Feminism in Canada

Against the Current, No. 122, May/June 2006

Cynthia Wright

Ten Thousand Roses:
The Making of a Feminist Revolution
By Judy Rebick
Toronto: Penguin, 2005, $24 (Canadian).

LAST YEAR, ON International Women’s Day in Toronto, several hundred people — many veteran feminist activists — packed an auditorium in the city’s Ryerson University for the launch of Judy Rebick’s oral history of the women’s movement in Canada, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution. The fact that the book had just been reviewed in the conservative Globe and Mail, Canada’s most influential newspaper, also widened the audience.

The product of two years of interviewing feminist activists (some one hundred of whose interview excerpts appear in the book), Ten Thousand Roses is very likely the most accessible and comprehensive book on the women’s movement in Canada to date. Since the initial launch, Rebick has toured with the book and maintained a web log about it. Her focus on how organizing happened and change got made has made the book of interest both to veterans and those relatively (or wholly) unfamiliar with the women’s movement in Canada.

The book’s oral testimony, some of it very honest, self-critical and searching, is the heart of the book and its major strength. As Rebick comments in the introduction, “The joy in…struggle, as well as the pain, jumps out of every interview in this book.” (xv)

Rebick, a long-time feminist and socialist, is a well-known figure in activist and media circles in Canada. She is well-placed to bring together a book such as Ten Thousand Roses both because of her long history of activism extending back to the 1960s, but also because of her capacity to communicate with feminist women across a very wide spectrum of politics.

A past president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, once the largest and most powerful women’s group in the country, Rebick is perhaps most well known in the movement for her work in the reproductive rights organization Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC). OCAC’s dynamic organizing work in the 1980s led to the establishment of free-standing abortion clinics and to the eventual striking down of the abortion law in Canada in the early 1990s, one of the outstanding victories of the women’s movement. To this day, Canada does not have an abortion law. (For those wanting to know more about that struggle, the book has two chapters on it.)

Along with Kike Roach, a Toronto lawyer active in African-Canadian and other social justice communities, Rebick also produced the book, Politically Speaking, a series of dialogues on the politics of the women’s movement in Canada.

Rebick has also done a lot of work in the mainstream and alternative media, and became known to non-activists for work in TV debate shows such as Face Off (known to wags as Fuck Off and no longer on the air). As she once explained the show to a group of my students, “Every night I hadda debate these assholes.”

Currently, Rebick is the Sam Gindin Chair in social justice and democracy at Ryerson University in Toronto, and is associated with projects such as the Toronto Social Forum and with the alternative web magazine, rabble.ca.

Chronicles of Decades

Ten Thousand Roses is divided into four sections according to decade (1960s–1990s) with most of the book’s emphasis on the ‘70s and ‘80s. The 1960s has only 10 pages devoted to it; indeed, much historical work remains to be done on the Left and the women’s movement in Canada for this period. At the other end, the book largely ends around 1995 with an historic anti-poverty march of that year; thus readers interested in taking up more recent struggles in the women’s movement, such as those around transgender theory and practice, will need to rely on other sources.

Each decade is introduced with a short essay that sketches in the historical context. Each of the chapters in the four sections (there are twenty chapters in all) also has a brief introduction to orient the reader to the excerpts from oral interviews which form the heart of the book’s chapters.

The book bears some resemblance to The Feminist Memoir Project on the U.S. movement; but  Ten Thousand Roses includes a far greater number of women and with a fair range of ideological standpoints from those with mainstream capital-L Liberal politics through to left-wing socialists.

A second strength is that the book takes pains to include women activists from all regions of Canada, and to pay attention to some of the particular dynamics of the Quebec-based women’s movement and to the situation of women organizing in (often impoverished) small and rural communities. In this respect, Ten Thousand Roses again compares favorably with U.S. accounts of the women’s movement, some of which focus almost exclusively on the northeast and on urban centers.

Of course, there is far more to be said about the Quebec women’s movement, and indeed about the many dynamic social movements located there —  the most dynamic in the country — than can be captured in Ten Thousand Roses. Readers wanting further orientation will, in most cases, have to be able to read French.

