Introduction: Chaviva Hošek, President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) – a large and influential organization of women in Canada – talks to Rise Up about NAC’s success in organizing a federal election debate between the leaders of the three traditional parties on women’s issues in 1984. Chaviva describes how, against all odds, she was able to pull this debate off.
This was the only time that such a debate had been organized by and moderated entirely by women. NAC chose the moderators as well as the questions. The event effectively put the three leaders, then Prime Minister John Turner, Conservative Leader – Brian Mulroney, and Opposition Leader – Ed Broadbent under the spotlight and forced them to address and make promises to the women of Canada.
Sue Colley: My name is Sue Colley and I am here from the Rise Up Feminist Digital Archive, and we’re conducting a series of interviews with activists from the period of the 1970s to the 1990s. And I have with me today Chaviva Hošek, who was the President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women for a number of years and who organised the event that we’re about to talk about today.
Chaviva Hošek: Right.
Sue: And so, Chaviva would you like to introduce yourself – just a few words to introduce yourself please.
Chaviva: Well, my name is Chaviva Hošek, I’ve spent a lot of time in my earlier years in the Women’s Movement, both at the Ontario Committee on the Status of Women and on the Executive of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. And my education is in literature and I was an academic at the University of Toronto for a number of years. Then I was a politician, then I worked for the person who was the Prime Minister of Canada for ten years, for Jean Chrétien, and after that I led a scientific organisation called the Canadian Institute for Advanced research and now, I am retired.
Sue: Wonderful, OK, thank you. All right, now what we’ve decided to do with these interviews, because of course there’s so much that the period covers, is to try and focus on important moments that occurred and to have, and to have a discussion around those moments. One of these moments that we’ve identified is the Federal Leaders Debate on Women’s Issues that you organised and we would like to talk to you about that.
Sue: So, first of all, perhaps you can tell us when you first started thinking about it, what were your goals in achieving this debate?
Chaviva: Well, my goal was to get women’s institutions women’s issues and women’s goals articulated in the public forum and also to get the people who were running to be Prime Minister of Canada on the record. But in fact, it was more important just to have the debate and make it clear that these issues mattered and needed to be part of the discussion as Canadians went forward in deciding who they were going to vote for and what the results of the election would be. But I should tell you that the idea of having a debate was not mine.
Chaviva: The person who thought of doing this and who discussed it with me, I have talked with her and she says I’m, allowed to tell the world now. Her name is Valerie Preston . I met her when she was working for Allan Blakeney in Saskatchewan and became friendly with her. And by the time of the 1984 election, she was working for Ed Broadbent and she’s the one who came to me and said, I think this would be a great idea, because it would do what I just said, highlight the issues, highlight the organisations and insert us, meaning the Women’s Movement, into the debate about the election of 84.
Sue: Now, Valerie, does she go onto work with Ed Broadbent later or?
Chaviva: Yes, no she was already working for Ed Broadbent at the time that she made this suggestion and she ended up continuing to work for the NDP federally for quite a large number of years afterwards. And her analysis, we came to the analysis together, was there was an opportunity to do this, because there was a new leader of the Liberal Party and the leader of the Conservative Party had not yet won an election since Mr. Mulroney. So basically, we had two new leaders in the fray for the 84 election and they might be willing to come forward to be part of such a debate. And I can tell you that we both thought that there would never be any way that Mr. Trudeau would participate in such a thing. So, the fact that he was no longer the leader gave us an opening or an opportunity, that and the fact that Mr. Mulroney was a new leader as well.
Sue: Right. So, after, well tell us the story then, after you and Valerie discussed the idea and you obviously thought it was a good idea, what happened next?
Chaviva: Well, I have to tell you that most of the story I’m going to tell is really about what it took to get the debate to happen at all. And my strongest memory is of standing in the kitchen of the house I used to live in on the phone talking to people who told me to talk to other people, so I called the other people and got on the phone. So, it was rather a massive lobbying effort to try and get this thing to happen and what I needed to do was figure out how I could get Mr. Turner and Mr. Mulroney on board. It was pretty clear that Ed Broadbent would of course say, yes. It was pretty obvious that the NDP had a lot of policy on women and women’s issues and would be very glad to highlight it. So, the real question is, how do we get Mr. Turner and how do we get to Mr. Mulroney.
