The origins of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women are to be found in the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. In 1972, frustrated by the lack of action in response to the Royal Commission Report, the Committee on Equality for Women met on January 31, 1971. The 34 participants represented 22 organisations. They agreed to disband the Committee for Equality and formed a new organisation designed to keep various organisations informed about each other and to initiate efforts to get the government to act on the recommendations of the report: the National Ad Hoc Action Committee on the Status of Women. More groups joined, and the committee organised a conference in Toronto for April 7-9, 1972 called Strategies for Change. That conference decided that the National Action Committee was here to stay and no longer “ad hoc”. The words ad hoc were removed from the previous name, and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) with 31 member groups was founded. By 1977, there were 120 member groups; by 1988, it had brought together 576 member groups, and by 1996, there were over 600 groups. These groups spanned a large range of political thought. They included many of the older national women’s organisations, business and professional women, unions, YWCAs, and service organizations such as women’s shelters and rape crisis centres, immigrant women’s centres, disabled women’s groups, new women’s liberation and autonomous feminist groups, women’s caucuses in various mixed groups, and political parties. In 1976, NAC officially became a bi-lingual organization.
NAC always subscribed to the four main principles set out by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women:
- Women should be free to choose whether or not to take employment outside their homes.
- The care of children is a responsibility to be shared by the mother, the father ,and society.
- Society has a responsibility for women because of pregnancy and childbirth, and special treatment related to maternity will always be necessary.
- In certain areas, women will for an interim period require special treatment to overcome the adverse effect of discriminatory practices.
In addition, NAC always promoted legislation banning all discrimination by reason of sex, marital or family status, pregnancy, or sexual orientation. And, of course, NAC always supported and campaigned for more government funding for birth control information, so that women could take control of their own lives. NAC also campaigned for access to free and safe abortions when a woman and her physician decide that it is the best course.
Since the founding conference in 1972, NAC has moved beyond these preliminary positions to develop policy on many, many issues. The archive – and particularly the pages on the National Action Committee on the Status of Women – will contain many policy documents adopted by NAC.
The heart of the National Action Committee and the head, in the sense that it is the main decision-making body of the organization, was the Annual General Meeting. At this meeting, delegates from member organizations across the country discussed and debated many issues and voted to adopt positions that would form the basis of future NAC actions and campaigns. Policy resolutions had to be circulated to all member groups at least 30 days prior to the annual general meeting; proposed constitutional changes had to be circulated at least 90 days prior to the meeting. In addition to policy resolution, the delegates elected a 21-member volunteer executive. These executive members were responsible for running the organization in the period between the Annual General Meeting and the implementing of the policy resolutions and actions. The Meeting also directly elected the President, Vice-Presidents, Secretary, and Treasurer. Member groups of each region elected their own regional representative, resulting in ten regional representatives on the executive. Five members at large were elected by the delegates.
Eventually, NAC was able to secure government funding from the Secretary of State Women’s Programs, as well as raise money through fundraising. It was then able to establish a Head Office and an Ottawa Lobbying Office. It was able to hire staff to organize the several executive meetings a year, mid-year conferences, the Annual General Meeting, the newsletter and publications, campaign support, financial administration, and communications.
NAC volunteers took on the responsibility for preparing position papers and briefs to government, as well as organizing related campaigns and actions. To do this, the volunteers set up issue committees chaired by one of the executive member. From the early days, these committees included employment, pensions and income security; social services (included child care); violence against women; health and reproductive rights; pornography; visible minority and immigrant women; and native women. The committees grew and shrank according to what was needed at the time.
Such was the organizational fabric that permitted NAC to become an extremely responsive, effective, and articulate voice for the women of Canada throughout the period of this Archive from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Its accomplishments can be seen in the archival material on this section of the website, which in brief include the following:
- After the Murdoch Case, NAC launched a successful national campaign to overturn provincial property laws to recognize the value of women’s work such as homemaking, farming, and family businesses.
- NAC contributed to improving pensions by obtaining amendments to the Canada Pension Plan to cover women who drop out of the labour force to care for young children.
- NAC had a major impact on getting homemakers included in the Canada Pension Plan.
