Transcript: Charlottetown & The Power of Women

Charlottetown & the Power of Women

Introduction: In this interview we talk to Judy Rebick about her role in the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown Accord. Judy led the campaign by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) for the “No” side. 

Judy tells us about the events leading up to the referendum on the constitution, how NAC developed and decided their policy on the Charlottetown referendum, what it was like to be in the middle of the media storm around the referendum, and what the outcome meant for women. 

Tara Cleveland: Welcome. We’re here today speaking with Judy Rebick. And she is going to tell us a little bit about the Charlottetown Accord. 

Judy, first, can you just introduce yourself?

Judy Rebick: Ok, my name as you said is Judy Rebick – Judy. And I’m a writer I guess now. I’m also a coach, is that what you call it, yeah, leadership coaching and communications coaching. This is my new job. 

And I’ve been an activist for close to 50 years, starting in the ‘60s in the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement and then I became – I was on the far left for a while and people probably know me best from my work in the women’s movement. I was the spokesperson for the Ontario Coalition for Abortion for Clinics in the ‘80s when we won legal abortion and then I was president of the National Action Committee and the status of women, which is what we’re here to discuss. 

Charlottetown Accord happened while I was President of NAC.

Tara: So, can you describe a little bit about what the Charlottetown Accord was and why it was important for women?

Judy: Ok. Well the Charlottetown Accord was a proposed amendment to the Constitution. When the Constitution was – the Canadian Constitution was brought back from Britain because we didn’t actually have a Constitution in Canada. It was Pierre Elliot Trudeau who did that and Quebec refused to sign that Constitution. 

That was in I guess 19 – I’m not good with dates but anyway, you can – whenever it was, I think it was ’82.

Anyway, so Quebec refused to sign that Constitution because they didn’t feel it gave them enough power. So, for whatever reason, Brian Mulroney, when he came into power, he was desperate to amend the Constitution so that Quebec would sign it. And he developed the Meech Lake Accord, which was a couple years before Charlottetown.

And the Meech Lake Accord declared that Quebec was a Distinct Society, ok. Which meant that Quebec could have different powers than the other provinces. And Quebec supported it and the women’s movement in Quebec supported it, but a lot of women in the women’s movement in English Canada were against it because they felt that it set up a hierarchy of rights and particularly that Section 15, which had – well it wasn’t – it was Section 15 of the Charter. The amendment to make Quebec a Distinct Society would give Quebec power over Section 15, which was women’s rights and other rights. And that – and the women in English Canada argued that Quebec for example could make abortion illegal when it was legal in the rest of the country.

Well, this really annoyed the women in Quebec. Given that Quebec made abortion legal before the rest of Canada.

Because the Supreme Court – I mean, not the Supreme Court but Henry Morgentaler had been acquitted by juries twice and the PQ government just decided not to apply the law. So it created a big split between the women in English Canada and the women in Quebec. And my view, this was before I was President of NAC was that this was a big mistake, that if the reason that women opposed the Meech Lake Accord was because it put women at threat in Quebec then we had to take lead from the Quebec women not from English Canadian women. So I spent a lot of time arguing in favour of the Meech Lake Accord actually, inside of NAC.

NAC didn’t take a position because of that division, but it was generally understood in Quebec that the women’s movement in English Canada helped to sink the Meech Lake Accord, which everybody in Quebec wanted, ok.

So, it did. It got sunk actually by Elijah Harper who stood up in Winnipeg in the – he was in MLA at the time, I think he was the first Indigenous MLA, and he stood up with an eagle feather and he refused unanimous consent because it had to unanimous consent for it to be passed in Manitoba. 

So, when I came in as President, which was the next – which was right on the cusp of Meech Lake, it was just at the point of being defeated. In fact, my first act as President was to speak at a rally for Elijah Harper in Winnipeg. So it was right at the end. 

And I – and anyway, I made the healing of Quebec – the women in Quebec and the women in English Canada a priority when I ran for president. That and making NAC more diverse, more representative of the Canadian population, particularly in terms of women of colour, Indigenous women, women with disabilities. 

So that’s how I came in was on that issue.