Diane Lamoureux, for example, has written extensively on the complex relationship between feminisms and Quebec nationalisms. For some historical orientation, readers may want to start with the book of interviews by Nicole Lacelle with two very important Quebec-based old-time socialists, feminists, and trade unionists: Lea Roback (now dead) and Madeleine Parent.

At the book’s launch, Rebick mentioned that the book was originally much longer and included more oral historical testimony but her publisher asked her to shorten the book. Unfortunately, the book’s introduction doesn’t discuss what was cut and why.

She does, however, clearly state what the book does not cover, including women’s cultural production, a major omission in Canadian context, as she admits. Key institutions such as the now-defunct Sister Vision press —  which focused on publishing by Black women and women of colour and a Canadian counterpart to the influential US-based Kitchen Table Press — are not here, nor is the long and complex story of the socialist-feminist publisher, Women’s Press. Landmark Women’s Press texts of anti-racist, socialist and Marxist feminism such as Himani Bannerji’s Thinking Through, or Ena Dua and Angela Roberson’s anthology Scratching the Surface, remain influential in the Canadian context.

The Key Issues

About a third of the twenty chapters of Ten Thousand Roses are devoted to a single issue (childcare; violence against women; abortion; the sexism in the Indian Act; the wage gap; employment equity; poverty; the Constitution) and how women organized around it. Indeed, the book has a clear focus on the material issues that continue to confront the majority of women: low pay, unequal pay or no pay.

Rebick also treats many of the landmark stories of the women’s movement in Canada: the already-mentioned long struggle to overturn the abortion law, and the even longer one to repeal Section 12 (1) (b) of the colonialist Indian Act (which deprived status Indian women of their status if they married a non-status man). A chapter is devoted to “the pornography wars” — one which powerfully reveals that, in Canada, debates about porn were almost as divisive and personally costly to individual feminists as they were in the United States.

In the Canadian context, these debates were also linked, at some points, with debates about sex work as texts such as Laurie Bell’s collection, Good Girls/Bad Girls (Women’s Press, 1987) attest. For this reason, I would have liked to have seen more on this in Rebick’s chapter (it is briefly mentioned by contributor and major feminist anti-censorship writer Varda Burstyn).

Indeed, the activism of sex workers in Canada is a missing piece; this is unfortunate as sex workers such as Kara Gillies, for example, have been important players — including in recent debates on migrant sex work and so-called “trafficking.”

While many chapters are devoted to the organizing on a specific issue, others are more multi- issue in focus in that they explore the political standpoints and organizing histories of women with disabilities; lesbian women; women of color; Aboriginal women; and women inside the trade union movement.

This structure of the book — with interviews with women of color in chapters devoted to them, and (mainly) white women talking in the many of the issue-oriented chapters — means that the implications of the anti-racist feminist critique often go missing. In other words, readers may not grasp the ways in which anti-racist, intersectional critique in fact fundamentally re-framed all feminist issues, and this was in fact one of its major consequences and contributions. Similarly the ways in which a critique of the institution of disability, or of heterosexuality, has profound implications for how we understand, for example, the institution of waged work, can be obscured by the text’s structural organization.

Critical Reflections

At the same time, the chapter “It’s Not Just About Identity: Women of Colour Organize” tells many key stories and offers much for reflection. For instance, Akua Benjamin, formerly of the Congress of Black Women (founded in 1973) and a long-time activist, talks very critically and honestly about the failure of the Congress to deal with the political critique of heterosexism offered by lesbian members. (These failures would lead lesbian singer-songwriter, Faith Nolan, to call the group the Congress of Bleak Women.)

I should also add here that important political conversations between Aboriginal women and women of color have been a feature of women’s organizing in Canada, but have rarely been written about in any depth. These conversations are referenced in this chapter and occasionally elsewhere in Ten Thousand Roses; but I would have loved to have seen more on the ways in which Aboriginal women have understood their location as one linked to women of color and immigrant women, yet fundamentally distinct and requiring autonomous organizing on their part.