- Along with other groups, NAC successfully lobbied for the implementation of maternity benefits in the unemployment insurance program (1971). Later, NAC and other groups were able to secure changes to the Canada Labour Code to provide for shorter notice for maternity leave, extra sick days for family responsibilities, and 6 weeks of additional unpaid leave for either parent on the birth or adoption of a child. Further, NAC was instrumental in securing the 1978 change to the Canada Labour Code which prevents an employee from being fired because she was pregnant; plus, securing a change in the Human Rights Act (1983) to include pregnancy and childbirth on the “grounds for discrimination”;
- NAC lobbied extensively with other groups for the vast extension of government funding for child care services. This resulted in very minor increases in expenditures, but the issue began to achieve prominence when NAC and other groups persuaded the government to set up a federal Task Force (the Katie Cooke Task Force), and later, a Special Parliamentary Committee on Child Care.
- NAC worked with others across Canada to implement laws on pay equity in every jurisdiction including at the federal level.
- Pressure from NAC and other groups led to the implementation of an affirmative action program for women in the federal public service leading to the appointment of a Royal Commission on Equity in Employment led by Judge Rosalie Abella.
- NAC promoted appointments of women to prominent positions such as Governor General and women on the Supreme Court of Canada.
- NAC led the campaign to overhaul the Criminal Code provisions on sexual assault to make convictions less difficult and grant more protection to victims.
- NAC lobbied for stronger protections against harassment on the job in the Canadian Human Rights Act (1983) and the Canada Labour Code (1984).
- NAC began the work of improving Canada’s pornography legislation.
- NAC, with other organizations, led campaigns against violence against women, including in families. Such campaigns led to the establishment of shelters for women across Canada, the appointment of a parliamentary committee on family violence, and the appointment of the Badgley Committee on Child Abuse.
- NAC endorsed the Ad Hoc conference on women and the Constitution (1981), which played a key role in the inclusion of stronger equality clauses for women in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
- NAC worked with indigenous women’s organizations to revoke the provision in the Indian Act that led to indigenous women losing their status upon marriage to a non-Indian man.
- NAC organized televised party leaders’ debates on women’s issues and raised women’s issues during election campaigns.
- NAC lobbyied to get women’s issues on the agenda of the 1985 and 1986 meetings of Canada’s first ministers.
- NAC created a Visible Minority and Immigrant Women’s Committee and a Lesbian Issues Committee in 1985.
- NAC constantly reminded politicians, media, and citizens of the major gaps in women’s equality in Canada.
- NAC played a key role in the World Conference of Women in Nairobi, 1985.
- NAC lobbied extensively to ensure funding by the Secretary of State Women’s Program to equality-seeking women’s organizations.
- NAC oversaw the mass mobilizations of women in elections through “Women Vote” campaign; “Get the Budget Back on Track” campaign; and Campaign Against Free Trade and the Goods and Services Tax.
- NAC made a high-profile, renewed commitment to pro-choice issues through the Chantal Daigle abortion case.
- NAC worked closely with feminists across the country to address the devastating issues that had resulted in the violent murder of 14 young women by Marc Lépine’s in 1989
The face of NAC has always been its presidents. In the period covered by this Archive, the following women served as NAC Presidents:
1971-1974 Laura Sabia
1974-1975 Grace Hartman
1975-1977 Lorna Marsden
1977-1979 Kay Macpherson
1979-1981 Lynn McDonald
1981-1982 Jean Wood
1982-1984 Doris Anderson
1984-1986 Chaviva Hosek
1986-1988 Louise Dulude
1988-1990 Lynn Kay
1990-1993 Judy Rebick
Since then, NAC Presidents have been:
Sunera Thobani (1993-1996)
Joan Grant-Cummings (1996-1999)
Terri Brown (2000-2002)
Sungee John (2003-2005, interim)
Dolly Williams (2006- )
More information about NAC’s history can be found on the pages of this Archive. In particular, the article “An Action that Will Not Be Allowed To Subside: NAC’s First Twenty Years” by Anne Molgat provides a very well-rounded introduction to this amazing organization.