So, when Charlottetown came along, which is his next attempt, he did it a different way. He decided that he needed more popular input, so they had these Constitutional conferences across the country. They had five of them. And who went to these Constitutional – it was really an amazing process of democracy. 

Twenty-five percent of the people were chosen by lottery, just ordinary citizens who applied to go. I think, then there was another twenty-five percent, which were social movements and unions, another twenty-five percent that was business, and the other twenty-five percent were politicians. And that was sort of the composition. 

And also, Indigenous groups were invited as well but they didn’t’ come to all of them, just to the one on Indigenous self-government. 

And it was on – in Halifax they had the conference on division of power, which is, would all provinces have the same amount of power or would Quebec have special powers? So that was that issue.

The then, free trade among the provinces, which we also didn’t agree with, but we didn’t take a strong position on that. The unions did though. And that was in Montreal. 

Indigenous self-government was in Toronto and an elected senate was in Alberta, ok.

And we – NAC, I went to most of them. In Alberta somebody else went, but I went to most of them and represented NAC. And on – and our position, we debated our position, we had a committee which was made up of women from Quebec, Indigenous women and women from English Canada and then we added a woman of colour [upon demand from the women of colour on the Executive.]

And we developed this position that Canada was composed of three nations, each of which was multi-cultural and multi-national. And each of which had the right to self-determination and the way that Canada should be reconstructed is by negotiation among those three nations as equals.

It was a very advanced position that we took.

And when we were in Halifax, the federal government was kind of surprised by the position we took because they figured we had opposed Meech Lake, which as I explained we never really did. And we were in favour of – NAC at that point decided we were in favour of Quebec having the powers it wanted but we didn’t want to decentralize all federal power because we were afraid it would threaten childcare. So we argued for Quebec having different powers than the other provinces. And they called that asymmetrical federalism. And they were actually quite pleased that we took that position because that was their position in Meech Lake. 

So we actually won this position, the three nation’s position. We won it in the Halifax conference. It was amazing actually, and you know, I’ll tell you a story, that in the workshop I was in in Halifax, there was a woman from New Brunswick and she was really mad at Quebec. At the beginning she was saying, Quebec, they always get everything; they’re so selfish, they only think about themselves, blah, blah, blah. 

And there was a senator there; I think he was from Quebec. And he explained what they wanted, and why they wanted it and that it didn’t really affect the other provinces, it was just that they needed these powers to protect their language. And at the end, she understood that. And she thought, oh yeah, I understand that better. And she supported the special powers for Quebec position. 

And that’s what happened; we were able to persuade people of our position. You know, it was actually a democratic process.

Also, I had spoken to Rosalie Abella, who was the chair of that session,  and I told her what we were going to do. And she said, well I’ll make sure you have the space to do it, and she did. She gave us the space. So it was kind of cool, really cool and surprising. 

So then we went to all the other ones. And we pretty well won our position. We won our position in Alberta; we wanted fifty percent for elected senate. We wanted fifty percent women in the senate. And the right, at that point the Reform Party, wanted proportional representation. And so we made an alliance with them to agree to  proportional representation because we knew we’d get a lot more women that way. Doris Anderson always thought that we should’ve supported proportional representation. That was the first time I had ever even heard of it you know.

So, we went with that as a compromise and won that at the Alberta… but it was right-wing position also. 

And then, the Indigenous people having seen these victories – at first they were going to boycott the whole thing because they hadn’t been involved, right. But they went en masse to Toronto. And we supported them. And we won Indigenous self-government. 

Then, in Montreal – we didn’t go but the labour movement went, and they defeated free trade among the provinces because they didn’t want that. 

So, popular forces won our position at all the Constitutional conferences, so of course what do they do. They had to get agreements from the Premiers because that’s the Constitutional process of amendment. And they went behind closed door – they met in Charlottetown that’s why it was called the Charlottetown Accord. And they invited Indigenous organizations, but just the male organizations. We call them the male because at that time they had no women at all in them. And NWAC,– the Native Women’s Association of Canada – was really upset that they weren’t invited. So we demonstrated at Charlottetown for two reasons. One, we wanted to be there so we could comment on what they come up with and two because the Native Women’s Association wanted us to. So we did. 