These theoretical and political issues remain central today, particularly as a new generation of activists in formations such as No One is Illegal work to link both migrant and indigenous struggles within a framework of decolonization.

Aboriginal Women’s Struggles

The chapter on Aboriginal women largely turns on the story of the struggle to change the Indian Act. Of course, in many ways it was not a “single” specific issue since it involved fundamental questions such as who gets to constitute who “Indians” are. (Readers may want to look at Bonita Lawrence’s new book, “Real” Indians and Others). Moreover, recognition of Indian status is crucial as it also determines access to basic necessities for women such as housing on indigenous territories.

While this is an absolutely key struggle, some Aboriginal women – Patricia Monture comes to mind here – have been critical of the ways in which it gets taken up to the exclusion of any other issues facing Aboriginal women, in part because of the fact that the battle around the Indian Act was one in which Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women were allied.

Rebick does take up elsewhere in the text other issues in relation to Aboriginal women (perhaps most notably around the Constitution). She also looks at the important battle to turn the National Action Committee on the Status of Women into a powerful organization anchored in the leadership of Aboriginal women and women of color.

But the positioning of indigenous women within feminism, and within women’s organizations of both aboriginal and non-aboriginal women, remains very much an open political question today, as does the extent to which non-Aboriginal women are prepared to take seriously a fundamentally anti-colonial as well as anti- racist, anti-sexist struggle.

Today, Aboriginal women’s struggles continue on a variety of fronts, both on and off territory, with a nationally-oriented campaign around violence against indigenous women, and involving groups such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada, being among the most central.

A recent issue of the Canadian women’s studies journal Atlantis (Spring 2005) is devoted to how indigenous women are challenging divisions within aboriginal political practice which position “community issues” (including violence) as the domain of women and “sovereignty issues” as the domain of men. Readers may also want to watch for an upcoming issue of Canadian Woman Studies which will also be devoted to indigenous women in Canada.

Women of Color

 Some aspects of the confrontation between white women and women of color are told in the chapters “Taking It to the Streets: International Women’s Day,” and especially “Sharing Power: Women of Colour Take the Lead” on the transformations within the March 8th Coalition and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women respectively. In 1986, the March 8th Coalition was the site of a massive struggle over racism which transformed the face of Toronto feminist politics.

This struggle is discussed here in an important testimony by a very well-respected figure in the women’s movement, Dionne Brand, a Governor-General award-winning poet and novelist, and a major contributor to anti-racist, anti-heterosexist feminist work. Here are Dionne Brand’s conclusions about this period:

“After ’86, there wasn’t any organizing in the women’s movement that wasn’t inclusive. I think there wasn’t another IWD [International Women’s Day, and here it’s important to note that Brand is referencing the Toronto celebrations] where the speakers weren’t varied. As much as it was difficult and rancorous, as much as people didn’t speak to each other for years, I don’t think another discussion came up without attention to inclusiveness. That was good. What was bad was that we thought we couldn’t speak to each other after the fight. Everyone learned from it.” (124)

Questions of Imperialism

There is also much more, it seems to me, that could have been added to this chapter about the debates about racism, imperialism and Zionism which were a key feature of the early to mid-1980s especially. For example, the socialist-feminist group of which I was a member at the time went through a difficult and painful debate over Zionism on the eve of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; this was to have implications well beyond the confines of the group and affected the organizing of International Women’s Day.

Indeed, Rebick herself has long been an outspoken critic of Zionism and was a participant in these debates. Some of this story has been charted by Amy Gottlieb (today a member of Jewish Women to End the Occupation) and by Nahla Abdo, a leading Palestinian feminist. This struggle was an important precursor to those over racism. Indeed, Nahla Abdo has for years argued that anti-racist theoretical and practical work must take on the question of Palestine.

These considerations on racism, imperialism and nation raise another set of issues: the framing of the text as “Canadian.” Except for some comparative references to the U.S. women’s movement, the book focuses squarely on the women’s movement in Canada. This is fair enough, at one level, since it is difficult to do a decent job of accounting for the trajectory of more than one or two nationally-framed women’s movements at a time, and the influence of the U.S. women’s movement on Canadian developments was indeed very important. (Scholars are only beginning to address the U.S.-Canada circulation of ideas, practices and people in the making of social movements on both sides of the border.)

