women’s organizations remain committed to pressing for the reinstatement of core funding.
Despite financial hardships, NAWL adopted its 3 year Strategic Plan, modernized its mission and principles and continued to actively pursue a vigorous law reform agenda.
We would like to take this opportunity to extend thanks to the members of the NAWL team that made it all happen — to National Steering Committee members, NAWL members, donors, working group members, the 2005 Conference organizing team and most especially, to the staff. The following summary of NAWL’s work in 2004/2005 speaks to our collective efforts making a difference.
In May 2004 the Task Force on Pay Equity release a final report that proposed pro-active, stand-alone, federal pay-equity legislation and expanded coverage of pay equity to Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and visible minorities. The majority of recommendations that NAWL made to the Task Force in 2002 were accepted. NAWL publicly supported the report, signalled that support to key politicians and began mobilizing women to press for implementation of a federal pay equity law based on recommendations.
In conjunction with the Canadian Labour Congress, NAWL created the Pan-Canadian Pay Equity Network (PEN) composed of 10 key national and provincial organizations active on Pay Equity issues. NAWL drafted a “Call to Action” for the PEN and coordinated with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) a campaign that resulted in more than 200 groups across Canada endorsing the call to action. A dynamic campaign was launched in February 2005 with a Valentine’s Day Blitz. Around the slogan “Pay Equity is at the Heart of Equality” PEN sent valentine cards to all members of parliament, held a press conference on Parliament Hill and lobbied key MPs.
NAWL responded to the NAPE Case out of the Supreme Court of Canada when on October 24, 2004, the Court ruled that it was acceptable for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador to renege on a pay equity agreement all because of an impending ‘fiscal crisis’. In effect, women were forced to bear a disproportionate financial burden for reducing a government deficit that amounted to a special tax on Newfoundland and Labrador women. NAWL, in collaboration with the Newfoundland and Labrador Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) and the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) initiated a pan-Canadian campaign urging Prime Minister Paul Martin and Premier Danny Williams to concretely show respect for women’s human rights and despite the SCC ruling pay women what is owed.
Maternal Paternal Benefits
The National Association of Women and the Law, the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada (NOIVMC) and the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) called on Madame Lucienne Robillard, Minister of Human Resources for the Government of Canada, to give Québec its full share of the maternity and parental benefits payouts for 2006 so that the Québec parental benefits scheme could proceed. In 2001, the Québec National Assembly adopted a generous parental benefits law that significantly improves on the coverage as well as the level of benefits that the federal government currently provides under the Employment Insurance Act. However, this legislation had not been implemented, because of the federal government’s reluctance in agreeing on the amount of money that the Québec government will be able to keep from benefits collected from Québecers in order to fund this program. The federal government had been stalling and refusing to negotiate with Québec on this issue since 1997.
NAWL created a working group and developed a consultation paper aimed at strategizing ways to protect women’s hard-won but vulnerable maternity/parental benefits in light of a Québec Court of Appeal decision that in essence ruled that ss.22 and 23 of the Employment Insurance Act are unconstitutional because the matters to which they apply are under provincial jurisdiction. The matter was referred to the Supreme Court of Canada. The main issue of concern to NAWL is how to protect one of Canada’s only national programs designed to help women achieve social and economic equality while simultaneously recognizing and respecting Québec’s right to develop and implement its own policies. NAWL will be using our paper to consult with women across Canada to discuss various options for improving maternity and parental benefits, and to strategize on promoting reforms that will help secure women’s substantive equality at work, in the family and in society.
Arbitration, Religion and Family Law
In December 2003, the Islamic Institute for Civil Justice announced its intention to have arbitration tribunals resolve civil disputes based on the principles and rules of Muslim Personal Laws. A public debate ensured in which this move was characterized by the media as Ontario adopting Sharia law. In response, NAWL and the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women conducted preliminary research on the implications of Ontario’s Arbitration Act on family law matters. We found that the use of arbitration in family law matters threatens to reverse the progressive feminist law reform efforts over the last century aimed at reducing women’s inequality.
In the summer 2004, NAWL participated in consultations held by Marion Boyd commissioned by the Attorney General of Ontario to recommend on the issue of religious arbitration in Ontario. Her report, released on December 20, 2004 was extremely disappointing to women recommending religious arbitration be allowed with some 50 safeguards to protect women’s rights.
