Transcript: Feminist Anti-racist Organizing in NAC in the 1990s

Franca lacovetta: OK, well, thank you, Beverly, for agreeing to participate in Rise Up’s oral history project, which we’ve called, Women Unite. We’ve called it Women Unite, Toronto Feminist Activism 1970s to 1990s. And we really appreciate your generosity in agreeing to do this interview.
Beverly Bain: Thank you for the invitation.
Franca lacovetta: We’ve organized the interviews around moments, as in moments of mobilization. Although the conversations can get quite wide-ranging, so feel free to say what you wish to say. In our case, we’ve agreed that the moment will be on NAC and feminist anti-racist organizing in NAC in the 1990s. NAC, of course, being the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. And, you, Beverly Bain, were executive director of NAC in the 1990s. I believe 1992 to 1997?
Beverly Bain: No, 1992 to 1995.
Franca lacovetta: To 1995, ok.
Beverly Bain: 1992 to 1995.
Franca lacovetta: OK, thank you. So, we’ve organized the interviews around moments, but if we could first start by briefly introducing ourselves. And then I’d love to ask you a little bit more about your formation as an activist. So, an introduction.
Beverly Bain: Beverly Bain. I have been an activist, a feminist activist, for more than 40 years here in Toronto. I currently teach in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto, the Department of Historical Studies at the Mississauga campus.
Franca lacovetta: OK, thank you. And I’m Franca lacovetta, and I’m in my second week of retirement from the University of Toronto. Life hasn’t changed yet, but I am beginning my retirement. I am a member of the Rise Up Collective. I haven’t been involved – I wasn’t involved in the activism we’re going to talk about – but I really appreciated the opportunity to read about it. To look at videos.
Thank you for your social media posts, which gave me access to some wonderful panels and other materials. I should also say that, if at some point you think of or have time to let us know about any materials you might have about the interview we’re going to have, then we’d be more than happy to digitize them and add them to the Rise Up website. Because we certainly should have a lot more on the website about antiracist organizing in the women’s movement.
OK, so the project is also about the feminist activists themselves, and so I do want to ask you about your activist trajectory. I mean, I do want to say first that you are – you have been such an important, such a leading Black queer feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, revolutionary activist, scholar, educator. You’ve been deeply committed to really critical political struggles and social movements. I mean, more recently Black Lives Matter.
Beverly Bain: Let me correct that right now.
Franca lacovetta: OK.
Beverly Bain: I think there must be a distinction between Black Lives Matter as a movement and as an organization and Black Lives Matter as the slogan. I am not part of Black Lives Matter as an organization or as a movement. I’ve been involved in activism for Black lives around police shootings and police violence that occurred, that has occurred, in the city. But that stems from my long history of being involved in activism in this city around police violence. Starting in the seventies, going into the eighties, in ’89 with Albert Johnson and Buddy Evans before him. And the shooting of Sophia Cooke by police; organizing around Sophia Cooke, and bringing to the attention that Black women get shot by police. That Black women get brutalized by police. Black, racialized and Indigenous women get abused and killed by police.
I mean, we’ve been talking about that since I think the early – late, mid-eighties, early nineties. I mean, after Sophia Cooke got shot, a number of us in the Black radical feminist community organized around her. In terms of ensuring that people recognized that Black women get brutalized by police too. And that this is not just a phenomenon that only males are at risk of police violence and police killings. And that there’s a different way in which women who are brutalized by police or killed by police – is very gendered in nature. And very sexualized in nature. That differentiates it from the way in which men who are shot or killed by police. There’s a difference. And to talk about the gender dynamic and also the sexed dynamic.
So, for instance, there was a situation in the nineties, the early nineties, where a Black woman from Jamaica, Audrey Smith, was strip searched in the middle of downtown by police. And where we, a number of us, got together. Again, feminists, who are Black and racialized feminists. Myself in particular and another Black feminist, Andrea Ritchie – who’s now in the US and who is doing a lot of work around abolition and the gendered aspect of police violence did work around the strip searching and how strip search is actually a form of rape and sexual assault of women. And, it is the way in which police actually visit violence on the bodies of women. And the bodies of Black women in particular, and Indigenous women. So, I just want to make those connections. So, I am not a member, never was a member of Black Lives Matter, but I supported them, when Black Lives Matter Toronto was formed.
