United Nations Platform for Action Committee

What Happened

UNPAC was founded in 1995-96 after a group of Manitoba women attended the Beijing UN Fourth World Conference on Women and parallel NGO Conference. They decided to create United Nations Platform for Action Committee (UNPAC) to monitor the implementation of recommendations of the Beijing Platform for Action – the roadmap for equality that was agreed to in Beijing by Canada and 188 other nations.1 UNPAC worked to hold the Manitoba government accountable to the commitments arising from the Platform for Action.

In June 2014, UNPAC closed its doors after almost twenty years of innovative projects supporting women's equality and empowerment through community action and education.

Susan Heald, a former board member, says two factors were instrumental in the decision to shut down the organization. According to Heald, while internal operational issues were at play, the major external factors were the Canada Revenue Agency and Status of Women Canada.


Background

UNPAC was committed to women’s equality, and sought to maintain and broaden connections with local and global women’s movements. The organization was part of several coalitions, including the Manitoba-based Child Care Coalition, the Just Income Coalition and the Feminist Alliance for International Action.2

UNPAC aimed to provide women with the skills and information necessary for positive action in their own lives and in their communities, using public education, public policy development, and research and analysis of progress toward gender equality.

The organization had its head office in Winnipeg, and its work was province-wide, but it's reach was much broader, with national and international organizations using the materials UNPAC produced.

In its early years, UNPAC received small grants for one-time events such as conferences, but beginning in 2001, Status of Women Canada funded a series of three-year grants, one co-funded by the Province of Manitoba. UNPAC also undertook small projects through other grants and donations, and hired staff for the first time.

UNPAC’s early focus was in the area of women and the economy. According to former UNPAC executive director Jennifer deGroot, “We chose this focus primarily because we saw the rise of economic fundamentalism across the globe as a major threat to women’s equality.”

UNPAC pioneered the use of gender budgets in Manitoba. The organization was invited by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA-Manitoba) to co-chair the Manitoba Alternative Provincial Budget. CCPA-Manitoba valued UNPAC’s grassroots approach and its outreach groups supporting rural and low-income Manitobans and community group projects.

In 2005, UNPAC had a part-time executive director (ED) to supervise project staff and manage operations, including securing its future and its sustainability.

By March 2011, two large projects were underway and UNPAC had two full-time staff in addition to its part-time ED. UNPAC developed a number of innovative and interactive strategies in Manitoba:

  • Women and the Economy (2001-2003), a project addressing how women’s contributions to the economy have been diminished and ignored, and promoting women's economic engagement and literacy in Manitoba;
  • Gender budget workshops (2004-2008): 46 workshops promoting Manitoba women's economic literacy/security and encouraging the provincial government to develop a budget that is more responsive to women and gender equality;
  • Femme Fiscale, a real-life feminist “superhero,” was the focus of a postcard series on poverty, housing, child care and other issues of concern to women and their families. Her debut at the 2006 provincial budget coincided with the release of the Alternative Gender Budget created in collaboration with the CCPA;
  • Equality report cards (2010, 2012) that graded the provincial government on performance in women's health, economic security, childcare, housing, access to justice, violence against women and rural and northern issues;
  • 2008-2012, Changemakers and Pathmakers mentorship, skill-building and leadership programs in Winnipeg and four rural areas;
  • UNPAC website (UNPAC.ca) with information sheets on key issues and analysis, women and the economy and program curricula, as well as Snippets, its electronic newsletter
  • The Not Afraid to Get Your Hands Dirty activist award to acknowledge women who contribute to the empowerment of marginalized people.

Despite these important and unique contributions over a sustained period, a number of negative factors came into play that began to have an impact on UNPAC and the women’s sector more broadly. First was the federal shift from organizational or core funding to project-based grants.3 Second was the endemic financial instability affecting voluntary organizations in Canada and weakening their participation in public policy development.4 Third, and most recently, is the targeting of women’s equality seeking organizations and those committed to international human rights by the Harper regime.

By June 2014, UNPAC was forced to cease operations and the corporation was dissolved.

