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Activism & Action

Fighting Fascism: Lessons from the pro-choice struggle

Photo of alt right protest crowd, Million Maga in Washington DC
Washington, DC, USA | Dec 12, 2020 | Million Maga March: Proud Boys in DC. Photo by Johnny Silvercloud

The assault on Congress on January 6 has provoked extensive discussion about the rise and breadth of the far right in the United States. But what of Canada?

Over 6,600 right-wing extremist social media channels, accounts linked to Canada, study finds

Well, I can tell you that I once received a bullet in the mail at my home in Toronto, one of twelve “prominent Jews” in the city to get that threat, serious enough for a police investigation. That was 1994, and I had just stepped down as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

Like many negative things in our history we don’t like to talk about, Canada has always had fascists in our political spectrum.  They had enough influence during World War II for the government to turn away a boatload of Jews fleeing the Nazi holocaust in Europe. Since Trump’s election in 2016, fascism — or at least far-right extremism expressing white supremacy, racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny — has been on the rise in Canada.  As reported in NOW Magazine, there are now 300 far-right extremist groups in Canada, 30 per cent more since Trump came to office.  Canada is among the most active countries on white supremacy discussion forums, just behind the U.S. and Britain.  Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise. A 2019 EKOS poll found that some 40 per cent of white Canadians now view immigration as a “threat.” And there has been more than a 700% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in Vancouver since Covid hit.

So how do we stem the rise of fascism and far-right extremism, even turn it back? From the 1980s, I was deeply involved in a battle to secure the most important victory the women’s movement in Canada has ever had – the legalization of abortion. There are important lessons to be gleaned from that struggle that might serve us well in the battle against white supremacy and neofascism.

Picture of Judy Rebick
Writer, activist, feminist Judy Rebick (Photo via Rabble)

Lessons Learned from Fighting Anti-choice Activists

The pro-choice movement faced a well-organized, ideologically rigid, anti-feminist, fanatical anti-choice faction not afraid to use violence and threats, and it had ties to both Church and the Conservative Party. 

Beginning with the Abortion Caravan in 1970, pro-choice activists waged a nearly 20-year struggle — in the streets, in the courts and in the legislature, until the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the abortion law in a landmark decision citing women’s right to privacy—in effect women’s rights to control their own bodies.

I got involved in the struggle in the fall of 1981, when Carolyn Egan and her co-workers in a birth control centre called a community meeting with the idea of opening an illegal abortion clinic to challenge the law, along the model of Dr. Morgentaler’s in Montreal, which had been virtually legalized by the Quebec government after three juries acquitted Morgentaler of breaking the restrictive abortion law.

In Toronto, white middle-class women with connections had some access to abortion under the 1969 law, but birth control workers realized that poor women, immigrant women, rural women, and young women, couldn’t get access. So, they sought to open an abortion clinic and build a movement to support it. The Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC) brought together pro-choice groups to generate public support, even before the clinic opened. A rally of 1,000 people at a downtown auditorium, featuring Dr. Henry Morgentaler and activist/journalist June Callwood, kicked off the campaign.

The mass movement in the streets was key, but so was our community work. We would speak and debate the anti-choice anywhere and everywhere. I don’t think I’ve been in as many churches in the 30 years since that time. While it’s hard to change the mind of a true believer, you can convince their followers. For instance, a lot people opposed abortion for religious  reasons and fell prey to the anti-choice movement’s distortions of the procedure. We faced that head on. 

Debate Needs Action

In the fall of 1982, we introduced a resolution supporting the legalization of free-standing abortion clinics at the Ontario Federation of Labour convention. It was controversial but we mobilized almost all the women in the room to line up at the microphones to support it; the ones who spoke were passionate about the importance of the issue to working-class women.

The clinic opened in June 1983 on Harbord Street in downtown Toronto. Dr. Morgentaler arrived in the afternoon. It was my job to escort him across the street, which was crowded with both supporters and reporters with a huge bank of cameras waiting for something to happen. And it did. Half way across the street, a man leapt out at Dr. Morgentaler, threatening to stab him with garden shears. I blocked the attack and chased the man down the street. Courage in the face of threats and attacks is a must in fighting fanatics. Not everyone is able to do that, but some people have to and the rest have to back them up. Those of us who were spokespeople would get threats regularly at work, at home and sometimes in the street. Part of the job of fighting right-wing fanatics is facing their threats.

