Canada's Feminists Tighten Ranks Top Activist Targets Sexual Discrimination, Poverty, Racism, and Violence against Women. INTERVIEW

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FLYING around Canada giving speeches and rallying women to the banner of equality, Judy Rebick is leading a feminist charge that has a lot of people mad at her.

But as president of the Toronto-based National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), the nation's largest women's group, Ms. Rebick says she cannot afford a thin skin.

That's good because NAC gets as well as it gives. In June, for example, NAC's first leader, who headed the group decades ago, denounced it for not being militant enough. Last month, however, some of its demands were called "shrill" and "strident" by a conservative columnist.

Caught in the crossfire, Ms. Rebick, who sports a quick smile and a faster retort, seems unaffected. Her group's agenda is too large for her to slow down and worry about such criticism. Combatting violence and discrimination toward women are top priorities along with fighting the "feminization of poverty," she says.

All three issues are crystallizing in Canada's public consciousness, she says, just as the 21-year-old Canadian women's movement has begun in the last two-to-five years to coalesce into a tighter, more cohesive political force. Society resists change

"Canadian society has been more resistant to change in a lot of ways than other Western societies, and as a result the women's movement has had to fight harder and therefore become stronger," Rebick says. "I think there is a strengthening of women fighting for their rights everywhere around the world. But I think the Canadian women's movement is fairly unusual in its strength."

Propelling NAC and the nation's women's movement, Rebick says, are shifts in Canada:

* The rise of the New Democratic Party, which has long supported many women's goals, and has lent legitimacy to many of them, including the push for a national day-care system.

* Laissez-faire economics embraced by the conservative government, and increasingly unpopular in Canada, are seen as the cause of many of the harsh economic problems facing women, especially minority women.

* Societal sensitivities, changing as Canada has become a more multicultural society, have meshed with women's concerns about discrimination and racism.

"The combination of all those things and our ability to organize brought a new credibility to the women's movement," Rebick says. "I think we saw that through the constitutional debate."

Lobbying the federal government on behalf of affiliated groups nationwide, NAC is not a group composed of individual members as is the National Organization of Women in the United States. NAC has built a web of affiliations with about 500 of the more than 2,500 women's groups in Canada.

Four million to 5 million women are active in the Canadian women's movement. Groups linked to NAC include 3 million women or more, says Jill Vickers, a professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Now in her third year as president of NAC, Rebick says the greater prominence women's views took during constitutional meetings in cities across Canada this year shows their growing influence. …