I supported the work they did around the occupation of College Street, bringing attention to the shooting of Andrew Loku. When Black Lives Matter halted a parade five years ago and demanded no policing in, no institutional policing in Pride Toronto, I support the movement of Black Lives Matter. But I’m not a member and never was.
But I am an activist who is – who has been working in the area of bringing attention to police violence against Black people. The anti-Blackness around the way in which police police Black bodies. And the way they police women’s bodies. So that has been my work. Yeah.
Franca lacovetta: Thank you for that. And also work in Pride?
Beverly Bain: I’m one of the co-founders, there’s several of us, of No Pride in Policing Coalition. Which actually was formed to ensure that police not be brought back into Pride. It was formed to support Black Lives Matter – that we not have institutional police in Pride. And, so, No Pride in Policing Coalition is really focused on defunding and abolition of police. That is its core fundamental aspect. Its foundational premise is that we do not support funding of police. So, our mantra is defunding and abolition of police.
Franca lacovetta: And the distribution of funds.
Beverly Bain: And the redistribution of funds from policing budgets and from carceral institutions to communities to ensure that these communities can provide the kinds of support they need. So, going to – so, rather than having police show up for mental health checks, why not have that money going to communities that are actually equipped and trained.
For instance, various health centres do have people at the frontline who are equipped to do this. Put money into these communities, these sustainable communities that are on the frontline of this work. People who are on the frontline doing harm reduction. People who are on the frontline doing work with Indigenous communities and homeless communities.
This is where the money should go. It should not go to police to actually show up in situations where there is a mental health crisis, because we already see what happens when that is – what takes place. In every situation here – a year ago, the police have showed up, whether it be in the context of Black, Indigenous or racialized, they have killed those people. And they were doing mental health checks, quote/unquote. And we’re saying no.
Franca lacovetta: Right, right, thank-you. Thank-you for that. And it does – I really appreciate that. That the way in which these critical issues means a tremendous amount of work but also making connections all of the time too, and similar networks and overlapping networks and so on. So, I wondered about whether you could talk, too, a little bit about your formation, of you, as an activist, if I may. Your radical trajectory.
Whether you’d like to talk about transformative moments, key events, key writing, key moments that really played a role in your formation as an activist. And then early activism in Toronto, which you’ve already begun to talk about, which I really appreciate your doing.
Beverly Bain: I think my awakening, my political awakening, came when I was – I grew up in Trinidad, in the Caribbean. And I think it came in 1971, ’72. I was maybe about 14, 15, in that age range – I’m ageing myself [laughs]. And so that was like around ’71, ’72, somewhere there.
And it was around the Black Power Movement in Trinidad. What was happening then was that a number of students from the University of Trinidad, the West Indies took to the hills and decided that they would try to destabilize the government. I mean, they were young, and they believed in something different.
It was 1971, ’72. Trinidad had gained independence in ’52 [correction: 1962]. And I think people had recognized that nothing had changed for Black people particularly. And for Indo-Caribbean people. But particularly for Black people, things seemed to remain the same.
Nothing, in fact, nothing changed economically and socially. Black people still were not having access to education. They were still not having access to jobs. The majority of them were still poor, except for a few who gained access through education and government jobs, but those were limited and few. People at that point – there were unrests in ’69, ’70, you know, labour protests across the country.
People were tired of the kind of continued neocolonialism that was happening. We had moved from colonialism to what they called independence, neocolonialism. But we were still living under a colonial regime, even though it was run by people who were elected in the country and who were black.
It was still very much a colonial regime, and people saw that. And many Black people saw that, thus there were labour protests and calls for change. The thing about 1969 I want to go back to – that’s when all the labour unrest started. And I think I was about 13. That actually left an indelible mark on me, because a lot of young people, 16 years old, 15, were arrested on the street.