Three weeks after the clinic opened, the police arrested Morgentaler and the two other doctors working there. Dr. Morgentaler closed the clinic until the trial. Once again, as in Quebec, a jury acquitted him. That outraged the anti-choice activists, and we had to confront them. As the Crown prepared their appeal, the anti-choice faction demonstrated regularly in front of the clinic and harassed women seeking a procedure. We deployed people to be there every day, to help the women through the lines and keep the anti-choice off the property. Direct action, we might call it today. Labour activists who knew how to hold a picket line helped us a lot. 

A critical point came when the Catholic Church decided to call out their troops, asking priests to give their sermon on the evil of abortion and call on all their constituents to demonstrate in front of the clinic. Every day of that week, Monday to Thursday, 2,000 people, including children from Catholic schools, were bused in to demonstrate in front of the clinic. They garnered media coverage night after night.

Agree to Disagree, But Act

By this point, we had held many rallies, but none bigger than 2,000. We didn’t think we could mobilize that many people. A less radical but very important pro-choice group – the Canadian Association for Repeal of the Abortion Law (CARAL)—argued against mounting a counter demonstration, feeling it would make us look weak if fewer numbers showed up. OCAC discussed it and decided, whatever numbers, we had to fight back. Otherwise our people would get demoralized. We called a counter demonstration on Friday. CARAL was furious, but they pulled out all the stops trying to make to make the demonstration a success. At that moment, I learned something key about building a movement: You have to build broad coalitions with people you might disagree with, but it’s winning the struggle that matters. OCAC and CARAL had differences but both were committed to building the movement. Even though CARAL was sure the demonstration was a mistake, they knew once OCAC called it, they had to put everything into supporting it, even if it proved they were wrong. Here is another lesson: Unite in action, even if there are doubts.

In the days leading up to our rally, every media report of the Catholic protest announced the time and date of our rally as balance. People who had been quietly cheering on Dr. Morgentaler in the privacy of their own homes decided now was the time to show their colours. More than 15,000 people rallied at Queen’s Park, with people spilling out into the streets, then marched to the clinic. Until then, the anti-choice thought the majority sided with them, and I guess the government may have as well. But that night it was clear, as Henry had always said, “the people are with us.”

The pro-choice movement was the broadest and most successful social movement I have ever seen in Canada. We were able to turn back and marginalize a strong fanatical movement with strategies that might serve us well today in confronting the ugly rise of white supremacy and neofascism.

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Activism & Action Systems

Confronting Gender Inequity And Inclusion in The Innovation Space

Many people seem to believe that innovation capacity is any economy’s secret sauce. The more of it, the better. According to many experts, achieving top tier results in the innovation race is as simple as focusing on getting more business owners and entrepreneurs innovating. In other words, it’s a numbers game.

If this is truly the case, then surely solving Canada’s innovation under-performance is a cinch. Just offer relevant support for ambitious, talented women in the innovation space and the number of entrepreneurs and businesses innovating could increase by 30 per cent overnight. The economic impact would be seismic.

Yet the $200-million-per-year innovation strategy now being touted on the conference circuit by Minister Navdeep Bains, which highlights many ways to drive more innovation output, says nothing about gender parity, let alone mentioning it as a big opportunity. Additionally, the documents circulating online about the initiative also gives no indication that it is even a priority.

Improving on Canada’s glacial innovation advancement record is an important pursuit but so far, this new plan isn’t hot enough to unleash its benefits, especially if it continues to leave female innovators chilly, and potentially out in the cold.

Are Today’s Incubators and Accelerators the Solution?

The Bains mandate states “expanding effective support for incubators [and] accelerators” as a key solution. But how well do today’s incubators and accelerators serve women?

Let’s take a look at an example up close.

One of the most prestigious, well-resourced, young talent–seeking incubators in the country, The Next 36, proudly announced on June 15 a new venture capital fund led by BDC Capital in participation with Globalive Capital and private investors. While this may sound like good news for innovation, one must ask why more money is being spent to support a program run by a 92 per cent male leadership structure?

A closer look at the organization’s leadership (as advertised on its website) finds that men make up six out of seven of its founders, 13 of its 14 board members, 13 of its 14 faculty members, and 19 of its 22 mentors. And the number of female innovators selected annually to participate in this elite program ranges from five to 11 out of a total of 36 per session over the past four years. Go a level deeper and look at seven of the companies that the current board members of The Next 36 work for as their “day job” collectively. The boards and senior management of these companies have just five women in a total of 48 positions (that’s just 11 per cent).

