The Prime Minister has gone to great lengths to reiterate that he is a feminist. Last year, I set out 10 ways Trudeau could fulfil this identity. Nearly a year later, it’s time to take stock and set new goals.
So on the feminist scorecard, how have Justin Trudeau and his government performed?
1. A gender lens for every policy and law
The promotion of gender-based analysis by the Minister for the Status of Women has been valuable. In a sense, Patty Hadju’s role is to convince colleagues that gender matters to their work. The proof will come at the end of all the reviews – will gender feature as a key component across government?
Good policy analysis takes time. Reviews are important. But what’s next? Going forward, each policy review should contain a gender element, and recommendations should be enacted. More importantly, Hadju can’t do it alone. Kicking any gender issue to Status of Women fundamentally missed the point. It minimizes a wide societal and human rights issue. It isn’t Hadju’s role to solve gender inequity. Gender is one of the fundamental cleavages that divides us. Rebalancing society cannot be only one department’s role.
2. The glass ceiling
The gender-balanced cabinet has sent subtle waves though government and beyond. It sets a standard. Anecdotally, a number of high-profile think tanks now gender-balance their panels, because they have ministers involved. Gender-balanced Orders in Council and judicial appointments are important.
Private-sector gender balance is still a problem. As a next step, the government should work with the World Economic Forum, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Women in Tech and other organizations to encourage, push and cajole the private sector to mentor women from diverse backgrounds and demand diverse voices at the table. Trade delegations and expert round tables should be gender balanced, especially on finance and the economy. Indirectly, the government has levers — as blunt as tax credits and as subtle as access to events and delegations — that could help set the private sector in the right direction.
3. Promote and listen to diverse voices
Many of the government’s policy consultations have included gender and racial balance, which will impact eventual recommendations. Still, government has a key role to play in pushing the private and charitable sectors to actively include diverse voices. Government does not have to be passive here, it can use tax credits, and sanctions and subtle culture shapers like refusing to appear on all-male, all-white panels. Government should join or create initiatives like Women Also Know Stuff, to promote and listen to diverse voices.
4. Tackle social and cultural factors that marginalize and endanger Indigenous women
There were positive funding steps in the last budget, including the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The real test will lie in the recommendations of this inquiry and whether they are enacted.
It’s likely the inquiry will highlight the systemic, societal subjugation of Indigenous women as a major cause of the violence they experience. Solutions might include the promotion of economic advancement, legal reform (inside and outside Indigenous law), improvements to Indigenous education, better police accountability, expanded addiction and mental health services, and a focus on sexual and reproductive health. If this sounds like basically everything, that’s intentional. The violence Indigenous women experience happens because of a multitude of entrenched societal factors. Measures we enact now may not bear fruit for another 10 years. But that’s good public policy.
5. Help for women of all ages
The lack of movement on child care has been disappointing. Child care and senior care are the double burden faced by the “sandwich generation.” Reforms to the child care benefit helped, especially removing eligibility from the highest earners, but there is much more to do.
Child care and child health are key to women’s economic emancipation. In many cities, child care is unaffordable. A national child care scheme, supported by the provinces, is a wise investment in women’s economic advancement as well as children’s’ health.
At the same time, the government should work with the provinces on a home care strategy. Drug access — a related area — is also a critical; the provinces and the federal government pay too much for medication. The way we purchase pharmaceuticals is often inefficient and wasteful. Savings here would help offset the cost of home care.
6. Domestic sexual and reproductive health care
Trudeau declared two years ago that MPs in his caucus must vote in favour of choice, but what’s happened since? Ensuring access to abortion services in PEI was no small feat, and it took personal leadership by Trudeau and Premier Brian Gallant to deliver it.
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Some money has been flowing to women’s groups, and the ban on federal support for advocacy activities has been lifted. But there is no new tranche of government funding specifically for women and girls or sexual and reproductive health. The painfully slow approval of the abortion pill, RU-486, has been compounded by needless restrictions that are preventing access for those who need it most.
If sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are a focus, where are the major policy and funding pieces to demonstrate them? This issue is a critical test for the government, one it is currently failing.
7. Global women’s health
Despite the fact the prime minister identified global reproductive rights and for women’s health care as a core component of development aid, there has been a lack of progress in this area.
Of course, speeches to the United Nations and declarations of feminism matter. It’s important not to understate the value of pushing what we may consider fairly safe boundaries. Even Canada’s emerging championing of family planning is proving controversial in diplomatic circles. However, if women and girls are to be a priority, domestically and internationally, we need to see the launching of large initiatives. We need to see a grand vision of Canada’s transformative role in gender equity. That means significant investment in budget 2017 and 2018, especially in Status of Women and Global Affairs Canada. The level of development assistance in Canada is at a record low level (0.28 percent of GNI).
Canada should announce at the G-7 in May 2017 that it intends to champion gender equity, particularly SRHR and the underserved needs of adolescent girls, in its 2018 G-7 leadership. Canada must build toward a major global moment in 2018 on women and girls’ rights and health, with a clear narrative and a financial package, and it should expect the same from other leaders.
Global funding for women’s health under the Conservative government’s Muskoka Initiative totalled $6.35 billion between 2010 and 2020, but it excluded sexual and reproductive health. The Liberal government needs to commit new funding. Family planning is a catalytic investment – the ability to control one’s fertility is essential to women’s emancipation, education, economic participation, health, democratic participation, and more. When women are able to decide when and how many kids they have, they take control of their lives. Contraception is the key to this, and 220 million women cannot access it.
Canada should first announce it will join FP2020, the global family planning initiative, and commit substantially to its work to extend contraception. Canada should also engage and fund the Ouagagdagou Partnership in francophone Africa.
8. Sexual violence
Much of the progress in combating sexual violence has been at the provincial level, particularly in Ontario with legal aid for survivors, bystander intervention training, and mandatory campus sexual violence policies. The gender-based violence consultations and the new advisory council led by Status of Women Canada look promising. Again, the proof will be in whether the Liberal government intends to enact and fund any of the recommendations that emerge from the consultation.
Status of Women Canada is poorly funded. If gender and gender-based violence is really a priority for this government, the government needs to prove it in its funding priorities, whether of Status of Women or spread across the various departments affected. The Department of Defence, for example, has already begun to address the endemic sexual violence in the Canadian Forces. It should be funded to continue this work. The government must build domestic and international gender-based violence strategies into its G-7 commitments next year.
There have been some sporadic funding announcements, but the proof will be in the pudding. Will the various policy reviews result in separate funding streams within departments for gender-based initiatives? In what way, in a budget that is, so far, rumoured to be about infrastructure, will women feature?
It’s important to not understate the normative impact of a proudly feminist prime minister. On the global stage, a male leader proclaiming his feminism is controversial. Many of Canada’s priorities on sexual and reproductive health will be fraught with tensions, and will need to be handled delicately by diplomats.
That being said, nearly a year in, we need to see concrete deliverables. The speeches are important, but they cannot be the sole piece. They must be part of a robust, well-communicated vision for Canada as a champion of gender equity. They must be accompanied by significant financial investment, and they must be embraced by departments across government. In these areas, feminist groups see little progress, and impatience is setting in.
Photo: Eduardo Lima / The Canadian Press
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