CANADA REVENUE AGENCY (CRA)

In 2009, UNPAC initiated discussions about seeking charitable status to enlarge its pool of potential funders. Many foundations and agencies require charitable status as a precondition for applying for grants. In the past, UNPAC had had to partner with charitable organizations in order to qualify for funding and projects. This practice was not unusual among non-profits in Canada.

UNPAC filed an application for charitable status in the fall of 2010.

The CRA responded in December 2010 that, among other things, UNPAC was “too political.”

A date for an appeal of this decision was set for early February 2011. In part because of a need for funding, as well as the sudden call from SWC to submit applications immediately [see below], UNPAC was unable to meet the date for the appeal of CRA’s decision on charitable status. It withdrew the application.

Subsequently, UNPAC’s board re-considered and re-affirmed its desire to pursue charitable status, and began to consider the requested changes to the organization’s objectives, as set out in the by-laws, in order to comply with CRA demands. Words like “public policy” and “positive action” were to be removed in favour of an emphasis on education and research.

These changes required many discussions over several meetings and were approved by the board in February 2012. Members felt that the new by-laws would be more agreeable to CRA while not limiting or changing UNPAC’s activities. The plan was to include the new organizational purposes or “charitable objects” in the charitable status application in advance of their approval by the UNPAC membership. Since the changes were being made solely to satisfy the CRA, board members deemed it sensible to delay the formal step of changing the by-laws until the CRA declared itself satisfied with the new objects.

CRA seeks to impose new wording for charitable objects and bylaws

UNPAC hired a consultant to write the application, consulting with others across the country as well as with UNPAC board and staff. The application was revised many times and finally submitted in the summer of 2012.

In a letter dated November 15, 2012, a CRA “charities analyst” wrote back and said that UNPAC:

could qualify for registration if it amends its purposes (also referred to as “objects”) as suggested below within 60 days. We suggest that the Applicant delete all of its purposes…and replace them with the following charitable purposes … [emphasis added].

The CRA’s proposed wording removed all mention of equality and inequality in its objects. As well, instead of educating “Manitobans about gender equality and the impact that inequality has on the lives of girls and women,” UNPAC would, according to CRA, “educate and inform the public about women-centred community economic development.” Instead of conducting “research and analysis into gender equality,” CRA would have UNPAC “advance education by conducting research on women-centred community economic development.” Instead of training women to be activists, UNPAC would offer “employment-related training programs, courses, workshops, and presentations[.]”

UNPAC had 60 days to make the changes or withdraw the application.

The letter arrived the same week as the executive director went on medical leave, an acting executive director had just begun, and holidays were around the corner. UNPAC’s board had already met in November, leaving only a December meeting for the members to consider these objectives. Further, a special meeting of the membership was required to change the bylaws; a 60-day deadline for issues so fundamental did not promote good decision-making by a volunteer organization that meets monthly.

The acting ED made several efforts to obtain clarification and to extend the timeline. Email discussions among board members and staff made it clear that a consensus was not going to be reached through on-line communications.

Some board members felt that the removal of “equality” was too far a stretch from UNPAC’s original mandate; others felt that the focus on community economic development, even “women-centred community economic development” would limit UNPAC too much in its activities.

Board member Susan Heald says that she was horrified that CRA staff could seek to re-write an organization’s objectives without consulting with UNPAC’s staff or board. Others felt that UNPAC could continue to do everything it currently did within the stipulated confines. Some felt that Canada Revenue Agency requirements would have so drastically altered UNPAC’s charitable purposes that the “cure was worse than the disease.” Still others could not imagine an UNPAC that did not include working towards women’s equality in its objectives, or that UNPAC would be about job training rather than activism.

In the end, the UNPAC board met on January 15, 2013 and decided to withdraw the application for charitable status. More than three years of effort and financial resources amounted, in the end, to nothing.

STATUS OF WOMEN CANADA (SWC)

In late 2010 and early 2011, UNPAC staff and board members were exploring the possibility of developing a project to bridge the gap between the end date of one SWC project and the beginning of the next one.

In early February 2011, SWC announced a grant competition for up to $200,000 over two years for which UNPAC would be eligible. Grants were to be awarded on a first-come first-served basis and, accordingly, UNPAC applied for the grant. Its application was successful and the grant was awarded on March 22, 2011.