It doesn’t seem to get any better when it comes to the leadership of the principal partners involved in this newly announced fund. Government-owned BDC Capital lists eight men and just one woman on its executive team. Globalive Capital and Alignvest, both self-described “world-class” investment management firms, are made up of 100 per cent men in their partner ranks.

Gender inequality at work in this incubator is more than skin deep. Sadly, The Next 36, an idea with exceptional potential, is starting to look more like The Past 36 at a time when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a self-declared feminist, managed to achieve gender parity in cabinet in one fell swoop.

Moreover, The Next 36 example is not an isolated one. Here in Ontario alone, many regional innovation centres themselves acknowledge and report sub-optimal performance in the gender equality department with participation level ranging from a low of four per cent to a high of 25 per cent.

The innovation eco-system has a long way to go to meet Kathleen Wynne’s and Justin Trudeau’s standards of gender parity.

Back to Canada’s Innovation Strategy

If we truly believe gender diversity has a business case when it comes to realizing enhanced performance, then we must also believe that gender diversity matters in innovation policy.

Solutions

LiisBeth has four ideas to offer:

  • First, government-funded incubators should be asked to pledge to achieve gender parity within management and mentor ranks by the end of 2017 and be given one year to get there.
  • Innovation policy should encourage and support the creation of autonomous, women-led, female founder–focused incubators and innovation programs. It’s nice to think a gender-blind approach is a pinnacle of form, but if we are honest we know it typically means a male-led and male-centred approach to a masculine culture environment that—by the way—also welcomes women. The research is clear. This works for some, but not many.
  • Unleash innovation at the margins by developing a complimentary demographic-based incubator strategy. Innovating something new and forgoing income to do it is scary enough, let alone trying to succeed in a space that doesn’t make you feel like you belong. Many talented innovators simply do not feel comfortable or motivated by being a part of a culturally or socially alien space, including Indigenous, trans, new Canadian, or age 50-plus entrepreneurs. It might be interesting to note that other nations seem to have figured this out. For example, Israel now has an ultra-orthodox tech incubator. If we want more business owners and entrepreneurs innovating in Canada, we cannot arrogantly insist that they all participate in an environment “we” think is best for them. A little support for demographically specific incubators would go a long way.
  • Finally, we should also require all private venture capital firms seeking government-matching funds to disclose their gender equity and diversity state, and submit plans for improving them within 18 months if they are below the water line. We all know this: equal access to capital is absolutely critical if we are to truly leverage our talented female and other marginalized innovators.

Optimism?

There is room for optimism. For example, the Bains Ministry’s recently published backgrounder states: “Only by mobilizing every sector of society to do its part will all Canadians have the opportunity to participate fully in an innovation economy.”

In addition, Bains’ mandate letter from the prime minister says expressly that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development is expected to “help ensure gender parity.” As his mandate marching orders—and common sense—dictates, Bains must work to correct a no longer acceptable gender gap in the innovation space.

How much he has taken to heart in this arena is unclear. Bains’ recent eight-minute speech at Canada 2020 covered the usual: the importance of tech; being kinder to failure; his father’s $5 self-made entrepreneurial journey; the value of universities; and how to become a global innovation leader. But there was nothing said on the issue of gender parity in the innovation space.

If Minister Bains wants to succeed where others have failed, and if indeed, winning at innovation is a numbers game, then fostering gender equality and broader inclusion overall are two significant opportunities that should not be overlooked.


Want to write to Minister Navdeep Bains to voice your opinion on his innovation strategy? He is looking for input. Details on how to contribute to the discussion have not yet been announced, but in the meantime, you can email him at Navdeep.Bains@parl.gc.ca


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Our Voices

Meet Mithula Naik: Feminist Designer, Latent Entrepreneur

Mithula Naik

Mithula Naik was studying industrial design in Chennai, India, a city of eight million, when she observed that women roaring around town on motorcycles and scooters were wearing bulky, ill-fitting helmets. As the daughter of entrepreneurs, she immediately saw an opportunity to capitalize on her interest in gender and design. “I didn’t just want to take a pink-and-shrink approach to designing a new helmet line for women,” says the now 26-year-old. “I wanted to see how I could enable a better riding experience by designing a better fit. So I researched the particulars of how a woman’s head shape and size is different from a man’s and came up with a better helmet that is ergonomically suited.”