And I don’t remember everyone I called, because I must’ve called hundreds of people, but I was trying to figure out how to get to Mr. Turner and how to get Mr. Mulroney. I called the office of the leader of the opposition, Mr. Mulroney, and got to talk to someone called Jocelyne Côté-O’Hara, who was working for him at the time and working on a bunch of issues including women’s issues and she was quite open to having this discussion. Then the real problem was going to be Mr. Turner and I talked to my friend Marylou McPhedranwhom all of you will know about. And she told me that she would talk to someone she knew very well, who she knew was very influential with John Turner.
And the person that was influential with John Turner now unfortunately gone as is John Turner, is John Demepane, who was an activist in politics in Montreal, who was very well connected to Mr. Turner, but also to Mr. Mulroney. He was somebody who was in the Montreal political scene. And I spoke with Marylou recently, just to confirm this, and she said, yes, she talked to John Demepane and he was willing to take my phone call, so I called him. And we had several conversations on why it would be a good idea for Mr. Turner to be part of this debate. The reason is quite obvious: new leader, new situation, election coming, a chance for him to define himself on these issues and that it would be an opportunity for him as well.
So, I don’t remember how many times I talked with Mr. Demepane, but one of the people I also talked with, whom I already knew was Judy Erola. And Judy was active in feminist politics in her own way for a long time. So we had a good, a series of good conversations and it’s pretty clear she decided that she would weigh in with Mr. Turner to suggest, yes indeed he should do this. So, at some point, and I think it was after we got an agreement from Mr. Mulroney, we got the agreement from Mr. Turner’s people that he would be part of this debate. The agreement from Mr. Mulroney made more sense immediately, because he was a new leader in a party that didn’t have particularly a strong profile on things having to do with women and women’s issues. And this was his opportunity to describe himself as a new kind of leader.
So, they, the Conservatives agreed much more quickly than the Liberals and it made sense, because Mr. Turner was already Prime Minister, so agreeing to take this on as Prime Minister is a little different from agreeing to take it on as the leader of a party who was in running to be Prime Minister, but it was not clear who was going to win the 84 election. So, Judy Erola weighed in and John Demepane clearly weighed in with Mr. Turner and I don’t know who, I may not remember everybody, but I don’t know who besides Jocelyn was talking to Mulroney about this, but they then agreed as well. And so, it was a major coup, but it was pretty clear that it was going to be a big fight not to get this just taken over by the media and have it run the way they wanted to run it.
And if you want to trace the history, there have been other debates on women’s issues, but all of them have been run by media outlets doing what they thought the topics should be, choosing the people who ask the questions, the people I mean it’s theirs, if it was the media’s decision to run a debate on women’s issues, they would do it their way. Whereas this debate was, I think the first, and I don’t know for sure, but I believe the only one that was organised by a women’s organisation and run by that women’s organisation. And I need to make a distinction, between what we were doing and something like the League of Women Voters in the United States.
Because the League of Women Voters in the United States, though it is run by women, is not primarily focused on issues that have particular relevance or resonance for women and it has been running debates forever. But it’s basically, and I have a lot of respect for them, it’s basically a service organisation trying to increase democratic participation, small D, democratic participation in elections in the United States and it runs debates, fine. But that’s not what we were doing, we were very clear that we wanted issues of particular concern to women to be raised and we wanted to run it ourselves.
Sue: Yeah. Now, it was a pretty radical concept, I think at the time. And also, the content of course was really, was incredible and so long, I mean, you probably went over it again and as did I and there were a lot of questions, we would never get that many questions today.
Chaviva: No, never that many and never so detailed But of course the people asking the questions were people who knew about the details of women’s issues. And were asking both as very well-informed people on their own and people who had a particular line, they wished to find out about from the politicians. And they were not journalists primarily, Eleanor Wachtel was a journalist, but not working on women’s stuff, working on other stuff, is still a very respected and wonderful journalist.
So, you know, but Kay Sigurjonsson who is one of my heroes, was, you know, a stalwart of the Women’s Movement, not a journalist, and I have to call her out though, you know, she is now gone, unfortunately, she died sometime in the last two years. But she is a real hero of the Women’s Movement, not only because of the work she did with the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario, but all the help she gave to other women’s organisations under the shelter of what she could do with the federation. You know, the power that came from running a women’s organisation that actually had some money, amazing and a wonderful leader in Kay.
Sue: Yeah, I agree, that was such a shame actually. I thought it was longer than two years ago, actually, but anyway –
Chaviva: Well, maybe, I’ve had a lot of losses in the last few years and –
Sue: So, because it was NAC, I presume that this went to an executive meeting, did it, or how did everybody else get involved or not?