In October 2011, SWC proposed that UNPAC, along with three other organizations, would participate in a project study called Roots/Routes, involving some of the more successful projects across the country that would serve as a model and be adapted by others. The planned project would be much larger than any in which UNPAC had participated and would provide funding until April 2015. It was an exciting project, and the executive director devoted considerable time to meetings with the other organizations, consultations with SWC, and writing proposals. (Although the initiative had come from SWC, organizations were obliged to negotiate and complete full funding applications and budgets). In November 2012, the UNPAC board was told that the proposal was “in the Minister’s office” and a response was promised by November 15.

On January 15, 2013, UNPAC was informed that while the Roots/Routes project was to go ahead, UNPAC’s participation had not been approved. Due to “funding constraints,” SWC was only permitted one organization per province, and Manitoba already had two participating organizations. During this period, UNPAC responded to calls for proposals for two smaller grants; both were denied.

At this point, UNPAC was without any funding other than its own reserves. Its executive director was acting only on an interim basis. UNPAC decided to search for a new, part-time director and to apply for the next round of SWC grants.

A new ED began May 17 2013, and a new SWC application was submitted on May 31, 2013. This proposal was also refused.

Decision to close down

Over the next several months, UNPAC pursued various potential avenues of funding, but by November, the board had to consider closing down, as funds would not last beyond June 2014.

At the March 25, 2014, meeting of the board, the ED announced her resignation as she had accepted full-time work elsewhere. There being no money for new staff, nor energy to operate on a purely volunteer basis, the board called a Special Members Meeting, with a recommendation to dissolve the corporation and cease operations effective June 30, 2014. Members approved the recommendation on April 22, 2014.

According to UNPAC sources, the decision was taken with sadness, but with considerable pride in accomplishments, as well as the hope that new ideas and energies would emerge to continue UNPAC’s work.

Relevant Dates:

  • 1995-96: After a group of Manitoba women attend the Beijing UN Fourth World Conference on Women and parallel NGO Conference in September 1995, the United Nations Platform for Action Committee (UNPAC) is founded.
  • 2001: UNPAC receives a three-year grant from the Status of Women Canada (SWC), undertakes small projects through other grants and donations, and hires staff for the first time.
  • 2003: The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) recognizes that human rights comprise a lawful charitable object within the meaning of the Income Tax Act and applicable guidelines.
  • 2009: UNPAC initiates discussions about seeking charitable status to enlarge its pool of potential funders.
  • Fall 2010: UNPAC files an application for charitable status.
  • December 2010: The CRA responds that, among other things, UNPAC is “too political.” A date for an appeal of this decision is set for early February 2011. UNPAC is unable to meet the date for the appeal of CRA’s decision on charitable status and withdraws the application.
  • Late 2010 and early 2011: UNPAC staff and board members explore the possibility of developing a project to bridge the gap between the end date of one SWC project and the beginning of the next one.
  • February 2011: SWC announces a grant competition for up to $200,000 over two years for which UNPAC would be eligible. UNPAC applies for the grant.
  • March 22, 2011: UNWAC is awarded the SWC grant.
  • October 2011: SWC proposes that UNPAC, along with three other organizations, will participate in a project study called Roots/Routes. The planned project would provide funding until April 2015.
  • February 2012: UNPAC’s board re-considers and re-affirms its desire to pursue charitable status, holding meetings to discuss and implement changes to by-laws in accordance with CRA demands.
  • Summer 2012: The application for charitable status is submitted.
  • November 2012: The UNPAC board is told that the Roots/Routes proposal is “in the Minister’s office” and is promised a response by November 15.
  • November 15, 2012: A CRA “charities analyst” sends a letter regarding the application for charitable status, saying that UNPAC “could qualify for registration if it amends its purposes.” UNPAC has 60 days to make the changes or withdraw the application. The same week as the CRA letter arrives, the ED goes on medical leave, an acting ED begins, and holidays are around the corner. UNPAC’s board has already met in November, leaving only a December meeting for the members to consider these objectives. Further, a special meeting of the membership is required to change the bylaws.
  • January 15, 2013: UNPAC is informed that while the Roots/Routes project is to go ahead, UNPAC’s participation has not been approved. During this period, UNPAC responds to calls for proposals for two smaller grants; both are denied. UNPAC is without any funding other than its own reserves and its ED acts only on an interim basis. Also on this date, the UNPAC board meets and decides to withdraw the application for charitable status.
  • May 2013: A new ED begins mid-May, and a SWC grant application is submitted end of May and is later refused. Over the next several months, UNPAC pursues various potential avenues of funding.
  • November 2013: The board has to consider closing down, as funds will not last beyond June 2014.
  • March 25, 2014: At a board meeting, the ED announces her resignation. The board calls a Special Members Meeting, with a recommendation to dissolve the corporation and cease operations effective June 30, 2014.
  • April 22, 2014: UNPAC members approve the recommendation.
  • June 2014: UNPAC is forced to cease operations and the corporation is dissolved.