And the media ignored us at first but two things happened that made us a little more – excuse me – powerful if you want.

The first thing that happened was that the proportional representation in the senate was defeated by the Premiers; they didn’t want to get into it. But Nova Scotia and Ontario supported – and that was Bob Ray at the time, supported – they would have fifty percent women in their senate nominations. So that was our victory right. Joe Schlesinger, who was a veteran CBC reporter, he said to the others, you’re crazy, do you know how much influence they had in the conferences? If they don’t agree with this it’s going to have trouble passing, to the other reporters, right. So, he really paid attention to what we were doing. 

When they came out of that Charlottetown Accord, they had – they did have Indigenous self-government although we hadn’t seen the language yet. But the native women were against it because their view was that the language meant that their equality rights wouldn’t be – wouldn’t be defended. And they had been fighting for a decade already, more than a decade, for what they called “Indian Rights for Indian Women”. That was the name of their organization. 

And that was because the new Human Rights Act didn’t cover the Indian Act and therefore, if an Indian – that is a Status Indian woman married outside – married a white person, that she would lose her status, lose her home, lose her ability to live on the reserve, and the men didn’t. The men didn’t [lose anything if they married out].

So they opposed it for that reason. 

And we didn’t know yet what we thought of the actual Charlottetown Accord until we had a chance to study it. And when we did get a chance to study it there were three big objections. One was the Native women objection, both that they hadn’t been included in the consultation. And two, that they weren’t protected.

The second was the division of power, which seemed to us to be highly decentralized and the childcare people were sure that it would make it almost impossible to have a national childcare. But the third thing, which would have been very easy to fix, was they wrote a Canada Clause and our lawyers felt that that Canada Clause created a hierarchy of rights and that women’s rights would be underlined by it, ok.

So we – so the first thing we did, because we knew – Mulroney – after the Charlottetown Accord came out, Mulroney made a statement saying if you didn’t vote “yes” in the referendum you were a traitor to Canada. The Prime Minister said that, ok. And he wasn’t like Donald Trump; you know he didn’t always say crazy things so you took it seriously when he said something.  First thing we did was we had a consultation of as many women’s groups as we could get to Ottawa. 

And everybody hated the Charlottetown Accord, ok. Like there was no support for it. And then we had a meeting of our executives, which is how we made decisions. And we had a – like I say we had a Constitutional committee and we knew we’d pay a heavy price if we opposed the Charlottetown Accord, so we – so we didn’t take a position, the committee.

And my own position was we are against it but there’s no way we can wage a campaign like this, an electoral campaign. And I had gone the week before to see Bob White who was the President at the Canadian Labour Congress with whom we had been in alliance on almost everything. And I went and told him, the problem with the accord and that the left had to oppose the accord. And he said well the NDP is the left too and they’re support the accord so we’re going to support it. 

So we didn’t have the labour movement and usually we did on our issues. So, we decided at the Constitutional Committee, we wouldn’t take a position. We would go around the executive once we had presented our concerns. Nobody would want to say yes, but we could abstain, we could just not participate. Or say it wasn’t worth supporting or something like that. Or we could campaign for the no. 

And of course, the other problem we had was that the only people at this point campaigning for a “no” were the sovereigntists, called “separatists”, right, the sovereigntists in Quebec and Preston Manning and the Reform Party. So we were like – in fact, Terry Mosher, who was a cartoonist for the Gazette – probably the most political cartoonist in the country at the time, did a cartoon of me and Preston Manning and Lucien Bouchard, sort of looking at each other like – in bed together, you know [laughs]. It wasn’t sexist at all, it was just like “Holy shit, what are we doing in bed together”, right [laughs]

It was very emotional because Sandra Delaronde, who was a Métis woman who was on the executive at the time, brought a shawl. And she was wearing this shawl and she said her mother gave the shawl to her so that the ancestors would be in the room with us when we made our decision, right, so it was very moving. That was very moving. Even for me. And I was really not very open to my feelings at the time I was still pretty dissociated. And even me, I was brought to tears by that. 