Some younger – a young child was killed by police. And at the same time, there were things happening elsewhere in the world. I think I developed an internationalist perspective very young in terms of understanding politics as something very international. But I was very influenced by women. By women activists. By Black feminist activists.
So people like – and who were actually left-wing and radical, and socialist and communist. These were the people that influenced me. So, Angela Davis. The activists from Britain. And who left Trinidad and went to the US and also to Britain.
Beverly Bain: Claudia Jones was the founder of Carnival [a festival celebrating West Indian culture and heritage] in Brixton in Britain. And my father worked for the government, so he travelled. And we got the West Indian Gazette, which was a newspaper that she actually wrote.
And I have always been someone who was always interested in books and reading. My father knew that, and he nurtured that quality in me. He would bring me newspapers and books. We had everything in our house. Books on Marx, books on Che Guevara, books on Lenin, books on Malcolm X, on Angela Davis. Her autobiography was in progress, by Herbert Aptheker, who was actually working with her to do her autobiography. And we had all of that. We had all that information. And I remember Claudia Jones’ influence on me, and Angela Davis’s influence on me.
And in 1972 – well, just let me go back – sorry. Let me go back and just talk about 1969. What was happening in Trinidad around the labour riots. Also, in Montreal in 1969, was Sir George Williams University. The uprising of Black students at Sir George Williams University. We were hearing about that in Trinidad. It was on the news. That there was an uprising at Sir George Williams University, and a number of Black students from the West Indies were protesting, and they had locked themselves in the computer room. And, of course, there was a lot of discussion about it. People were talking about it a lot, about, oh my god, what are they doing, they’re embarrassing us. And there were all these kinds of various narratives about shame and embarrassment
And, of course, but there was also the other side of young people saying, good for them, good for them for protesting racism. And then people in Trinidad started to support what was happening in Montreal at Sir George Williams. And we know that there were protests in South Africa. We know that there were protests in the US. Right. We had Stokely Carmichael in the US, who was originally from Trinidad, who became Kwame Ture.
We had all of these people from Trinidad who had migrated to the US and who had become revolutionaries. So, we were hearing all of that. And, of course, the discourse and narratives from the state was one of negativity, of course. That these people were creating violence, because it was actually impacting Trinidad, in the sense that people in Trinidad were rising up. The reality is that there was a foundational thing happening in the Caribbean, in Trinidad, in Jamaica, where people recognized that their lives were entrenched in poverty and desperation.
And for Black people in particular there seemed to be no way out of that. And the only way out of that was to take on the state and demand change. So, in ’72 – I’m moving now to ’72 – a group of students, five of them, took to the hills. And they got support from some of the Coast Guards and they staged a coup [an attempted coup]. The five young people were killed. The youngest, her name was Beverly Jones. And her sister, Andrea Coint Jones [correction: Altheia Jones-LeCointe]. She was in England at the time. And she was named as part of the people who were supporting the uprising in Trinidad. She actually was one of the people who was involved in the trial of the Mangrove. The mangrove …
Franca lacovetta: Mangrove Five?
Beverly Bain: Mangrove Five or the Mangrove Seven…
Franca Iacovetta: Seven, yes. [correction: Mangrove Nine].
Beverly Bain: And Beverly Johnson’s killing impacted me because she was only 17. I was about 15, and I was really impacted by her death. Her murder. I mean, it was an assassination. It was an execution. It was a killing. And that left an indelible mark on me. And, also, it really spurred my political awareness. I immediately cut my hair off, and from then on, I always had an Afro. [Laughs]. And I became very Black conscious. Because Black Power was a focus then of taking back, owning our power, owning our beauty, owning our lives. But that, of course, sort of melded into more performativity than actually change. It became representation and performance, and fashion, as opposed to actual political change. It started political but it, of course, petered out.
I came to Canada in ’77 to go to university. I finished high school and then I worked so I could earn a bit of money. I got a job in the government for a year and a half. And I worked. And then I applied to come to university, and I came in ’77.