Chaviva: I don’t remember exactly the order of things, but of course I had to, I had to tell the folks in the organisation that we had gotten this done \I have to say, most of them were not happy, they were nervous. And also, they were suspicious of me for having done this, what’s she up to, what does she want? So, it was frankly a normal executive meeting of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, in which people disagreed, mostly along political, big P political lines and to some degree along regional lines.
And you know, they were upset, but we had got this done to the stage of agreeing that there was going to be such an event, and so, you know, we worked out how it would work. And I knew that the best thing I could do, was to figure out how to get the event to happen and how to stage it and let the people in that executive decide what questions should be asked and whatever. Because it’s appropriate and also there was all kinds of policy experience on the NAC board and people who had issues they knew the most about and they wanted to make sure were raised in the questions asked and that was fine, I was very happy for that to happen.
Sue: So the questions were determined by the executive, do you think everything got covered?
Chaviva: No, I mean, you know, there are so many issues of concern to women, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a debate that got as many issues covered, not only in a women’s debate, because they’re so few of them, but just in any debate. I think a lot of issues got covered and of course the NAC executive was full of people who were issue experts and knew what they wanted to find out. And you know, there were certain questions that absolutely had to be asked and unfortunately until recently had to keep being asked, like 12-1B of the Indian Act, my God, you know, 30 years later still has to be dealt with. And you know, it was an issue way before the time when the issue was asked in the debate. But it was pretty clear that the NAC executive and its various committees would be just fine in deciding which questions should be asked and who should ask them.
And also, they were part of the discussion on who should be the questioners, so it was obvious that Kay was a perfect example of someone who could. Now of course, NAC being NAC it had to be national, right, so there were two questioners who were from Quebec and I am assuming that Madeleine Parent and her crew decided who those should be. I don’t remember that, but that’s what I assume. And we needed somebody from out west and I’m not remembering any longer how we got Eleanor Wachtel, but we did and she of course was, I guess, living in BC then and I think still is. And Kay was a natural, because what can I say, she was the mother of us all. She had done so much in the Women’s Movement for so long and everyone knew she would do a great job, so.
Sue: Yeah, and of course you, I mean, by having two women from Quebec it was automatically a genuine bilingual debate, wasn’t it?
Chaviva: Of course.
Sue: So, lots of questions … I’m asking here whether you have a sense that some were more important than others, but that would be probably your personal opinion, but that would be interesting. What do you think were the most important questions that got asked first? And then secondly, what do you think were the most interesting commitments made by the leaders??
Chaviva: It’s not clear to me we got any really commitments … and I have to say that looking at the questions again, I didn’t look at the debate, but I looked at the questions again. A lot of them were of a form that I would now not recommend, because they didn’t just say will you do X, they said will you stop doing X and start doing Y or will you take the money from here and spend it there. Knowing what I know now about how governments make decisions about spending money, it’s not necessarily the best idea to tell them where they should stop spending money, but rather to say, please do X.
So, giving them the trade-offs that might exist in the mind of a committed feminist, is not necessarily the best way to get action, because governments make their own trade-offs and they decide what those trade-offs should be. And if you say to them, we want you to stop doing X and start doing Y, unless X is actively harmful to women, it’s harder to get the right answer, the answer that you want. So, I had some feeling about that. and if you don’t mind, I think I want to talk a little bit about how difficult the relationship with the media was.
Sue: Oh please, yeah.
Chaviva: Because when we knew we had this debate, I called some people in the media. I don’t remember who any longer, and told them this, that we had this agreement for a debate. The reaction was, you’re kidding! It can’t be true, that’s ridiculous – more or less come and see us some day dear. I mean, the amount of contempt in the voices of the media people I talked with – and these are people in the various networks and such – was not pleasant, though it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Thank God, I don’t actually remember who they were. I don’t remember their names, don’t remember anything.. But it was pretty clear that I needed to get someone who knew how to work with media entities and with broadcasters and get things done properly.
And it was also pretty clear that I was not that person. Partly I didn’t like talking to them and partly I didn’t know enough to talk to them intelligently. And so, I was lucky to get the commitment of Peter Grant, who was probably one of the first communications lawyers ever in Canada. His field was communications law, and he was the brother of someone I knew well. And I called him and he agreed to do this and so he took off and handled for us all the relationship with the networks and all of that stuff, including what needed to be in whatever contracts and how it was to be written, I mean he basically took that away and did it and fixed it. And what he wanted in return was for us to seat his mother in the audience, because this debate had an audience.