Joe Clark, who was the Minister in charge of this Constitutional thing and who by the way is a very nice person. 

My brother would say, “How can he be a nice person, he’s in Mulroney’s cabinet?” But he really is a good guy. 

And he called me the night before the meeting and he said “Judy, we need you guys to say “yes” to this”. They had just done a poll in BC and the majority was against. And I said well, you should have thought about rewriting the Canada Clause, because I don’t think we’re going to say yes, you know. 

So anyway, we had this executive meeting. It was an amazing meeting and every woman – and we had a very diverse executive by that time, because that was like the last year I was President of NAC – we had proposed this executive where at least one vice-president would be from what we called designated groups. That’s the employment equity language. So, women of colour, Indigenous women, women with disability or immigrant women, right.

So, anyway, we had implemented that and as a result we had a lot of women of colour and Indigenous women on the executive. That NAC executive is probably the most representative group I’ve ever been in, and there were labour women, there were women worked in women’s centres, like it was really representative of the feminist movement, and every single person but one said I’ve talked to women in my community and they’re against it, right. And so, we decided to go for the “no” and it was incredible what happened. 

“NAC says NO” was a front page headline in every newspaper. And Trudeau had said no – that is Pierre Trudeau opposed it ok, so, about two days before us. So it’s hard to know what swung the vote to the “no”. 

I think Pierre Trudeau’s “no” was part of it and our “no” was definitely part of it. Because a lot of the people on the left weren’t comfortable but the only people opposing it were on the right. So, here was NAC, which was quite – at that time seen as a left-wing group and saying no. So that then started like the most insane experience of my life. You know, in terms of the amount of work that it was and the amount of pressure on me, like it was unbelievable, like I was in two to three cities a day giving four to five speeches a day, debating cabinet ministers.

And then at night I would have to do questions and answers because the rest of the executive was doing this too, right, right across the country debating the Charlottetown Accord. And at one point, I – you know and I had a cell phone – now, the cell phone it was about this big, you know, as big as a book. And it weighed  a few pounds. And it was so expensive that we had to rent it, we couldn’t afford to buy it even though we had raised $50,000.00 for the campaign, which was a lot of money in those days and we still couldn’t afford to buy a cell phone ok. That’s how expensive they were. 

But I had this cell phone so that the media could get a hold of me and the staff could. And I’ll never forget it because I was in the back of a van in Winnipeg. I was so exhausted it was near the end. And the guy said to me – the reporter said where are you? And I really had no idea what city I was in, let alone –

And I looked out the window and I saw Portage and Maine, oh, I’m in Winnipeg, ok. [Laughs]

Yeah, it was something.

I was a very public figure by then. But still you know one of the things I did – one of the first things I did was speak to a class at SFU, you know it was just a class. So, I was just like, you know, going off and saying, “And if they don’t do this we’re going to occupy every federal office in the country”. Next day – on the front page of the Globe and Mail, NAC plans occupations across the country [laughing ]. 

We didn’t do it and we hadn’t even talked about it, but I had to get used to the fact that everything I said was news. You know, even when I was just riffing, right.

So, it was an incredible experience. 

Tara: Ok, you did touch on this but I’m going to ask it again, because I’d like to get a specific – you know talk about it specifically. Which is, one of the concerns about both Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord was the hierarchy of rights, can you – that women’s equality as gained in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms could be superseded by provincial or other rights, can you explain this concept and outline why it was a threat to Canadian women?

Judy: First of all, I should say that this was prior to a full understanding of intersectionality. And also, it came mostly from liberal feminists who had a  very rights-based rather than a liberation based if you know what I mean, like, my feminism was always an idea of transforming society, which would be the only way that women would get full rights.

But, of course, there were also liberal feminists who just thought there had to be formal and legal equality for us to get rights, ok. So there was attention on that. And NAC represented all of the currents of the women’s movement. So there were always tensions, you know later there was tensions around race, but earlier it was tensions around these political differences. 