 


1The recommendations in the Platform for Action addressed twelve obstacles to women's advancement: poverty, education and training, health, violence, armed conflict, decision-making, institutional mechanisms, human rights, media, environment, the girl child, and the economy.

2Manitoba Politics and Government: Issues, Institutions, Traditions, by Paul G. Thomas and Curtis Brown (eds) (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2010) at 384.

3See Statistics Canada Cornerstones of Community: Highlights of the National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations (Minister of Industry, 2004) at 11.

4Laurent Dobuzinskis, David H. Laycock, Michael Howlett (eds), Policy Analysis in Canada: The State of the Art (University of Toronto Press, 2007) at 429; Susan D Phillips, "Policy Analysis and the Voluntary Sector: Evolving Policy Styles" chapter 20 in Dobuzinskis, Laycock, and Howlett, ibid. at 497.

 

Role or Position

Disenabling women’s and equality organizations

UNPAC was one of many other women’s organizations in Canada that lost its foothold to funding because of educational and advocacy work that promoted “equality,” even though human rights have been recognized as charitable by CRA since at least 2003.

UNPAC was a changemaker. And like many small women’s organizations with few staff and fewer resources, it was worn down by short-term demands that proved to be futile and that, in retrospect, had no realistic chance of succeeding against a federal government that appeared determined for women’s group like UNPAC to fail.

Mary Eberts is a leading Canadian constitutional scholar and architect of section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She is also a member of the Voices Steering committee and says that, “Women’s groups are among the oldest civil society groups working for social justice, and have made enormous contributions. Now, government is undermining them by funding cuts, audits, and other threats because government does not want to hear that women’s equality has not yet been achieved in this rich and privileged country, and has no appetite to do what is necessary to achieve women’s equality.”

“Many inequalities still need to be addressed,” UNPAC's co-chair Caryn Douglas said. “It is hoped that a vision of something new will emerge that is as responsive to the needs of women and girls in Manitoba as UNPAC strived to be - from grassroots to treetops!”

Implications and Consequences

Human Rights: UNPAC appears to be one of many women’s organizations that lost its funding and/or was refused charitable status because of its focus on “equality.” It is important to note that the Canada Revenue Agency has for many years acknowledged that human rights comprise a lawful charitable object within the meaning of the Income Tax Act and applicable guidelines, but appears not to have understood that equality forms part of human rights law in Canada or, indeed, under international human rights law.

Equality: The attempts by the Charities Directorate to reorient the bylaws of the organization appears to be part of a trend in recent years to politically target women’s equality and women’s rights groups. The voluntary sector has been weakened by diminishing its capacity to secure government contracts and grants, and denying or removing charitable status. Together, these two income sources comprise close to 60% of the income of nonprofit organizations in Canada.1 Similar trends are at work against other progressive organizations, including environmental organizations, groups working with new immigrants and refugees, and others that are documented in other cases on the Voices-Voix Documentation Project.

Democracy: The fostering of a “disenabling environment” for women’s organizations, equality seeking groups and other progressive organizations in Canada has been promoted through a range of tactics designed to diminish their financial viability, as noted earlier, and to refocus the efforts of equality seeking organizations towards economic development in other activities that are away from “activism.”


1Michael H. Hall et al., The Canadian Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector in Comparative Perspective (Toronto: Imagine Canada, 2005). Online: http://hrcouncil.ca/lsearch/docs/17.pdf [Hall et al. 2005] at 9.

 

Published: Oct. 29, 2014

Image: UNPAC

Sources