And of course, we got his mother a seat, his mother was a highly intelligent person, very interested in the world, probably would never have called herself a feminist, because she was of an age when people didn’t do that. And one of the nice things for me about it is, yes, she sat on the front row of the audience and told her son, it was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her, to be there So that’s wonderful. Anyway, Peter took off the task of dealing with the broadcasters and the media and so on and I could never have done it. I didn’t have the skill and of course he knew that world very well, it was his world, so I want to thank him for that –
Sue: So, what tricks did he use, do you think? –
Chaviva: I have no idea. I do not know; all I know is that he was one of the very first people to do communications law in Canada, he is very, very clever and determined and likes smart women having been raised by one and having married another. And he just did it. I don’t know how, I’m just deeply grateful.
Sue: Right, OK. So, let’s go back to the questions. I mean, perhaps the most interesting, one of the most interesting ones for me, was the question on choice, because at that time we were still seeking changes to the –
Chaviva: Right, of course.
Sue: – to the criminal code. And it hadn’t really dawned on us, I don’t think or only marginally, that maybe the way to win the question of choice, was basically by using the Charter. And thereby, making it, you know, making it –
Chaviva: A legal right.
Sue: Yes, a legal right, yeah, yeah. And in, and so I think we have ended up having probably the best abortion law, to the extent there is a law, right, in the world, because we don’t actually have a law, so therefore –
Chaviva: We don’t have a law; we don’t have a law and it’s not clear to me that what we have is the result of legal change. I mean it’s legal change, but not because of a law. The way I understand this issue, was that Henry Morgentaler was brought up on charges in Quebec and a jury refused to convict him and then he was brought up again having been in jail and again a jury refused to convict him. And then Mr. Mulroney’s people sent something or other, I no longer remember what to the Senate and the Senate refused to make a decision. And so, the law we have is not a law, what we have is basically the Canadian political system deciding, they don’t want to touch this. And one of the reasons they didn’t want to touch it, is because two different juries looking at Henry – I’m trying to remember if the same thing happened in Nova Scotia –
It certainly happened in Quebec with Henry’s trial; they refused to convict him. Well guess what, that’s a certain kind of decision of the legal system, but not really, and it’s one of the reasons that I think that we all get very nervous whenever it looks as if some political leader wants to bring this issue up again. Because none of us are certain what will happen now, we don’t know what will happen in the legislature. We don’t know what will happen depending on the party in power, we don’t know. So, I would say, it’s not that we have a good law or a bad law, we have no law and in that sense we could be vulnerable to changes that would be a problem.And of course, we’re also very, very aware that in some provinces there are no abortion services.
And one of the problems with the question that was asked in the debate, was that it basically asked the Federal Government to create or to fund access to abortion in all the provinces. And guess what, the healthcare system in Canada is run province by province. Those of us who have been living our way through the pandemic know that. And as soon as you ask the Federal Government to do something in the healthcare system inside a province, you’re asking for failure; it’s never going to happen, it’s not going to happen. And this is another one of those situations where what is our druthers, as say committed feminists, bumps up against the actual political system of Canada, which cannot just be waved away. Yes, it’s true, but do it anyway, well no, you can’t, if you’re the Government of Canada, you cannot actually tell a province how to run its healthcare system, so sorry.
Sue: Don’t you think though that the Federal Government can impose conditions for spending money –
Chaviva: Of course, it can impose conditions for spending money – but if you are the Government of Canada and you actually decide that you’re going to tell a province how it’s going to spend its healthcare money, welcome to the Third World War. I mean really, not going to happen; I wish sometimes it were true, but no, no
Sue: Mm-hmm, yeah. I’m actually thinking about childcare here, which is of course a very –
Chaviva: Oh, that’s a different question, but it’s just as problematic, it’s just as problematic.
Chaviva: What the Federal Government can do is it can write cheques to families, which is what it’s doing in the child benefit now, which has taken a large number of Canadian children and their families out of poverty. But it cannot tell a province thou shalt do childcare here is the money.
Sue: Well, I don’t, yeah, I just don’t understand why it can’t impose conditions as were imposed during the Canada Health Act, for example.
Chaviva: But there’s a difference, that conditions that have to do with the fact that it’s not going to be privatised or whatever, those conditions you can somewhat impose. But even those are in consent flux and trouble, if you take a look at what’s been happening in one of the law cases in British Columbia about private delivery; it’s a very tricky business. And I think that it’s frustrating for those of us who are feminists and know what we would like the results to be, to think that we can’t just ask the federal Government to tell the province what to do, because guess what, no. You end up in a war. And federal provincial wars in Canada are not pretty.
