Researching Alternative Visions

Researching Alternative Visions: A project on Indigenous, racialized, immigrant, and low-income women’s activism in Canada, 1960s-1980s

by Margaret Little, Lynne Marks, and Sarah Nickel

As feminist activists and scholars, we understand the importance of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). NAC was founded in 1971 as an umbrella group of feminists from across Canada to lobby various levels of government for reforms for women. And many prominent liberal and socialist feminists were highly influential in shaping its politics.

Button highlighting NAC’S campaign in the 1988 federal election about the importance of the free trade issue to women’s equality and the need for women to vote.

But we know much less about the activism of Indigenous, racialized, immigrant, and low-income women who were often involved in politics that were on the margins of NAC’s agenda. Yet in some cases, they had a significant influence on NAC’s politics. Alternative Visions is a five-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funded project to explore this activism through archival sources, including those made available by Rise Up Feminist Digital Archive, as well as our own oral history interviews. This is the first in a series of articles about the findings of the Alternative Visions research project.

Through this research we have discovered many important moments in women’s politics that have yet to be fully integrated into our understanding of Canadian women’s activism during this dynamic era. And we have discovered that this activism raises different issues and involves different organizing strategies than those raised by NAC-based politics.

Undated Wages for Housework button.

Thus far, some of the highlights from our project that drew on the Rise Up collection including the following:

  1. Some of our research into the submissions to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women made by Indigenous, low-income, immigrant, and Jewish women’s organizations is available in published form, including “We Now Must Take Action’: Indigenous Women, Activism, and the Aftermath of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women” by Sarah Nickel, and “An Unexpectedly Significant Finding’: Poverty and the Royal Commission on the Status of Women” by Margaret Hillyard Little.
  2. We have researched the politics of the Wages for Housework committees in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montréal, Halifax, and Toronto as well as that of their sister organizations Wages Due Lesbians and the lesser known Prostitutes Collective. Additionally, we have explored NAC’s purge of Wages for Housework & their allies in 1979. We unearthed evidence of the NAC Executive prohibiting WFH groups and their allies from attending the NAC Annual General Meeting and being voting members of NAC in the NAC Executive memoranda (labelled “Confidential”) housed in the Canadian Women’s Movement Archives. Relatedly, Rise Up’s interview with one of the co-founding members of Toronto Wages for Housework, Judith Ramirez, has proven very helpful.
  3. Our research into Black women’s activism includes highlighting anti-racist activism in different locales as outlined in the Congress of Black Women of Canada Toronto Chapter Summary of Organizing, 1989 to 1993. We address the concerns about racism that were raised with respect to Nellie’s Place, one of the earliest women’s shelters to open (in Toronto) in 1973. Here, our evidence comes from our interviews with Carolann Wright and other racialized feminist activists. This action is widely acknowledged amongst racialized women activists as a turning point when women of colour publicly named their experiences of racism in the larger women’s movement. We also highlight the role of the Black church in Nova Scotia as demonstrated in the documentary Black Mother, Black Daughter by Sylvia Hamilton and Claire Prieto.
  4. We have researched the politics of the BC and Saskatchewan Native Women’s Movement.
  5. Our research on low-income women’s politics in Ontario has focused in particular on the importance of the Just Society Movement and Low Income Families Together.

To situate this activism within larger feminist debates, we have also surveyed these publications in the Rise Up collection:

This poster was for the premiere of a documentary film, Voice of Our Own, by Premika Ratnam and Ali Kazimi looking at the formation of the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women in Canada. The March 10, 1989, event included a panel discussion with Carol V. Cayenne, Carmencita Hernandez, Salome Loucas, Dora Nipp, and Judy Rebick.

We have found that many of the priority issues for these groups were somewhat distinct from NAC’s political priorities. These issues included support for the following:

  • Motherhood and unpaid caring work
  • Reproductive choice defined in a broader context than was often articulated by NAC by, for example, including women’s right to reproduce and keep their children
  • First Nations Women’s political concerns beyond Indian Act status
  • Conducting anti-violence-against-women work using a holistic, family and community focus that included recruiting men into anti-violence education
  • Anti-racist/anti-discrimination activism
  • Housing
  • Clean water
  • Religion and spirituality
  • Over-policing of racialized young men  

Exploring these other types of women’s activism led us to see how one thread of politics unravels interesting connections to other political threads.

This undated photo of a welfare rights protest at Queen’s Park features the Sole Support Moms banner.

For example, Indigenous women’s groups and low-income women’s groups were the only women’s organizations to write in-depth about poverty in their submissions to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. By contrast, immigrant and racialized women’s groups did not speak about poverty, and Black women’s groups did not make any submissions at all despite their activism at the time. 

Wages for Housework played an influential role in the founding of the Winnipeg Women’s Building in the late 1970s, but the building was also the site of significant Indigenous women’s activism.

The NAC purge of Wages for Housework groups and their allies deeply affected WFH activism, but it also had a chilling effect on low-income women’s activism that was sometimes closely aligned with but independent of WFH groups (including the Mother-Led Union).

In sum, we have found many instances where Indigenous, low-income, racialized, and immigrant women activists organized separately in distinctive groups and communities. When their issues and analysis were similar, they joined forces with the wider feminist movement.

Margaret Little is an anti-poverty activist and academic who works in the areas of single mothers on welfare, neo-liberal welfare reform, and retraining for women on welfare. She is jointly appointed as a Professor of Gender Studies and Political Studies at Queen’s University

Lynne Marks is a Professor of History at the University of Victoria. She teaches Canadian history, and women’s and gender history, as well as the social history of religion. She is the author of Infidels and the Damn Churches: Irreligion and Religion in Settler British Columbia (UBC Press, 2017).

Sarah Nickel is Tk’emlupsemc (Kamloops Secwépemc), French Canadian, and Ukrainian. She is Associate Professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta. Her research examines twentieth-century Indigenous politics through community-engaged oral history and archival methods, with a particular focus on the gendered nature of activism and resistance.

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