Upon arriving, I said to my mother: “Mum, where are the Black people in this city?” And then she told me, go to Bathurst and Bloor. And as I came out of the subway there was a protest happening. The shooting of Buddy Evans.
I found my way to the Third World Bookstore up on Bathurst. Which I asked about, where you can go and have conversations, and they told me to go to the bookstore. I became an activist then. I started following people around. [Laughs]. Started following Black activists around, and met Sherona Hall. I met Dionne Brand. I became very involved in the struggle around policing. I didn’t call myself a feminist then, the term we use, but I always – was really clear about women having power. And not subverting that power to male power. Or not having that power underestimated or subverted to masculinity and to maleness. I was always clear about that. Working in the movement with Black men was quite a challenge. It was a challenge for me and other women and other feminists. And I found it very hard to stay in that place. Without having another place to go to where we can actually talk about the intersectionality of Blackness and being women, and gender. And, also, about sexuality. And what that means in our world and in our lives. And I found my way to work with feminist activists, radical Black women in the city, who were radical, black, queer. Starting to work with them around issues of gender, and race and class, and political activism.
nternational work. I joined the Communist Party, because I always had an internationalist perspective. So, simultaneously, as I was doing that, I also became a Communist, because I was also very interested and also focused on liberation and revolution. I always believed right from the beginning that our world will just not change automatically. The state will not give its power away. We have to take that power. And the only way to take that power is through liberation and through struggle, and through revolution. So, I became very attached to socialism and communism. Cuba was a big influence on me.
Franca lacovetta: Right.
Beverly Bain: Nicaragua was a big influence on me. South Africa was a big influence on me. Namibia, looking at the kinds of struggles. So, I joined the Communist Party on campus as a university student, as an undergraduate.
I was also very much involved with – I wasn’t a part of the Black Women’s Collective [Black radical feminist activist group, 1986-89], but I was connected with it. I would attend meetings. I would support the work that they were doing.
I wanted to have that connection, because I also felt that the Communist Party only fulfilled me to a certain degree. Because I was still dealing with issues of whiteness, still challenging whiteness, still dealing with stuff on gender, and also, later on, on sexuality. But I felt that the party was not sufficient enough. It did not fulfill all of who I was. But it certainly fulfilled an understanding of social movements, of political movements, of liberation, of revolution, of organizing. It gave me all of those skills, which I benefited from and which I will always treasure. Because it has worked. It allowed me to continue to do the work that I’m doing today.
Franca lacovetta: Right.
Beverly Bain: And it provided me with a certain sense of analysis around capitalism and class, etcetera. Which has been part of my scholarship as well – as an anti-capitalist. So, yes, I benefited from that work. But I also felt that I also needed something more profound – in terms of feminism. Intersectional feminism, feminism that was anti-racist, feminism that focused on Black racialized and Indigenous women’s lives.
In terms of the Communist Party, I was in the party for like 10 to 15 years. I was on the Central Committee. I lived in Moscow. I lived in Cuba. I did a lot of work with Namibia, Grenada. I did a lot of that work, and it was through my time as a Communist.
Franca lacovetta: Oh, that is fascinating.
Beverly Bain: I left probably around maybe ’95, I think.
So, in 1992 I was hired [by NAC]. I wanted to work in the women’s movement. I also got involved in the anti-violence movement. A lot of my work for years, for a good 20 years, was in anti-violence.
So a core number of years I spent from the eighties to 2004 was all in the anti-violence movement. As an activist. As a researcher. On committees, city committees. I was actually one of the people who worked with Jane Doe, when she decided to sue the police, launch a suit. At the time [1987], it was the Metropolitan [Toronto] police. I was the person who she invited to be part of her committee to do that. I worked with her, we worked together for twelve years. When she won her suit, the city issued an audit, and I worked with her on the audit committee, and the implementation committee.
Franca lacovetta: Wow, wow.
Beverly Bain: Yeah. So, I’ve got a good 20-something years of working in the anti-violence movement. So, before I went to NAC, I was already working in the anti-violence movement. I was on the board of another – of Assaulted Women’s Helpline. I ran shelters, as an executive director, for two or three shelters. And then, that’s how I ended up going to work for NAC.