Sue: Mm-hmm, well we have learnt that lesson –
Chaviva: Some of us have.
Sue: – probably more so since that, since the debate –
Chaviva: Yeah, yeah.
Sue: – since those days actually. So are there other issues that are your pet issues that you’d like to bring up here?
Chaviva: Well, I’m just trying to think about this … I would say that … a lot of the issues still here have been overridden by changes in the world, like the jobs that women have now, though I think we’re in a bad patch again, but that’s because of the pandemic. So, a lot of these things are not as they used to be. Like the stuff about how the new technology will eat jobs for women, it turns out, no. And technology has not eaten jobs for women, I mean it may have eaten jobs from too many people, but it’s not so obvious that it’s women who have been particularly disadvantaged by new technology because so many of the jobs that now are done through media, like the one we’re in right now, can be done by women and have been done by women.
So, I would say that some of the assumptions that we made about how the economy would develop were not right. But then again, everybody makes assumptions about how the economy would develop and they’re wrong, because it’s hard to predict how the economy will develop. I mean, one of the things that I noticed today in the paper, well actually yesterday, was the real worry in the construction sector that hundreds of thousands of people, many of them men, are within ten years of retiring. And we need a lot of construction workers to build buildings and various other things. Well that’s a lot of good jobs, and I have no doubt that a lot of women could do them.
So, I mean, if I were running a debate today or if I were talking to the Federal Government today or a Provincial Government, I would be saying, what are you doing to get more women into the trades. Good jobs, union wages, and given how many houses and apartments and other construction projects there are in Canada all over the country, a good pipeline of jobs that pay well. But it’s not the council of despair, on the contrary, it’s the opportunities that one would want women to have access to.
Sue: Mm-hmm, yeah. Do you think the debate had any impact on changes to any of these issues?
Chaviva: I really don’t. I think what it did was highlight the arrival of women and women’s issues into the political space. And also create a few new stars, because some of the people who asked the questions were particularly wonderful. I also think that it helped Mr. Mulroney, because he did a very good job in establishing himself as a reasonable person, not a boogeyman, and I think, I’m sure it helped him in the election campaign. I don’t know what it did for Ed Broadbend, because I think that the people who were going to vote NDP were going to NDP no matter what, and a lot of those have strong, those people have strong commitments on women’s issues. And I don’t think it did much good for John Turner, I don’t think it cost him anything that one can see, but I don’t think it did that much good for him.
I think the person who did well, because he was clearly very well briefed and he knew how to behave, was Brian Mulroney, which was interesting. And after he became Prime Ministerwhile I was doing things for NAC and Jocelyne Cote-O’Hara who had been my contact with him was one of the people charged with dealing with women’s issues in his office. And they were very proper in their behaviour and relations to NAC. They were reasonable in terms of being part of the annual lobbying effort that NAC did in Ottawa every year, they behaved very well. I mean, it’s not that I would say that if you were a committed feminist you should vote for the Conservatives, that’s not what I’m saying, but they behaved well and Mr. Mulroney behaved well and I’m sure it did some good.
Sue: Yeah. Well, maybe it was a turn then in the sense of a turn in the climate where politicians did have to take women’s issues seriously, perhaps for the first time, do you think?
Chaviva: I think that some of them had been taking women’s issues seriously for a long time. I mean even though it was pretty clear to me that Pierre Trudeau was not going to come to a debate. The person involved with Status of Women’s Issues in the Government of Canada forever was Marc Lalonde, who was also the Minister of Health as well and Health and Welfare. And then also Minister responsible for the Status of Women., I got to know him a little bit during that time and he was a man who knew his stuff. He understood what needed to happen and he was very much sympathetic with what needed to happen for women; but not that much happened for women in legal and political terms during that time.
And I think that the progress we’ve made has come primarily from societal change and from the normalisation of the idea that well basically women needed to be taken seriously and their life chances mattered and that we’re as important as the other half of the human race and a whole bunch of other things. So, I mean I think we’ve seen progress. I don’t know how many politicians would label themselves feminist these days – I know the current Prime Minister does. But I think that had more to do with larger societal change over the last – let’s face it – it’s almost 40 years –
Sue: Yeah, yeah.
Chaviva: – 47 years ago.
Sue: A long time, yeah, yeah, that’s long.
Chaviva: Yeah, it’s a long time.
