The National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) was an umbrella organization for women’s groups and groups that supported women’s issues in Canada.
In 1970, commissioned by the federal government and chaired by Florence Bird, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW) released a report which recognized women’s subordinate place in Canadian Society. The report contained 167 recommendations to strengthen women’s position in Canada. In 1971, the National Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Women was formed by a group of women determined to see these recommendations implemented in the Canadian Society. Further, they proposed that this large organization would form committees to address key matters of concern, lobby the government for legislative changes and raise public awareness about women’s issues. During the Strategy for Change conference led by Laura Sabia in Toronto in 1972, it was decided that « Ad Hoc » should be dropped from the name, thus the organization became known as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Initially, the first thirty groups that made up NAC were mostly based in Toronto, but over time, the number of member groups increased dramatically and represented more of Canada. In fact, in 1977 NAC had approximately 120 member groups registered, 576 groups in 1988, and around 600 in 1996. Membership was diverse in class and politics: “They included many older national women’s organizations, business and professional women, unions, YWCAs, service organizations such as women’s shelters and rape crisis centres, immigrant women’s caucuses in various mixed groups and political parties.” (Rise Up!). The organization became officially bilingual in 1976.
NAC’s structure remained consistent and was volunteer based. NAC was led by an elected president and supported by a number of elected vice presidents, regional representatives and member groups. Approximately every two years there was an election for a new presidential candidate. Over the years, each NAC president brought her own talents, perspective and leadership direction to the organization. Typically, each president served a two-year term, beginning with Lauria Sabia. Subsequent presidents were Grace Hartman, Lorna Marsden, Kay Macpherson, Lynn McDonald, Jean Wood, Doris Anderson, Chavia Hosek, Louise Delude, Lynn Kaye, Judy Rebick, Sunera Thobani, and Joan Grant-Cummings.
Along with the president, the vice-presidents and regional representatives from the NAC Executive made decisions about hiring and office practices and acted as liaisons to member groups. The Executive met throughout the year to provide continuity and direction. NAC was organized in several committees which focused on particular issues including employment, pensions and income security; social services (including child care); violence against women; health and reproductive rights; pornography; visible minority and immigrant women; native women, etc.
. Each year an annual general meeting was held in order to communicate with member groups, assess strategies, plan for actions and campaigns and form committees to effectively organize their voices. Each member group had the opportunity to send a representative to the meeting who could vote on proposed amendments to the Constitution or any motion that was brought forward. Committees responded to issues in their jurisdiction as they arose. Members had the opportunity to join committees, which met during the year, planning and organizing campaigns and report to the AGM.
In order to reach the many member groups, NAC published short newsletters that highlighted current issues and pertinent events. The publication was first called Status of Women News (1973-1985), commonly referred to as Status, and evolved into Memo. The publication became Feminist Action Feministe (1985), and finally Action Now (1990).
The first NAC office was located in Toronto, but as NAC’s membership grew larger and it received more funding from the government, it was decided to open an Ottawa office. Unfortunately, it became expensive to have two offices and therefore in 1995, it was decided that the Ottawa bureau would have to close down. The NAC Toronto office changed location, size and personnel, reflecting financial and organizational pressures.
Funding for NAC was inconsistent, depending on [changing?] federal government policy. The government funding allowed NAC to develop an infrastructure that permitted active but costly participation from the regions (women from every province and territory flew in on a monthly basis for meetings and working committees). There was, however, always a debate in NAC about whether to accept money from the government. On the one hand, it was argued that women pay taxes and have a right to have tax money redistributed to promote their aims and rights. On the other hand, it was argued that NAC needed to be fully independent so that the government could not pull the plug on their movement. NAC did, however, rely heavily on federal funding, which was problematic during its last years of existence. NAC’s core funding from the government was cut in half in 1988, which made membership fees and fundraising campaigns essential to NAC’s survival. By the 2000s, NAC was slowly becoming a less relevant feminist political advocate and has since completely disappeared from Canadian politics (Collier, Cheryl, p.17).
NAC, in its heyday, was instrumental in bringing women’s issues to the forefront of public discussion. NAC identified four issues as priorities when it began in 1972: the right to abortion, childcare, getting coverage for homemakers in the Canada Pension Plan and equal pay. By 1975, International Women’s Year broadened to equal pay for work of equal value, universal childcare, birth control accessibility, the right to abortion services, Family Law Reform, pension rights for homemakers and native women’s rights. During the 1984 Election, NAC’s efforts secured an unprecedented nationally televised debate on women’s issues. Also in the early 1980's, in reaction to the cutbacks from the Conservative’s federal budget, the Back On Track Campaign encouraged women to voice their disapproval with these detrimental moves to cut funding to essential groups. As well, NAC was vocal in lobbying for legislative and social change including Section 32 (b) of the Indian Act, changes to the Constitution in 1982, and equal pay for work of equal value. Other significant committees were formed and worked on issues like Survival of the Planet, Lesbian Rights, Justice, Immigrant and Visible Minority Women. When under the Immigration Act, domestics, many from Jamaica, were being deported after losing their jobs, NAC fought successfully to stop the deportations. NAC’s members’ efforts were successful also to get, improve and maintain unemployment insurance for women, and maternity and parental benefits as well as to lead the way in developing a coalition to fight free trade. NAC also supported several breakthrough legal cases, including that of Bonnie Robichaud on her complaint of sexual harassment. Bonnie Robichaud’s victory in finding the employer liable for harassment opened the door for many women to complain. NAC also supported Mary Pitawanakwat on her complaint about discrimination on the basis of race in the Secretary of State. It played a significant role in supporting her victory to be reinstated in her position. The beginning of the 90’s was marked by the case of Chantal Daigle and the Ecole Polytechnique Massacre.
Although NAC was not immune to controversy, or internal struggles, it managed to successfully represent hundreds of women’s groups in Canada. NAC became an important voice for women’s groups in Canada in the 70s into the 90s, and played an important role in raising awareness and effecting positive changes for women in Canada. NAC ceased existance in the late 2000s.