I was already running shelters. I was a feminist activist. I was involved in IWD [International Women’s Day]. I was involved in – I actually, with a number of other feminists: Dionne Brand, Angela Robertson, others. We actually created Women Against Racist Policing around the shooting of Sophia Cooke. I had done all of this stuff.
And then I continued to work, to organize around women who were experiencing violence at the hands of their partners. And who were actually being counter-charged by their husbands, and by police. And finding lawyers to defend them in court. So, I was doing all of that before I went to NAC. So I had a portfolio of work in the feminist movement.
Also, you know, reality. I needed to work. [Laughs]. I was a new mother of a two-year-old. So, I needed a job that had some security.
And I thought if I’m going to work, I’d like to work for a feminist organization. And the idea of a national women’s organization appealed to me. Because I felt it would allow me to get a wider sense of the landscape of feminism in this country. In a way that I wouldn’t normally get it just working locally.
What I recognized with NAC — it was a lobbying organization. So, I understood that. I knew exactly that it had a liberal format. I was not in any way surprised. I mean, if you’re lobbying, it means that you are operating in response to the state. So, I knew that. That was not something that surprised me at all.
I liked the idea that there were campaigns. I liked the idea that it brought you into contact with other women’s organizations. I also felt that, if I could go to this organization, maybe I could encourage more racialized groups around the country to become part of that organization. That will change the dynamics of the organization.
I remember in the eighties and nineties with the Black Women’s Collective, and the kind of work we were always doing was never about recognition. It was never work to be recognized. But it was always work of transformation, work of change. But we understood that in dealing within this framework that was provided to us – which is the framework of inclusion and diversity – that it would be limited.
But it was never our end point. It was never what we hoped to end up with. We know that this was part and parcel of the multicultural narrative. And part of the multicultural end goal is to create this sort of idea that inclusion and diversity would be enough for us.
A lot of the activism that we did in the nineties became professionalized. That was part and parcel of the seduction of diversity and inclusion. The way in which a visible minority became sort of the scope to identify those of us who were non-white. And how that actually shaped our relationships with the state.
Through a particular kind of frame that was about funding. And our ideas, and our struggles, and our goals got taken up within these contexts, and within the state’s frame, and institutional framings. That became about the interest of the state as opposed to what we were really struggling for. All along.
Franca lacovetta: Right.
Beverly Bain: So, NAC was no different that way. In the sense that, when NAC executive directors — and this came from pressure from racialized people on the executive — decided that you needed to hire someone who was non-white as an executive director. We needed to increase racialized people on the executive. You needed to start building NAC in terms of more inclusively. They were also operating on this premise of inclusion and diversity. Anti-racism was being used as a frame. I don’t think that that actually became entrenched until Sunera came in. I mean, the idea of anti-racism actually took on much more of a concrete framing under Sunera Thobani.
hen Judy Rebick’s term was up, the focus was on who would be the next president. And the struggle was to ensure that we had a racialized person in place. So, of course, that created some tensions within the organization. Because there were people who felt that a certain person should have been the president of the organization, who has been on the board. She was white.
And there were those of us who were very clear that we needed a woman of color to be president. [Some] people felt that Sunera didn’t have a clear – she wasn’t well known by NAC members. Some of the criticisms. She wasn’t well known by NAC members. People didn’t know her well, and she was new to NAC.
So there were splits, and there were drama, and there were all kinds of issues. And anyway, we decided that we would support Sunera Thobani. And in 1993 she was voted in as the new president.
Franca lacovetta: Right. Making her the first racialized woman – woman president of NAC.
Beverly Bain: To head up the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, yeah. That was in 1993.
Franca lacovetta: Right. Right. Which was, yeah, a really important milestone. Can I ask – thank-you for being frank about the tensions. And I assume there was pushback – and there was all sorts of things going on.
Beverly Bain: Some people withdraw their contributions to NAC –
Franca lacovetta: Oh, really?