Sue: So, I have a question here saying, what would, how would you describe the reaction to the debate, first by the politicians themselves, do you think they were pleased they had participated in it?
Chaviva: Well, my hunch is that their first reaction was relief that nothing bad happened to them. I mean all debates are risky, and a new kind of debate run by a women’s organisation would have been to many of them more risky, because they weren’t sure how we would behave, right. The assumption that somehow the journalists would behave well, that’s another conversation in the debates that happened years later. But I would say, first of all – relief – they got through it, you know, respectfully, respectively well and … and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want to do it again … For them it’s easier to deal with journalists who ask questions the way journalists ask questions than to deal with … people who are not labeled as journalists and who are activists in an area.
Sue: And looking for detailed answers.
Sue: OK, yeah.
Chaviva: That’s right.
Sue: And what about the reaction from the media. Did they change their mind as a result of this being a successful event or not, do you think?
Chaviva: I doubt it, but you know, I think that there’s no such thing as media, there are different people in different news organisations. I think for many of them, it was shocking that we brought it off and that it happened, and that so many people watched and of course more importantly, the leaders actually came and this thing happened. But there’s no such thing as the media, there are different media outlets, there are different reporters, there is, you know, a lot of difference. Part of what’s noticeable now, and this is 40 years later, is how many journalists there are, at least in some of the outlets, who are well-informed about issues of concern to women, who do research on these issues, who write articles on these issues. I mean, there’s just a whole lot more coverage of issues of concern to women than there used to be. But that’s,I think, not about this debate, it’s about societal change and about what issues are considered important and should be paid attention to.
For example, horrible as it is to say this, because the reality is so horrible, there is so much more coverage about violence against women, about domestic violence, about God help the poor folks, the number of Indigenous women who have been murdered. I mean, there is just so much more coverage of these issues than there was 40 years ago and I think it’s not only because the issues are so important, they were important 40 years ago too. But there’s more interest in finding out more about it and clearly the reading public is more interested or else the media wouldn’t do the stories. So, I mean, there is just a lot more coverage of things having to do with women and women’s lives now, than there was 40 years ago, but I consider that to be, you know, a part of societal change and it’s very hard for me to say what it is that led to that change; there’s clearly a lot of different thing that have led to that change.
Sue: Yeah. And how about the Women’s Movement, even though the Women’s Movement isn’t monolithic either, what do you think its reaction to this debate was?
Chaviva: In those days?
Chaviva: You mean at the time of the debate?
Chaviva: I think that – my sense is – that they were very pleased that it happened, that the issues were raised and the debate was run by women, that the people asking the questions were women. That the three leaders showed up and behaved very respectfully and, you know, answered the questions to the best to their abilities and so on. I think they were all very pleased with that. But you and I both know that there is no such thing as the single Women’s Movement. It wasn’t true during the time that NAC actually existed and it’s even less true now. People work on different issues; they are committed to different parts of the issues. I don’t know that one can speak about the reaction of the Women’s Movement, I don’t know if one could’ve then, but one certainly can’t now, because Women’s Movement is a various entity.
Sue: Mm-hmm. Mind you, I mean NAC did, at the time did have many, many, many organisations that were part of it, right?
Chaviva: Of course.
Sue: Having the sense that there ever was any kind of unified organisation, it was probably them.
Chaviva: Well, I would very much question the word unified. NAC had about, when I was there, I think I had about 500 different Women’s Groups under the umbrella. They were reasonably different from each other. I mean there were certain groups that weren’t there, so the Catholic Women’s League wasn’t there, because of our position on abortion. But we had more cross-country organisations, I mean it was, it’s very interesting, you know, that in Canada, the umbrella organisation was NAC, which was an organisation of organisations. Whereas in the United States, the National Organisation of Women, was an organisation of individuals. That tells you a lot, right there, about the very big differences between our two countries.
So, you know, I mean I remember watching the conversations at the NAC board in which basically, despite the fact that the issues were so-called women’s issues, the conversation replicated the struggles, the federal, provincial struggles of Canada. It was like the Alberta Women’s said the things that Alberta people say in a meeting of national whatever. So yeah, I don’t think there was ever and nor there, should there be a unified Women’s Movement. There are so many issues and people come at them with so many different ways. But … and I don’t think that NAC had the temerity to say it was the only voice of the so-called Women’s Movement at the time, it was a unified voice in the sense that we did certain things together and did them relatively successfully.