There were also radical feminists who saw men as the problem. And so, there were always a lot of differences. And this was a difference we had but we deferred  to the people whose expertise it was. And these were the same women who had fought in the original ’82, you know when – that’s it, it was ’82, when Trudeau brought back the Constitution, they had fought for not only for the Section 15, which was the equality section, but Section 28, which says, “Notwithstanding anything else in the Charter, men and women are equal”, right. Which has created more problems than it was worth, but anyway, that’s a different story.

So they were very ferocious about protecting that, and they felt this overriding Canada Clause was interfering with that, and that language rights and religious rights could overturn women’s rights. And, of course, the abortion issue was an obvious one there. 

And they were worried about Quebec; right. So that was the argument there, yeah. They felt it made language rights more important than women’s rights. And, of course, you know with the Charter, because all these rights are on equal plane in Section 15, if there’s a conflict, it’s the courts that make the decision, right. And they didn’t want to be undermined that way; that was their view.

Tara: So, the Charlottetown Accord went to a public referendum, which was different than previous attempts to amend the Constitution, like Meech Lake. And so, the “yes” and “no” sides campaigned to the public for the vote. 

Judy: Yeah.

Tara: Although, obviously there’s a public aspect to any campaign, but how did the referendum affect the style of campaigning, was it more of a media circus than other campaigns?

Judy: Oh yeah, like we were in the media every single day, I was on  the CBC National two to three times a week. So, I was like – I was like the leader of a party, ok. That’s how they treated me. 

Because Preston Manning, in English Canada, Preston Manning and I were the leaders of the “no” Campaign and I would never appear on a platform with him, ok.

That was – we decided that from the very beginning, we would never appear on a platform with the Reform Party. And at that time I was actually better known that he was, right. So I was the spokesperson for the “no” side, the progressive “no” side, and he was for the right side of the NO – and because of it was an electoral campaign, like they do in an election campaign. They had to give equal time to the “yes” and the “no” side. And even though we had no money, they had all the money. But – I mean we had almost no money. Like I said, we raised $50,000.00 and they had hundreds of thousands of dollars, right. 

But they were very arrogant, because they had all the important people on their side. And we were so grass roots. It was a glimpse of what social media could do because we didn’t have social media yet at that point. But what we did have was cheap movie cameras, right. And people started doing these sort of homemade commercials for the “no” side. And kind of like videos on YouTube now, but maybe a little less sophisticated and the media, gave them equal time with the “yes” side’s sophisticated television commercial.

And so, you would see these really quite charming homemade commercials, like one of Mulroney as a used car salesman trying to sell us the Charlottetown Accord, which is just a painted version of the Meech Lake Accord, for example, right. That was a popular one. 

And the Native Women’s Association, they had $10,000.00 and they spent all on doing a video on why this was no good for native women. 

And a lot of people told them, a lot of Indigenous people told them this is a – when I saw this I decided no way I’m voting for this accord, right.

So it was – and like I say we had to debate with the politicians but the only negative experience I had was we – I was on a national debate on the “National”.

Before the days of social media, the “National” was the “News” you know, Peter’s Mansbridge, the National. And on that panel was Ed Broadbent as well as all the other political leaders, right, and me and Preston Manning, right. 

And Ed Broadbent, when I talked about the way we saw the Charlottetown Accord and what we were looking for in terms of change in the country and how the country would function, and he said, Judy, you’re dreaming in technicolour, you’re being ridiculous. 

He said this on national television and that really upset me. Like that was the one thing – I mean I put up with everything else but he was supposed to be my ally, right. And he really insulted me.  Just like, you’re being an idiot, right. So that was awful. 

But other than that, I was used to being attacked. I usually just ignored it.

And also, because I was leading a movement, so they’re not attacking me personally, who cares. You know, I had that ability to do that, but that stuff with Broadbent was tough. That was a hard one, yeah.

Tara: So, on the – at the tail end of the campaign I was in Thunder Bay – I was in Winnipeg and it was near the end of the campaign, and I was on the phone with somebody from CTV about being on a debate show, and I missed my plane to Thunder Bay. Ok, like I missed it. 