But missing here for me is the transnational character of the women’s movement especially perhaps in cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver which are home to large numbers of feminist activists, leftists and political exiles with important personal and political ties to social movements around the globe.

Latin American political exiles, for instance, played an important role from the 1970s on.  Yet the continuing work of feminists inside, for instance, anti-imperialist, anti-apartheid and solidarity committees, is not documented here. (Dionne Brand, in her testimony, does briefly reference her experience of being in Grenada in 1983.) Nor is the influence of social movements from a variety of settings on the forms of politics practiced here.

Distinct Movement

In the introduction to Ten Thousand Roses, Rebick makes claims for the distinct character of the Canadian women’s movement. She writes: “socialist feminists played an important role from the beginning, making sure that the interests of working-class women were part of the movement. The resulting alliance between autonomous women’s groups and women in the labour movement has made our trade unions the most feminist in the world.” (xii)

Indeed union density rates are higher in Canada than in the United States, for example, and, as Rebick’s book documents, labor feminists have been for many years a key force within the women’s movement. They secured, for example, key victories in lesbian and gay rights within collective agreements well in advance of the legislation. A second claim is that: “through the efforts of women of colour and Aboriginal women, we succeeded here for a time in creating a multiracial women’s movement, with strong leadership from women of colour, Aboriginal women and immigrant women.” (xii)

One reviewer (Kirat Kaur writing in the online journal Upping the Anti) has argued that this latter claim to creating a multiracial women’s movement lets white women off the hook on racism and ignores the ways in which the issue is not just about representation but about fundamentally re-thinking the issues. But however one evaluates the successes and failures of the women’s movement in the 1980s and 1990s, the need to fundamentally re-frame the links among racism, nationalism, imperialism and sexism has become even more pressing after September 11 and the attack on Iraq.

The women’s movement in Canada faced a dramatic instance of this when Sunera Thobani, the first woman of colour to head NAC (and whose testimony about heading the organization in the early 1990s is in Ten Thousand Roses), was viciously attacked in the media and the public after she made a thoroughgoing critique of U.S. imperialism and war at a women’s anti-violence conference one week after 9/11.

Rebick was one of Thobani’s key defenders. But despite pockets of organizing, the women’s movement still faces the need to think through both the fundamental problems of anti-racist feminist organizing in a time of “national security,” and the profound limits of nationalist and nationally-defined strategies and political imaginaries.

More Work to be Done

In recent years, some remarkable books and articles have documented aspects of the women’s movement in the United States. These join an important international literature, including books such as The History of Doing, on the history of the women’s movement in India. In Canada as elsewhere, however, and despite some important published popular and scholarly work, there is still much more to do to document the story of the women’s movement.

For those who do not know the organizing history of the women’s movement in Canada, Ten Thousand Roses will be particularly important and a useful orientation. Veteran activists will laugh and cry recalling old struggles, some of which they themselves might even have forgotten. There are many rich stories and thoughtful reflections in the text, and many useful lessons for organizers including for feminists in a variety of organizational settings today.

Indeed, whatever the losses, retreats and defeats of the last decade and more, the women’s movement in Canada remains a presence — arguably far more so than in the United States. International Women’s Day continues to be marked across the country, and this year’s Toronto IWD march was the most vibrant in a while; it was much invigorated by an important Canada — U.S.-wide campaign to raise the living standards of hotel and service workers.

But very serious challenges are ahead of us: the recent federal election put the Tories in power and many key gains in the areas of child care, same-sex marriage and abortion rights — to name three that come immediately to mind— are now more at risk. Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan and the consequences of militarization and “national security” for indigenous peoples, people of color, women and workers is another central arena.

Despite some of its limitations, notably a nationalist rather than a critical transnational framing of issues, histories and practices, Ten Thousand Roses remains a useful point of departure for some much-needed debate on what remains to be done.

ATC 122, May-June 2006