However, I think it’s very interesting that at the time of the redo of the Constitution in 81, 82, NAC didn’t play on that, and people have asked me why, and the answer is simple, we were not internally unified. The Quebec Women and Women’s organisations were split various ways and if we had tried to have a single voice on what should happen in the Constitutional rewrite of 81, 82, we would’ve shattered. So, the reason that we weren’t there, is because we did not have a unified voice on what should happen on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the people who did that work did it outside of NAC.
Sue: Yeah. Well, I mean Lynn McDonald did show up at the big conference and what have, it wasn’t –
Chaviva: Oh, I mean it’s, showing up at a meeting is one thing, but leading the charge, if you thought that NAC actually could represent women in Canada, it should’ve been leading the charge. It was incapable of leading the charge, because of the internal disagreements from all these different organisations, some of which had very different forms of loyalty to a view of Canada, a view of the Constitution, a view of their own province; it was never going to happen. And I don’t consider that to be a terrible thing. The right things or some of the right things that needed to happen in that Constitution happened, they just didn’t happen, because of NAC, even though some individual NAC people were involved.
Sue: Yeah, I mean, I agree, it’s true.
Sue: So what about the public, do you think? Were you more – did you become a household name after this – or do you think people really began to think more about women’s issues after this debate or how would you say the public reacted to the debate?
Chaviva: Like you know, I mean we got some coverage, but I cannot, I can’t answer the question, I don’t know. I mean, so all of us that were involved in NAC and some of the women’s organisations were extremely happy, excited, glad it happened and proud of it and so on. But what long-term effect did it have? I really don’t know, but I don’t want to let this go without mentioning somebody. Which is that the person who worked with me as an organiser that pulled together all the details to actually make it happen was Nadine Nowlan. Nadine and her husband had both been extremely active in the Stop Spadina Movement in Toronto.
And I knew David, because he was Vice-President at the University of Toronto when I was teaching at the University of Toronto at the time and Nadine was friends with some other friends of mine. The most incredibly well organised disciplined person, probably I have ever known. And she is the one who took on all the organising details associated with this debate. And I want to make sure that she is remembered for this. After this period, she also then ran for city council, was a very effective City Councillor in Toronto. But I have to say I haven’t seen her in more than 20 years . I don’t know what is up with her at this point, but without her incredibly well organised canny way of getting things done, none of it would’ve happened, so I want to thank her.
Sue: And she was on the staff of NAC, wasn’t she?
Chaviva: No … she was not on the staff of NAC, I reached out to her, because to my somewhat great surprise, we had gotten this debate organised and I didn’t know how we were going to do it. As in, you know, yes, they said yes; yes, it would happen, and after that, now what. And so, I don’t quite know why I called her. But I did and she took it on. She pulled together what needed to be done and did it or got it done. But she was not on the staff of NAC, she volunteered to do this.
Sue: Wonderful, wow.
Chaviva: And did it brilliantly, because from what I recall, she did everything brilliantly.
Sue: Yeah, wonderful, yeah. I haven’t heard from her since, about her since she was a councillor either actually, it’s been a long time.
Sue: So, are there any other aspects of the debate and your role in it and or other NAC roles in it, that you would like to mention before we kind of evaluate its role in history?
Chaviva: I’d be interested, and really what I want to know is what other people think about it. I think it was a great symbolic moment, and so I think in that sense it was very helpful. But I’m not really in a position to tell … anything that I could trust about its long-term effect. It was another highlight in the road to the importance of women and women’s issues in the public conversations in Canada, but I don’t know what more I can say than that. I do think, for example, that the work that was done from the Adhoc committee on the Constitution, another incredibly important moment. One of the things that came out of that Ad Hoc committee was the creation of the Legal Education Action Plan, LEAF. An incredibly important moment that has used the legal system to get victories for women on all kinds of fronts and it is a live and active organisation, another great moment.
So, I think there are moments and or organisations along the way that made a huge difference. And of course, the things that have made the longest difference other than the work on the Constitution is the creation of the organisation to do work like LEAF. So, there are others and then the other thing of course that’s made a difference is more women running for public office at all levels, doing so successfully. And I think that’s made a huge difference and that’s not just in Canada. In the so-called developed world, there are many more women in politics, and doing good work and being acknowledged for doing good work. And now, you know, a lot of us think, too slow, taking too long, yeah, I agree with all of that, but nonetheless, compared to 40 years ago, many more women are in positions of influence and power. And many more women rolling up their sleeves and deciding to run for public office and many more stories of success and impact, much better.
Sue: Mm-hmm, right. And so, that’s really your answer to how do you think this story will go down in history, right?