Beverly Bain: I mean, there were a lot of white women who had problems. And there were other white organizations who had problems with Sunera being the president. And, I mean, this – it was racist. It was clearly racist. You know, I mean, the idea that the Canadian feminist movement would be led by a person other than a white woman was – for white women it was just – it’s just – they found it unacceptable. Right. That a non-white face would be leading this organization. Particularly one so clearly visible in terms of the way she dressed. And the way that she carried herself, as a woman who was very clear in herself as a South Asian woman. Who was very clear about her politics. And defined it in terms of what she is bringing to NAC, and what her goals are, and what she sees as her vision for NAC. Which was seen as completely contradictory to what many of these white liberal women [thought].
Franca lacovetta:You were talking about the kind of strategizing around – kind of setting the groundwork for the election of Sunera Thobani. And, also, the pushback, some of the pushback that you got, and some of the tensions. And thank-you for your frankness about white liberal women simply saying that we don’t think someone like her should be the head of Canada’s biggest feminist organization. People were that explicit about it?
Beverly Bain: Yes, there were people who actually said it. That she was not suitable. There were people who were explicit. And there were others who just basically implied that she had no experience, implied that she wasn’t well known, implied that she was not going to be trusted. Or it wouldn’t help to build NAC. It would just actually undermine whatever has been built. I mean, these are codes for not white. So that was very clear to us, to many of us, that that was playing out, of course.
Franca lacovetta: So, the election happened, and Sunera Thobani was elected. I would like to ask, during her presidency, then, did some of these issues continue to plague – did they plague her presidency? Was there some movement also made in the course of her presidency?
Beverly Bain: Under her presidency, she experienced things that no-one else did. And that’s because she was a South Asian woman. [Also,] NAC immediately shifted its ground, from a movement that focused on lobbying and liberalism to one that really started focusing on creating a framework that was anti-racist, that was anti-colonial, that was actually anti-imperialist.
So, NAC started taking positions that it hadn’t taken before. Because it also hadn’t encountered some of the kinds of issues that were coming out. Under Sunera’s rule, you had issues happening in the Middle East. You had issues around Afghanistan. And Sunera was the voice that was speaking on these issues. So, she was being targeted for any kind of oppositional politics.
And the way she looked, made whatever she said, on anything that would have been said by Judy Rebick, or anyone else, much more lethal in their eyes. And, therefore as a result of that, she was always condemned for positions that were actually positions that we all supported at NAC. And our member groups supported, around violence, around poverty, around the international sphere, around women’s reproductive rights etcetera.
But when she said it, it appeared to be more, somehow, dangerous. And that’s the way that racism works.
Franca lacovetta: And are you saying that both in relation to member groups of NAC as well as the wider Canadian public that was …
Beverly Bain: Yeah.
Franca lacovetta: For whom she…
Beverly Bain: She expanded NAC. She brought more member groups on. Particularly member groups that were racialized… That would have never joined NAC if it wasn’t for her and her leadership.
We articulated much more, and more vocally and more visibly, an anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist position in NAC. In fact, we rewrote our statement to reflect that. That was not part of the earlier narrative and discourse of NAC. But under her it became the narrative and discourse.
Franca lacovetta: Right, so the – Paying more attention to anti-racism opened up the whole issue of international solidarity, international liberation movements –
Beverly Bain: More international anti-racism and anti-colonialism.
Franca lacovetta: Anti-colonialism, yes.
Beverly Bain: Yes. Because we also – it also opened up space to talk about indigeneity, and also the struggles of Indigenous people. The struggle for Palestine. The struggle in South Africa. All of those things became more conversant within NAC in ways that it hadn’t occurred before.
Franca lacovetta: Mm-hmm. And do you think there’s been an ongoing impact in that regard? I mean, I know you left the organization –
Beverly Bain: Well, NAC doesn’t exist anymore.
Franca lacovetta: Pardon me?
Beverly Bain: I said it doesn’t exist anymore.
Franca lacovetta: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Beverly Bain: But at the time that I was there — that was the shaping of NAC.