And so, there wasn’t another plane for three hours. So I took the next plane and when I got there, it was at a university auditorium; I wasn’t surprised the media waited for me, but there wasn’t a seat in the house! Like, everybody waited three hours for me to get there, right. 

That’s how much public interest there was. Like, the turnout was 71.8% , like you don’t get anywhere near that in an election. And fifty-four percent said no, so this was a very significant defeat for the elites in the country.. And that – that trip to Winnipeg – to Thunder Bay really showed me that people took it so seriously. Mulroney mailed a copy of the Charlottetown Accord to every single household in the country.

So nothing like that had ever happened before. I was on every talk show, every call in show and people really asked good questions, you know. They took it very seriously. So it got me interested in participatory democracy. And later I wrote about participatory democracy.

Because I thought, yeah, this is the way to change, is to give people more of a say in politics. Of course the reaction of the elites was to completely wipe it out of history.

Tara: The lead up to the Charlottetown Referendum included a number of committees and conferences that consulted the public, you talked about that earlier, the Spicer Commission, in particular, warned against the fury of Canadians and said that the public would be against the Charlottetown Accord. Many of these Canadians were on the opposite of the political spectrum from you though, and they were arguing for very different Constitutional changes. What they wanted to see was very different than what you wanted to see, even though you were both voting “no”. 

Judy: Right.

Tara: They say that politics makes for strange bedfellows but did NAC ever work with any of the people or politicians or organizations on the right to bring about a “No” vote?

Judy: No. We decided that at the beginning, we said we’re more opposed to the politics of the reform party, and don’t forget this was before the Reform Party – I think they had one seat in parliament at that point, so they were you know very anti-feminist, right. So there’s no way we could make an alliance with them and we never did. 

It is true that right-wingers voted against it and left-wingers voted against it. But we never – we never – no, we never appeared with them or in any way. And we argued against their position, we didn’t agree with it, so yeah. 

Tara: Ok. How did NAC reconcile the different perspectives that women in Quebec and Quebecois Women’s Organizations had with women in the rest of Canada in the Referendum campaign?

Judy: We didn’t have a difference with them in the Referendum campaign, we had a difference with them – we had differences on Meech Lake but not on Charlottetown. 

Charlottetown included Distinct Society and at that point, like I say, I’d been fighting this position in English Canada for a couple of years already and we had agreed that the Distinct Society wasn’t the problem; the problem was the Canada Clause.

And everybody was ok with that by that time in English Canada. I mean, some people still didn’t agree but they were ok with it.

Tara: So what was the difference between the Canada Clause and Distinct Society?

Judy: You know, I never agreed with their position on Distinct Society; that it was a threat to women’s rights, I never thought that. So it’s hard for me to say, you know.

Tara: Mm-hmm.

Judy: The Canada Clause, it was just the lawyer’s view that in a court it would interfere with women’s rights and I had no way of independently assessing that so I went along with it, right. 

You have to realize there were like three currents in NAC that were opposing it, so Indigenous women, which in and of itself might or might not have been enough to say no. For me, it was enough to say no but I don’t know if the whole organization would have said “no” on that. 

The childcare movement was against it because of the decentralization of social programs and then the liberal feminists, some of them not all of them (because some of them supported it); some of the liberal feminists were against it because of the hierarchy of rights. So, you had women in the political parties who all supported it,and attacked us. You know, NAC doesn’t speak for me, that became a whole thing, a whole campaign during that time.

During that time. But, our membership on the other hand, because we had so thoroughly debated this from even before I was President, but even once I became President, I did a whole tour of the country to talk about what – the mistake we made with Meech Lake you see, and to talk about Quebec’s right to self-determination and all of that. So that – by the time Charlottetown had come, there were some members of NAC (we had 500 member groups), there were some members that didn’t agree with us. But the Toronto Star called every single one of our member groups and couldn’t get anyone to say anything bad about our position because we had thoroughly debated it, right. 

So, even the women who had disagreed with what we were doing were satisfied that they had had a hearing. So no one spoke against us who were members of NAC. But lots of women who were politicians or corporate leaders or whatever denounced us, yeah.