Sue: I mean, what was its importance in the history of the Women’s Movement, if you will forgive the term – in Canada?
Chaviva: Well, I mean I think it was a highlight. I think it was a good moment. I think the fact that it led to the media deciding that they needed to do debates on women’s issues for a few elections after that is a good thing. But other than that, I mean I wish I could say, you know, it transformed the world for all of us, and of course it didn’t and I think social change is, unfortunately … slower and more uphill than we would all like it to be. But undeniably, if you look back to 40 years ago and now, there has been significant social change to the benefit of women in that 40-year period, so.
Sue: Mm-hmm, yeah. What are the most important changes, do you think?
Chaviva: Well, some of them were, some of them are really about the economy and structure of the economy and the number and proportion of women who are in the labour force and what needs to be done for them to be able, both to earn a living and to raise kids if they are raising kids. A lot of, you know, there are profound social changes that have given women more opportunities, but also put them in positions of greater stress and complexity. I mean, you know, you could argue that the divorce rate has made a huge difference in women’s lives, and this, I’m not saying that everybody should stay married to somebody forever if they’re unhappy with each other. But I think that there’s a lot of social change that has happened that’s made a difference for women.
The other of course, is the increasing education level of women, many more women getting better educated than they used to and with more different professions and jobs open to them than used to be the case. You know, when I was first in the Women’s Movement, and I first met people there, they were doing all kinds of interesting work. But I knew, depending on their generation, and if they’re one generation younger than I or even ten years younger than I, I would ask them, so what did you do before you did this job, invariably nurse or a teacher; nurse or a teacher. Both incredibly important jobs, guess what, we could no longer ask women in their 30s and 40s, what it is you did before this job, and they would not all necessarily say, nurse or a teacher; both of which are hugely important jobs, right.
Chaviva: So, I mean, I think part of what’s happened is a much broader canvas on which women have been able to paint their own life history. More different kinds of work, more different kinds of influence. So, that’s a huge change, but I don’t think it’s just a change for women, it’s a change for the whole society, right.
Sue: Yeah, yeah, right. So, what do you think is most interesting about this story for activists and researchers going forward?
Chaviva: The most interesting aspect of this story?
Sue: Yeah, what, and what do you think they can learn from this moment in their history?
Chaviva: Well, I would say that it’s always the same lesson: look around and see what opportunities there are for highlighting the issues that are a particular concern to women and get a way to tell the story. So, I mean, that’s always the case. The world, you know, changes, not always for the better and figuring out what can be done to benefit women is the real question. You know, I, all of us in the pandemic now ask ourselves, you know, a lot of women have had their lives highlighted, their contributions highlighted, because of the current very, very dire situation. And one of the things that everybody now knows, is how many of the people providing care to the most vulnerable people in society, how many of those people are female and how vulnerable they are.
How little they’re paid, how terrible their jobs are in some cases, especially people working in providing care to vulnerable elderly people and that that has to change. But you know, we’ve known this for 40 years and I’m not sure that I believe that we will do all the right things that need to be done, I hope so, but I’m not sure. And you know, the other thing that we all know, but we haven’t anything about is that the age profile of the population is massively different than it was 40 years ago, and even more so coming. The larger proportion of our population of people in their, you know, over 70 is huge and increasing.
As a society we have not figured out how to help them live decent lives, and our institutions are a disgrace; the institutions which take care of old people are a disgrace. And we knew this was coming and we haven’t done the things that need to be done. So, I mean, there are always things that need fixing and there are always opportunities if we decide to take them, to take responsibility for the life chances of people for whom life is harder. And a lot of those people are female and a lot of those people are racialized and or Indigenous or all of the above and there’s work to do, there’s no shortage of work to do.
Sue: That’s true, yeah. Well, that was wonderful, and it was a really good recap of what happened, and I didn’t know the story about how you made it happen actually and that was really interesting. Anything else that we’ve missed out on, you think here?
Chaviva: No, except that I think it’s, and I think we know this already, it’s really important to remember your allies and to honour them and to know that we have allies. Not all women are on the same side, not all women care about the life chances of other women, a lot of the people who do care about the life chances for women are men and it’s important to remember that. And I think that is one of the things that has changed, but I think we have many more different allies than we used to or allies who are prepared not just to say a few words, but actually to do some things, and that’s good.
Sue: Good, great. Well, thank you.
Chaviva: Thank you.
Sue: I’m really glad to have been able to do this, it’s quite wonderful