Convincing manufacturers to buy into her idea was not easy. “I had to go to several manufacturers. At first they didn’t think a different helmet for women was necessary, let alone sell,” she says. Eventually, India’s Vega Helmets decided to give the idea—and Naik—a try. And the product took off, launching in 2014.

Naik identifies as a feminist and a feminist designer. LiisBeth recently interviewed her to chat about growing up in India, feminism and how we can redefine entrepreneurship:

LiisBeth: What did your father and mother do for a living?

Naik: Both my parents are entrepreneurs. Both of them work in business. My mother runs a primary school and day care centre. It is based on a Montessori model of education, and goes from preschool/day care through to the fourth grade. Her school is now 35 years in operation. It’s not a large school; it has about 100 students. She prioritizes maintaining quality instead of franchising and expanding the school. My father runs a business for flooring and interiors, so he does granite, marble and interior-related work.

LiisBeth: As a person who’s growing up in an entrepreneurial family, what’s your perception of how entrepreneurship is viewed in India in general?

Naik: Entrepreneurship is understood in two very different ways in India. Firstly, there’s micro and small businesses, the mom-and-pop-shop kind. This kind isn’t considered so special and is often taken for granted because it’s what everyone does. It’s mainstream. A lot of people are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial because they have to be. It’s needs based and a well-known way of life.

The second kind is medium to large businesses. More recently, with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promoting “Make in India,” there came a new kind of entrepreneur. FlipKart’s largest ecommerce chain competes with Amazon. Ola Cabs, India’s very own online cab aggregator, competes with Uber. These are the newer more aggressive and high-growth-oriented entrepreneurship ventures.

But back to the small business world, the influence of family expectations plays a big role in how young people consider entrepreneurship as a career. Your grandfather had a shop. Your father expanded it to two shops, and now as the next in line, you’re taking it to the next level, either developing a third shop or looking to expand internationally with a higher growth mindset. This is the mindset maintained by many of my friends from India. Many go abroad, get international business degrees and then come back to manage and grow their family businesses.

Growing up I believed it was, in fact, harder to get a corporate job than start a business. The entrepreneurial family and the life that goes with it were familiar enough to me that I didn’t really think of it as a desirable career option. There was a certain amount of predictability to it. Also, there is a profound sense of responsibility of a different kind, in that you have to carry the foundations of what your parents have persevered for. I feel extremely fortunate because my parents never placed any expectations on my brother and me to take their businesses forward. They wanted us to dream our own dreams.

LiisBeth: I want to explore this idea a little bit more because I find it intriguing. You grew up in an entrepreneurial family, in an entrepreneurial culture, yet you thought a job would be a great idea.

Naik: Yes.

LiisBeth: [Stunned] Why is that?

Because entrepreneurship, as any career would, comes with its constraints. Just because you are the CEO doesn’t necessarily mean you will be making as much money as you could be working for someone else. A lot of Indians return to India after spending time in the west earning more working at a job than their families ever did owning a small business in India. But this is common as well, immigrating to the west for a higher socio-economic standard. Entrepreneurship is also a deep commitment and responsibility like I mentioned. Personally, I couldn’t see myself putting all my energy in my early 20s in building one business, in the same city I grew up in and having to stay on to build it for the rest of my life. And although that is an equally joyful and challenging journey I personally wanted to travel and experience what was out there, and I was very fortunate to be able to. The world is a smaller place these days.

My core skill is design, and I need to grow as a designer. I thought I could best accomplish this by working with a large company where I would have the opportunity to collaborate with talented people from multidisciplinary fields. Working in an organization and in teams to solve problems seemed to me to be a more attractive idea than jumping on one “big idea” I might have as an entrepreneur.

LiisBeth: Are women entrepreneurs respected in India?        

Naik: I’d say the idea of women entrepreneurs who are in business for themselves in India is not as common as it is in North America. A lot of Indian women pursue business training (MBA) but then are weighed down by family expectations to work in their family’s business or join the corporate workforce. The idea of an Indian woman having her own business where she has 100 per cent autonomy is something rather recent. However, the stereotype of Indian women entrepreneurs being married women who work alongside their husbands, or daughters working with their fathers, is slowly changing.