Tara: Do you think being a Toronto-based President of NAC helped or hindered you during the Referendum campaign and why or why not?

Judy: I never really thought about that. 

I don’t think it had really much of an impact. I mean the President of NAC was from either Ottawa, Toronto or Montreal always, usually Ottawa or Toronto-based. 

And we had – like I say, all the decisions were made with the executive. 

And in those days, you know, we had actual had in-person meetings four times a year; bringing people from all across the country, it was pretty remarkable. 

And yeah, I don’t think it had an impact one way or the other.

Tara: Ok. NAC fully supported Indigenous self-government; the Charlottetown Accord would have had self-government recognized in the Constitution, which was a huge change. Most Indigenous groups supported the “yes” side, yet NAC campaigned on the “no” side in the Referendum, why did NAC make this choice and how did this affect the campaign and relationships with Indigenous groups?

Judy: Well, as I think I said this already, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, which was the equivalent of NAC for native women and the three Indigenous women on the NAC executive all opposed the Charlottetown Accord for the same reason, which is, it took rights away from native women.

 Nevertheless, it was hard to oppose because it’s true that self-government could have been a step forward and we had had alliances with the Assembly of First Nations on Oka. We had been very supportive on Oka and the Indigenous people. We had organized a whole page ad in the Globe and demonstrations across the country, and on Free Trade – the Assembly of First Nations worked with us in a coalition against Free Trade.So we had strong connections with the Assembly of First Nations so it was really hard, really, really hard. And there were people on the left who were denouncing us for opposing the Charlottetown Accord because of the self-government thing.

And then it turned out the majority of Indigenous voted against the Accord actually. 

Tara: So, you’ve touched on this a little bit, but again it would be good to have it in just one question, one answer. Canada, the politicians, the media and the people had been talking – at the point of the Charlottetown Referendum had been talking about constitutional issues for over a decade. 

Judy: Mm-hmm.

Tara: With the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982, the struggles for Section 15 and 28, and then with Meech Lake, and then the Constitutional conferences, how did the campaigns of the women’s movement evolve as the constitutional debates progressed?

Judy:   The ‘82 Repatriation, that’s when the women’s movement fought for this Section 28, right. And that was, like I say, liberal feminists. 

At the time Doris Anderson, who had been – you know was a very well known feminist at the time, she had been the editor of Chatelaine and she was now the – I guess she was Executive Director of the Advisory Council on the status of women which was a government appointed body. And she wanted to have a conference of the women’s movement on the repatriation of the Constitution.  Lloyd Axworthy was the Minister responsible for the status of women, and we had a man as Minister for the Status of Women. And he refused to use government funding to have this conference.

And so, Doris resigned and she called the conference, and the conference happened. So it became like a sort of legendary thing with the women’s movement that there was this conference on Section 28 and they very strongly supported it and eventually it got in..

But, like I say, it hasn’t been very useful in legal fights at all; it had the opposite effect if anything. Men have used it more effectively than women, but anyway. 

But at the time they were really sure that it was needed. Because it said, “Notwithstanding anything else in the Constitution”, so there couldn’t be – like if there was a conflict between religious rights and women’s rights, women’s rights would win, that was their idea, right. I think NAC was involved in that but not centrally involved, it was these liberal feminists. 

So yeah, so there had been discussion and the media was all about ho-hum this is so boring, nobody cares anymore – at Charlottetown, right. How can we keep having this Constitutional discussion?

But once there was a Referendum, all that changed because then there was a very different dynamic and people feel they had some control. It wasn’t something way over there, it was something that was going to affect their life and they could vote on it, and it changed everything. 

And so, the media was very cynical about it when it started, the Referendum campaign, the conferences, all of that. But it completely transformed – and the conferences helped for that too because the media covered the conference.  What was new about it was there was all these “ordinary people” in the conferences and they weren’t taking sides, they were just listening and deciding what they thought and who they agreed with. So it was a very interesting democratizing format. 

What did it do for the women’s movement, now that’s a good question, I think that it set us up as a powerful force and it meant the government became a lot more determined to destroy us. Like, I think they wanted to destroy us early on. 