Franca lacovetta: Right.
Beverly Bain: And I think the attempt was to maintain that after Sunera Thobani left NAC. I think the intention was to maintain that particular kind of politics. But I don’t think the leadership following Sunera was as politically clear around that in that way as she was. I think she was very clear around that politics in a way that I don’t think the person who followed her was.
Franca lacovetta: And can I – yeah.
Beverly Bain: I thought things kind of shifted a bit to more of the middle. Yeah. Back to a little bit more middle of the road.
Franca lacovetta: Right, right. And during Sunera Thobani’s presidency, I wondered, too, about sexuality issues within that? Looking at homophobia, transphobia? I noticed – well, I believe, in my notes, in 1985, there was a committee called Lesbian Issues Committee. And, so, I wondered about the organizing around those issues.
Beverly Bain: I wasn’t there for – when I became Executive Director, that committee was already in existence.
Franca lacovetta: Right, right.
Beverly Bain: What actually happened around – and I think this is a really important piece to talk about – is the way in which feminism had been organized in this country along the dichotomy, you know, that dichotomy of male-female. But gender as – that’s actually white men versus white women. Right. That’s the di[chotomy] – that binary. And I think the way that NAC was formed was on that basis.
It was based on that binary. I mean, NAC’s history was from the RCSW [Royal Commission on the Status of Women]. And that particular formation was based on white women’s challenge to the male state. In terms of accessing equality rights on issues around work, around women’s right to their bodies, around pensions, around childcare, around those issues.
But it was in response to the inequality that existed between men and women. So, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, which is what pre-existed NAC, was formed on that basis. And when NAC came into existence, it came into existence on the basis of taking up all of those recommendations that were made during the Royal Commission on the Status of Women around equality rights issues. Right.
Thus making it a lobby group in relation to the state. And, so, NAC was formed around those kinds of issues within that context. So, issues around intersectionality posed problematic in NAC. I mean, even for lesbians, they struggled – white lesbians I’m talking about in this case. They struggled to find a space in NAC. Women who were poor struggled to find a place in NAC.
Because NAC was very much an organization of liberal, middle-class white feminists, to begin with. And, as time went on, it became a little more open to working-class women and lesbians, but that was still an ongoing kind of tension within NAC. But when Black women and racialized women came into NAC, it became even much more of an issue. Whiteness was always at the centre. But whiteness was now being decentred. Because of the positions that were being posed by racialized and Black women in NAC. So if we’re making, if we’re coming up with a position on, let’s say, reproductive rights, it’s not enough to only speak about choice without understanding the role of sterilization, for instance. And how that has impacted Black women and Indigenous, and women with disabilities. Like it’s not enough to speak about choice and not to understand its complexity. And why racialized women may not be in the choice movement. It’s not because they don’t believe in choice. It’s because choice is a complex issue. And racialized women have not had access to choice in many cases. As Indigenous women haven’t, when it came to their bodies.
Franca lacovetta: Right.
Beverly Bain: So those were the kinds of conversations that we started having with Sunera as president, and the complexity of those kinds of decisions. That when we make decisions around policy, we had to be more complex, because women’s lives were complex, and it wasn’t centred around whiteness. And this is how whiteness started becoming decentred in that way around policy issues. And, of course, there were tensions around that.
Franca lacovetta: Right.
Beverly Bain: The tensions did not only exist among white and racialized women as, again, a dichotomy. There were tensions that developed between us, among us as racialized women. Some of us were queer. We had caucus groups. If you’re Black, or you’re racialized and you’re queer, which caucus do you belong to?
So these were the kinds of dynamics that we were now plagued with as racialized women in NAC, who were intersectional in these ways. And, so, we had to also deal with these kinds of tensions and issues, and sometimes it brought us to a head with each other.
Franca lacovetta: Right.
Beverly Bain: Because we felt that there were homophobia from … some of our racialized sisters. Not all of them, but some of them. We felt there were lesbophobia. We felt there were other kinds of challenges that we had to cope with. We were also, as racialized people, we are not homogenous. We have tensions between us as Black, South Asians, Asians. We also have tensions among us. Because we also cope with a particular kind of racialization that happens.
