Conference Overview

From March 7 – 10, 2002, over 400 participants from throughout Canada and from Germany, China, and Brazil, gathered at the Ottawa Congress Centre for NAWL’s 14th Biennial Conference on Women, the Family and the State. By all accounts, the conference was a success, featuring a dynamic program, diverse participation, spirited policy discussions, visual, sonic and performance art, and an evening of celebrating the stellar career of a Supreme Court Judge, the Honourable Madame Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé. (More detailed accounts of these events are found throughout this edition of Jurisfemme.)

On opening night at Ottawa City Hall, Chief Lisa Ozawanimke welcomed participants to Algonquin Land and shared some of her experiences as an Algonquin woman exercising leadership in her own community. Chantal Tie, the conference program chair, delivered an inspiring and very well received introductory keynote address (see page 1) which situated the conference theme and workshops in a globalized context and set a tone of anticipation for the workshops to come. Guests, participants, and local Ottawa supporters enjoyed a period of networking and refreshments and then had an opportunity to explore the art exhibit, Templates for Activism, and to experience the live performance piece, the Rape Maze.

Throughout the next two-and-a-half days, legal practitioners, academics, students, frontline workers, government policy people, and feminist activists from different communities, described what globalized restructuring has done to women in all regions of Canada and around the world. It was especially clear how women who belong to historically disadvantaged communities such as Aboriginal women, women of colour, poor women, women living in rural and isolated communities, women with disabilities, and lesbians are hard hit by neo-liberal policies in Canada.

Apart from the regular workshops, a special series of workshops were organized on the Americas. This was a follow-up discussion to a dialogue that began at the Quebec City Summit (2001) around the context of hemispheric integration and discussions surrounding the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). One particular point of discussion centred on Canada’s possible ratification of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) in the face of some feminists’ concerns that this might jeopardize hard won rights to abortion and contraception. NAWL continues to seek a way to simultaneously preserve abortion rights in Canada and promote reproductive rights for women in the Americas. Workshops in the Americas series also explored the possible advantages of ratification of the ACHR and other regional human rights instruments in regards to the protection of social and economic rights, and the elimination of violence against women in all signatory countries.

As a first time feature at this conference, participants took part in nine strategic workshops. This allowed participants to plan strategies to help guide NAWL in key areas of law reform, such as lobbying on custody and access, gauging impacts of policy decisions and funding cuts on women with disabilities, state action and women’s poverty, litigating women’s equality claims, women friendly law firms, restorative justice from a women’s equality perspective, follow-up on action against racism after the Durban conference, formulating questions for a consultation on transgender human rights and women’s substantive equality, and options for change on women and electoral politics.

Several keynotes and panel presentations added energy and inspiration to the conference. Vivian Barbot, president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec, addressed the challenges that feminists face in struggling to address the legitimate needs of different communities of women. Her talk underscored the value of « inclusion » in the women’s movement, but also candidly addressed the difficulties that arise in trying to fully consider the diverse views that result from being inclusive. At the closing banquet, Maude Barlow delivered a spirited address entitled Taking of the Commons, in which she described the systematic plundering for profit of the earth’s resources that were once held in common as natural gifts to all living creatures. She warned of the hazards of turning to bottled drinking water rather than requiring that our waters be rendered safe and safeguarded, of the wholesale commercialization of the world’s water, and of the ruthless patents on living lifelines such as the cancer gene. Her hard words delivered a difficult message but one well received by the audience.

The conference culminated with a policy setting plenary in which issues were debated and resolutions passed. The resolutions that were passed are listed in this edition of Jurisfemme p.17.

NAWL was very pleased with the number and diversity of conference participants. Twenty-six women activists who identified as having a disability attended the conference. Thanks to the DisAbled Women’s Action Network of Canada (DAWN) for assisting NAWL with conference organizing and helping to facilitate member attendance.

NAWL wishes to thank the conference organizing team, particularly the Conference Organizing Chair, Kim Lewis and the Conference Program Chair, Chantal Tie, and their committees for the countless hours that went into this wonderful event. As well, we are very grateful to Catalyst Research for the organizational support provided to the committees. We would also like to thank Louise Allaire for volunteering her time to take photographs during the conference.

Committee members: Kim Lewis (co-chair), Chantal Tie (co-chair), Jennie Abell, Constance Backhouse, Natasha Bakht, Andrée Côté, Bonnie Diamond, cj fleury, Ritu Gambhir, Gina Hill, Laurie Joe, Diana Majury, Kathy Marshall, Kay Marshall, Catherine Meade, Celeste McKay, Carolyn J Rowe and Jackie Steele.

Bonnie Diamond is the Executive Director of NAWL.