Like the – you know NAC used to have these lobbies where we would meet – we would have an AGM always in Ottawa and we would meet with the caucuses of each of the parties and often the Ministers would come.. And, I think before my time, Prime Ministers would come. And it got more and more rowdy and less and less respect to the Ministers. 

And so, the first year I was President of NAC they refused – no, the year before I was President of NAC they refused to come (the conservative Ministers), right. 

So, that process of trying to undermine our credibility had happened before. And probably intensified after Charlottetown. 

On the other hand, we looked pretty powerful, right. So a mixed – mixed reaction.

Tara: Great. This is the final question, I feel like a talk show – or like a gameshow host, final question, for a million dollars – no.

Judy: Yeah [laughs] right.

Tara: You said in your book, “Ten Thousand Roses”, that the best thing that emerged from the Charlottetown – from Charlottetown was that all parts of the women’s movement worked together on it.

Judy: Yeah.

Tara: How was consensus achieved and were new alliances and working relationships maintained after the Referendum?

Judy: Well, I’m not sure how to answer that. I don’t know how to answer that. Because very soon after Charlottetown then that was my last year as President of NAC and then Sunera [Thobani] got elected and they’re into a whole other thing, right.

Like, in fact, right after Charlottetown we were starting to talk about a woman of colour succeeding me as President and so everything shifted to that I think. And there was an ongoing kind of decision among mainstream middle class women that NAC was getting too radical. I think that happened. It’s hard to judge what impact that had. Like, it didn’t have impact on money, we were raising more money than we’d ever raised before. But that was mainly because nobody else ever had to raise money until me because our funding was enough to pay for the organization. 

When Lynn Kaye was president and NAC opposed a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., that’s when the Conservatives started cutting funding to NAC. Because we had opposed almost every single one of their big projects right. So Free Trade came first and then Charlottetown.

And Free Trade, we had an alliance with the unions, Charlottetown we didn’t. It didn’t affect our relationship with the unions I think, you know they understood why we did what we did so it didn’t affect our relationship with the unions. It probably affected our support from some upper-middle class women, yeah, but that was inevitable anyway because as neoliberalism came in under Mulroney, inevitably our women’s groups either going to move to the left or get co-opted, one of the two. And we were moving to the left. 

NAC got more radical in reaction to the rise of the right. Whereas, other women’s groups tended to get, not more conservative, but more – because they had a base – they had to get more support from from their local community, they tended to get more moderate – you know, they couldn’t take chances because they were getting money from the [Shriners] Club or whatever, right.

So, I’m not sure Charlottetown was a major factor in that but it was a factor.

Tara: Yeah.

Judy: They brought in a lot of things they wanted with Charlottetown anyway, right. But they didn’t get what they really wanted, so.

Tara: So, that was one of the things you said in the same section about – in Ten Thousand Roses where most of the things in Charlottetown had been implemented anyways administratively, what did you mean by that?

Judy: Well,  Quebec does have different powers, you know they just did that. They – the Canada Clause I think — I don’t  even remember what was in it now so I can’t comment on that. The Free Trade among the provinces, well that has been achieved by a process of deregulation on lots of things.

Elected senate obviously they didn’t have an Indigenous self-government, they didn’t have. So the things that they really wanted that they just stuck in the Charlottetown Accord because it was a place to put it like Free Trade, they got, that’s what I meant.

But the other thing that I said, I’m not sure if I said it in Ten Thousand Roses is that the night of the victory – of our victory, I was at CBC, you know as a commentator as I was still a president of NAC. And watching the Premiers react to the defeat I realized that they didn’t get why people were opposed, they didn’t understand the basis of it and they weren’t going to change, nothing was going to change. And that all this energy that we had put into it and the risk we had taken it really wasn’t worth it. Because we won the battle but we lost the war. Which was on neo-liberalism right. And on – and you know in fact, they just – they never cut NAC while I was President, but as soon as I stepped down they started to cut NAC again.

So, yeah, so it was Pyrrhic victory let’s put it that way.

Tara: Yeah.

Judy: Yeah, it was really a Pyrrhic victory, yeah.