The way in which we are racialized very differently in this society in respect to privilege and whiteness. And that plays out in relation to each other. So, we had those kinds of tensions between us as well. Because it became, again, the struggle — We were under so much attack. Sunera was under attack. Racialized people were under attack. And we were being forced into these kinds of very tight positions of consolidating and mobilizing around race.
But the reality is that race was not the only thing that defined us. So that caused a lot of tensions between us too. So, while coping with the larger context of whiteness and liberalism, many of us were also coping with some of the tensions between us around racialization. And how we were racialized differently, and how power played out.
And also, how we experienced particular kinds of dynamics from white people differently. And how we had to negotiate all of that. And those things became even more amplified for us. Because any perception that we were not coalescing together was seen as our ineptitude or our lack of experience, or our inability to be efficient and to keep NAC together.
Franca lacovetta:But I wonder also what sustained you in – this is ongoing struggle, of course, ongoing difficult work, difficult conversations. The commitment helps explain why you stayed, but what sustained you?
Beverly Bain: Well, I’ll tell you what sustained me. It’s my outside supporters. I relied on friends. I had a community outside going into NAC. I had friends outside. I mean, when I went into NAC, people looked at me and said, “Are you serious? Are you going into that place? Are you mad?” People did say that to me. You know. But the good thing is that — these are the people I turn to for support.
Franca lacovetta: Right, right. OK. Well, if I can come to our final question, I thank you for this fantastic interview. We’ve asked everybody at the end of the interview about what would – you know, lessons learned. But, also, we hope that – we know that young feminists, young activists who care about the Rise Up archive – and we hope that there’s intergenerational activity [correction: activism] that’s going on. What would you say to young activists about this period that you were involved with in the nineties and about your activism?
Beverly Bain: I would say that — I learnt a lot from that period. I was actually glad I was part of that. I do not regret at all being a part of that struggle. I learned a lot. I made mistakes. When I was with NAC, I made mistakes. I think we all made mistakes. Because I think that’s part and parcel of struggle.
No struggle is clean. It’s how you choose to be – whether you choose to be accountable and responsible. But in every struggle, in every engagement, in every struggle for change, for shifting dynamics, you encounter places where you actually make mistakes. And you hope you learn from those mistakes. And the important thing is about accountability and responsibility.
So, yes, NAC was a period [correction: product] of its time. I don’t think that we can ever have a national women’s organization in the same way. I think we can have women’s organizations and ways of coalescing, but I don’t think we can have a national body that speaks for women across this country in the way that it did.
But I think that it was of its time. And for its time, it was important and it was significant, because it did do a lot of work. It did do a lot of work. It allowed for certain kinds of changes to take place. I mean, the women – the voices in NAC who spoke up on issues actually did have an impact in terms of some of the kinds of changes that took place around violence.
Think about the constitution and the Charlottetown Accord. And, I mean, some really fundamental impact that women actually made interventions into. So, no, I would not say that it wasn’t something that was not significant. It was significant. And Black and racialized women’s intervention into NAC, the struggles, the tensions, I think all of that actually was important and was significant and was necessary. And I think … we learnt a lot from it.
Franca lacovetta: Right.
Beverly Bain: But I don’t think we can organize like that anymore.
Franca lacovetta: Right.
Beverly Bain: That’s what I would say. We can’t organize like that anymore. We are living in a very much decentralized kind of way of organizing. You know, of coalescing differently.
So I think we could continue to have women’s organizations – I think they are necessary, they’re important – to continue to have women’s organizations and women’s organizing. But much more decentrally – more as it is, more decentralized than a centralized kind of foundational body.
Franca lacovetta: OK. Well, thank you. Thank you very much. Really, really much appreciate –
Beverly Bain: Thank you. [Unintelligible 01:18:12].
Franca lacovetta: – your time and your energy and your politics.
Beverly Bain: Thank you, Franca.