It was 20 years ago ...

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By Anne Rochon Ford

Why celebrate anniversaries anyway? Well, because it gives us an opportunity to acknowledge and honour the huge history of work, by many, that leads to what an organization has become. The past is particularly relevant in these hard times.

“Over the past three decades, more women have begun to speak openly about their bodies, sexuality, and experiences with the medical system. They identified experiences long ignored by health professionals—such as abuse and incest. They told about poor treatment during birthing, not knowing where to turn for help with addictions, abuse, or for information about sexuality, about being prescribed tranquillizers when they needed advice and support. The women’s movement gave many women the courage to begin to voice these concerns and demand that the health care system be more responsive to their needs.”
The Strength of Links: Building the Canadian Women’s Health Network, December 1994

1996 CWHN Coordinating Committee (front row): Robin Barnett, Margo Fauchon and Vuyiswa Keyi-Ayema; (back row) Madeline Boscoe, Marsha Forrest and Sari Tudiver.

The idea of a Canadian Women’s Health Network, in fact, goes back much further than 20 years. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the “women’s health movement” in Canada was punctuated by campaigns on key issues such as access to birth control and abortion, and awareness about the harmful effects of drugs such as Thalidomide, diethylstilbestrol (DES) and Depo-Provera. Childbirth practices such as routine sedation and shaving were called into question by the women experiencing them, and a return to the practices of midwifery was gaining momentum in some areas of the country. Many women drew attention to workplace settings that compromised their health and safety.

By 1980, a group of women from different parts of Canada formed a “Committee for a Canadian Women’s Health Network.” There was interest, but a pan-Canadian initiative would be costly, and it was difficult to maintain momentum in days before the Internet. With health having strong provincial/territorial jurisdiction in this country, many felt that it was more important to build local and regional networks, and the momentum for national work subsided.

Momentum picked up again (in 1982) when the Ottawa-based development agency, Inter Pares, convened a meeting of women’s health activists from across Canada to discuss possible collaborative initiatives. One idea that galvanized everyone was to create a play about women and pharmaceuticals. The Great Canadian Theatre Company was engaged to develop a play called Side Effects, based on women’s personal stories with medication in Canada and internationally. It toured many cities and towns in English Canada and after notable success, was translated into French and toured Québec. Healthsharing magazine, DES Action Canada, the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective and many other organizations were involved. The play spawned new organizations (such as Women’s Health Interaction in Ottawa and Manitoba), giving the movement and the discussion of a national women’s health network some needed fuel.

By the mid 1980s, some federal government departments recognized the need to support national initiatives and organizing around women’s health. The Secretary of State and the Department of Health and Welfare (now Health Canada) provided funds to enable planning meetings in Toronto and Montreal. Women struck a Coordinating Committee, discussed principles and goals and wrote proposals for funding. In 1989, Health and Welfare Canada approved funding for a three-year project, “Towards a Canadian Women’s Health Network.” A national survey of women’s groups and organizations demonstrated  that there was interest in building a network. Healthsharing magazine agreed to serve as sponsor of the project.

Six special regional issues of Healthsharing were produced, highlighting women’s health issues and activities across the country. Organizers also developed a database to identify groups and resources working on women’s health issues. Manitoba took on a key coordinating role in 1992 when Women’s Health Interaction Manitoba and the Women’s Health Clinic in Winnipeg agreed to host a national meeting with representatives from 60 women’s groups from across the country.

The anniversary-defining consultation took place in Winnipeg from May 21 to 24, 1993. and the Canadian Women’s Health Network was launched. Women from across Canada attended the consultation and drafted the mandate and goals of the network. They agreed to basic principles and included cross-Canada representation that was inclusive of women’s diversity. They established a Coordinating Committee and Working Groups and committed to continue working on the many issues discussed and challenges identified. 

The rest, as we say, is our collective history.

For more defining moments, and some of the challenges faced in maintaining a national women’s health network, watch this space for more stories and commentary. You can read more about the early days of the CWHN in The Strength of Links available on our website.

See the next installment: The Healthsharing Connection

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