Opposition says government intimidates opponents

A spokesman for Rona Ambrose (left), the minister responsible for women’s affairs, said funding for women’s organizations has gone up. Gwen Landolt of REAL Women (right) praises the government’s decision to defund radical feminist groups.

Opposition parties attacked the Harper government for defunding a dozen feminist organizations saying that the cuts in taxpayer subsidies to the special interest groups was retaliation against critics of the government’s policy to not include funding of abortion in its G8 maternal health initiative.

The revelation by Liberal women’s affairs critic Anita Neville that initially 11 feminist organizations – and then 14 and perhaps as many as 24 – had their subsidies eliminated, came days after the manufactured hoopla over Senator Nancy Ruth’s friendly advice to pro-abortion groups. Ruth told a forum of feminist and pro-abortion groups to stop complaining that abortion won’t be funded through the maternal health program or risk facing a backlash for their criticism. She inelegantly told them to “shut the f— up.”

Ruth’s comments were made in the spirit of advice, but Liberals jumped on them to insinuate that it was government policy to silence organizations that disagree with it. Bob Rae told the House of Commons that Ruth’s speech was “part of the culture of intimidation that has now been established by the Conservative government.” Her obscene words, Rae said, were the “pithiest, sharpest description” of Tory tactics: “If someone has a disagreement with the government, just shut the F up.”

Liberal fundraiser Adam Smith sent out an appeal for donations tied to Ruth’s comments. “We cannot let the government treat Canadians this way,” the director of the National Liberal Fund wrote. “Their contempt for the public has reached a new level you and I can’t just tolerate.”

Days later, Neville released a list of feminist groups that had recently been informed of subsidy cuts. Joining her was Kim Bulger, executive director of Match International, who said the elimination of the funding was ideological and that the Conservative government was opposed to her organization which is “guided by a feminist vision of sustainable development.” The group is pro-abortion but had not criticized the government’s maternal health initiative.

Bulger complained that the organization was abruptly told that due to “performance and financing issues” the Canadian International Development Agency had decided to eliminate $400,000 in funding to Match International. Bulger told the Globe and Mail that the real reason is politics. “There is something up their sleeve about women and women’s groups,” she alleged.

Calgary Herald columnist Naomi Lakritz noted that 75 per cent of Match International’s budget was covered by taxpayer subsidies. Lakritz wondered how in a time of targeted spending cuts in government departments from Defense to Fisheries and Oceans to the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Match International could justify continued taxpayer support for a domestic women’s festival in Ottawa.

Lakritz also noted that there were numerous efforts that would benefit women in the new $177.7 million in funding for overseas projects through the Canadian International Development Agency, including health, education, agricultural and employment programs in various African countries. Some are targeted to women while others would disproportionately benefit women in the developing world.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May said the funding cuts were part of the government’s anti-women agenda. NDP leader Jack Layton said the government is going “after groups that espouse ideas that they don’t agree with.”

However, the government notes that funding of women’s groups through the Status of Women has increased, but that the focus is on creating opportunities for women, not underwriting activism or advocacy. Organizations that will no longer receive funding include: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, Conseil d’intervention pour l’accès des femmes au travail, New Brunswick Pay Equity Coalition, the Alberta Network of Immigration Women, and Association féminine d’éducation et d’action sociale, among others.

In a press release, REAL Women said the funding cuts are overdue. The pro-life, pro-family women’s group, which relies on membership support and not taxpayer subsidies, said the feminist organizations “appear to be blind to the fact that they are only a small group of women, whose numbers dwindle each day, and have no membership to support them.” REAL Women said the feminist groups “don’t deserve to be bankrolled by the government” but that eliminating funding is not the same thing as censorship: “Just because their government funding has been cut off, doesn’t mean they are ‘voiceless’ as they claim.  REAL Women of Canada has thrived for 27 years on membership dues and donations, without government funding and is by no means ‘voiceless’.”

REAL Women said, “It is only reasonable that the government would move on to, and curtail funding of these obsolete groups.”

Meanwhile Rona Ambrose, the interim minister for the status of women, told the House of Commons that Canadian women do not care about the funding of advocacy groups but are more concerned about laws that would tackle crime to “keep rapists and murderers off the street and to make sure we protect children from sexual predators.”