The changing scenario can be seen by looking at the many young Indian women today using the internet and social media platforms to start their own autonomous businesses. Facebook for Business, particularly for small and medium enterprises, I believe is thriving in India. Start-ups from women entrepreneurs seem to be currently concentrated in traditionally women-led industries such as cosmetics, accessories, fashion and confectionery, but I definitely see that women in India are waking up to starting their own enterprises in other areas.

LiisBeth: Are you a feminist?

Naik: I would surely consider myself a feminist.

LiisBeth: What does that mean to you?

Naik: I guess it’s just the radical idea that women and men are equal! [Laughs.] But seriously, if you have a belief in fundamental human rights, you need to be a feminist. I really loved this new idea I read about, where we should stop asking people if they are feminists. We should ask instead if they’re sexist because really, you’re sexist if you’re not a feminist. Unfortunately, people, including many women, don’t understand the true meaning of feminism. There are too many negative connotations people associate with it, which takes away the basic meaning of feminism.

LiisBeth: Tell us about your final master’s major research project.

Naik: My project is titled “Beyond the Economic: The Influence of Women Entrepreneurs in Canada.” In an exploration of women’s entrepreneurship in Canada, my project seeks to re-examine the stereotype of the male as the prime entrepreneurial role model. It does this by uncovering the distinct experiences of women entrepreneurs for the expansion of both economic growth and social impact.

LiisBeth: What did you find out?

Naik: My research shows that Canadian women entrepreneurs have a lot of experience negotiating between the two complex entrepreneurial systems of for-profit entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship to reveal a middle ground. As a result, they are quicker to adopt a vision of Canadian society wherein businesses do not act in conflict with the good of the people, but rather alongside it. Think, hybrid enterprises. However, my study calls for more research in the subject, as there’s still a lack of available data on women’s entrepreneurship when compared to men.

LiisBeth: Why study women entrepreneurs in Canada?

Naik: Initially, I wanted to learn about how women entrepreneurs work in a first world country like Canada compared to a developing country like India. I thought I might come away with a sense of the ideal Canadian woman entrepreneur archetype that might be useful, motivating and instructional when comparing them to other women entrepreneurs in other countries. Instead, I came away with a much more interesting finding. It turns out Canadian women entrepreneurs have had a long history of fusing social benefit with business—a little known fact from what I could see. That experience and knowledge seems to be highly undervalued here. They could serve as a role model to so many others around the world.

LiisBeth: Can you discuss one of your project’s recommendations?

Naik: My first recommendation is that we begin to understand “impact” in more ways than merely financial and fully value the contributions made by women-led ventures. Many of their ventures not only contribute to the economy in the form of jobs created and supplies purchased, they also lead the way in running enterprises that measurably improve society and the environment. More progressive enterprise valuation formulas based on a broader definition of economic contribution could lead to new funding mechanisms and unleash a horde of financially oppressed but growth-minded women entrepreneurs.

LiisBeth: Any ideas on how to measure the value of social and environmental contributions?

Naik: Sure. We can start by carrying over new and now generally accepted “social impact metrics” and put a dollar value to social benefit outcomes. The social finance space is pioneering new ways of measuring social value. And the non-profit sector has also developed many new methods for assessing social impact and converting them into monetary terms. All we have to do is carry this concept over into the for-profit, commercial-lending and investment spaces so that a blended value enterprise can gain access to higher levels of funding since their balance sheet would include these other assets. I think government banks like BDC (Business Development Bank of Canada) could play a lead role in this.

LiisBeth: Being new to Toronto, and Canada, what strikes you as the one thing that sets us apart from other countries?

Naik: Inclusivity. I know diversity is emphasized in many places, but you can be in a highly diverse space that is largely segregated and less inclusive. From what I have experienced, Canada as a country emphasizes inclusivity to a great extent. It allows people from all over the world to come together to produce great things regardless of their differences. This has surprised me on many occasions. In my experience so far, Canada looks at people’s inherent capacities, what they bring to the table and not the colour of their skin or where they come from.

LiisBeth: What’s next for Mithula?

Naik: I have been working with the Central Innovation Hub at the Privy Council Office and definitely looking forward to working on many more exciting projects. I’m using the tools of design thinking and social innovation to solve policy and service delivery challenges in the public sector. Can’t wait!