NAWL produced a major research paper on the issues and adopted a position that opposes the use of arbitration in family law and, in particular, faith based arbitration in family law matters. Additionally, NAWL recommends that family law mediations respect the principles of the family law legislation as well as the Charter equality rights guarantees and that mediation be subject to regulation. Finally, in recognition that the justice system fails women and most particularly fails women from minority cultures, NAWL recommends that significant efforts and resources be devoted to improving the justice system and the courts to eliminate racism, ensure cultural sensitivity, uphold women’s equality interests and adequately address violence against women.
NAWL worked closely with the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW) and other equality seeking groups to make the public aware of the equality issues inherent in the public debate and helped to apply pressure on the Ontario government to prohibit religious arbitration in family law matters.
Custody and Access
In December 2002, the Minister of Justice tabled Bill C-22 which died on the order paper when parliament prorogued. There were rumours that this bill would re-emerge after the elections. The reforms in the bill would radically change the rules governing custody and access in the Divorce Act: the notions of “custody” and “access” would be replaced by the notion of parental responsibility, parenting time and parental decision-making authority. These changes would introduce a lot of uncertainty in our law, and increase the risk of disagreement and litigation between parents. They would likely result in more disputes, lower child support payments, and less protection against international abductions of children, all of which are detrimental to women and children.
In addition, Bill C-22 proposed to define what factors should be taken into consideration when determining the best interests of the child: this development is positive, but the list falls short. Racism, homophobia and discrimination against mothers with a disability are not addressed, and the proposed definition of “family violence” is too restrictive. These changes are not in the best interests of children, and they will endanger women’s safety and equality rights.
In anticipation of re-introduction of the bill, NAWL worked on an analysis of issues of race and culture in custody and access and lobbied the federal government against re-introduction of the bill.
Coalition for Women’s Equality
In large part to resist loss of federal government support to women’s groups and the continued deterioration of Status of Women Canada, NAWL joined the eight other women’s equality seeking organizations to form the Coalition for Women’s Equality (CWE). Coalition members include the Canadian Research Institute on the Advancement of Women (CRIAW), the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada (NOIVMWC), Media Watch, Womenspace, the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA), the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL), the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ), YWCA Canada, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) and the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).
The Coalition’s platform includes passing legislation for women’s equality that is tied to women’s equality rights in the Charter, in the Canadian Human Rights Act and to international instruments, establishing a Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Status of Women, appointing a full Minister of Status of Women supported by a well resourced Status of Women department, establishing an accountability mechanism to monitor results and giving adequate and predictable federal government financial support to women’s organizations.
Leading up to the June 2004 election, the CWE produced a “Still In Shock” pink paper featuring 12 feminist issues and questions that women could pose to candidates during the election campaign. An Election Website that had been run in previous elections by NAWL and Womenspace was reactivated and provided feminist analysis of the election campaign and other relevant voting information to women.
The CWE played a key role in convincing the minority parliament of 2004/2005 to establish the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Status of Women. CWE made a detailed brief to the Parliamentary Standing Committee regarding the reality of waning equality rights in Canada and on the inadequacy of mechanisms that play a federal role in Canada’s performance. CWE secured a two-hour appearance at the Standing Committee during pre-budget consultations and a feminist financial panel delivered a brief on women’s deepening impoverishment in Canada and mad recommendations for gender budgeting.
NAWL participated in the following outreach activities:
- CRIAW’s Integrated Feminist Analysis workshop
- A national consultation held by the Official Languages Commissioner
- Media and Law retreat organized by “Camp Claire” and University of Ottawa
- A Québec Conference organized by the Regroupement Provincial de maisons d’hébérgement on the theme, Au dela de l’insécurité.
- Pan Canadian meeting on the Canadian Social transfer
- Women’s groups resistance meeting at the federal/provincial/territorial meetings in St. John’s, Newfoundland
- The Aboriginal Circle on Family Violence National Conference in Ottawa
- LEAF symposium on the Law Case
- Income Security and Advocacy Clinic and LEAF Symposium on the Gosselin Case