Fifty years after the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, which eventually led to the creation of the Office of the Coordinator, Status of Women, it’s time to ask what’s next for the department.
Established as a full ministry in 1976, Status of Women (SoW) has undergone revisions and tweaks over the decades, the most recent example being the Stephen Harper government’s decision to cut 40 percent of its funding and amend its mandate. Despite these changes, in its concept, the ministry has remained relatively stable since its creation. It is a policy advice body, it marks significant dates, and it manages a grants and contributions portfolio. Its budget is small for a ministry, at $15.8 million in operating expenses and $20.8 million for grants and contributions.
SoW funds about 50 to 80 organizations each year, with regional projects attracting $100,000 to $200,000 and national projects $1 million to $1.5 million over two to three years. The grants align with the current government’s and minister’s priorities, but within that broad scope they vary greatly. Under the previous government, there was a heavy concentration of grants to industry membership organizations, to encourage women’s participation in traditional employment sectors. Under the current government, there is more of a focus on education and service delivery to tackle gender-based violence. Changes made by the previous government ended advocacy grants, and although a significant advocacy organization, the Court Challenges Program, is now being re-established, SoW grants are still primarily given to non-advocacy projects.
There are three major flaws in SoW as it operates today: the unintended impacts of the funding program, the lack of policy levers that its minister can use, and the narrow mandate of the ministry.
First, three characteristics of the grants and contributions program — it is short-term, it requires specific deliverables, and it is unstable — contribute to systemic problems in the nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector.
Many NGOs, especially in social services, struggle for sustainability. Most organizations have piecemeal budgets made up of a small number of funding streams, usually from government. Donors’ preference for breadth rather than depth in their own portfolios when they give out grants means NGOs run on shoestring budgets. Staff turnover is high because funding is term-limited, pay is low and staff are laid off if a donor doesn’t refund a specific project. Consequently, staff tend to be recent graduates looking for experience and seeking to move on and up.
This model creates a cycle of low-paying, precarious, female-dominated service delivery work. Ironically, addressing such cycles is one of the goals of SoW. Each new government or even a new minister can change entirely the type of organizations receiving funding, so NGOs invest resources to scale up to deliver a grant, and two or three years later, the funding ceases. The program disappears, and the client base may be unable to find a replacement. In some cases, the organization itself has to close its doors. Few organizations have the financial latitude to invest in sustainability — by funding donor relations, external affairs or human resource expertise — and they’re rarely allowed to spend grant money on these critical functions. Rules on grant overheads are strict, and only 10 percent of the budget can be used to cover portions of rent, utilities and office supplies.
In addition to its role of making grants and contributions, SoW also provides policy advice. Ministers in the SoW portfolio actually have few policy or funding levers to pull themselves. The impact they can make by acting as advisers or advocates with cabinet colleagues very much depends on the government, the minister and the colleagues. In a government that places little priority on women or gender issues, it would be remarkably easy to marginalize the SoW minister and the portfolio.
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So how can governments make SoW’s policy advisory role more effective and less dependent on individual governments or ministers? It must start with acknowledging that “women’s issues” are people’s issues. Women don’t exist independent of the world and public life. Our issues cross-cut through government departments, and they are essential parts of delivering the mandates of every minister in government. In fact, most of the policy and funding solutions to “women’s issues” lie not in SoW but in other departments. Think about which bodies of government can address sexual assault in the military (Canadian Forces), training for judges (Department of Justice Canada), equal pay and child care (Employment and Social Development Canada) or the representation of women in science and technology (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada). Women’s issues are also intersectional. They intersect with race, gender identity, immigration status, family status and Indigenous status, for example.
It’s time to move past “women’s issues.” We are not a niche or an aberration. We are more than 50 percent of the population. A stand-alone ministry was a great success in 1976. Since then, there have been attempts to recognize other intersections and various sources of oppression by incorporating Indigenous women, the LGBT community and youth into the work of SoW. Yet we are at risk of adding every equity-seeking group, without increasing the space or budget of the organization. It is not progress for straight white men to maintain the space they own, while equity groups fight over the same funding envelope.
So how about moving to a Ministry for Equity? Not equality — equity. The minister would occupy a deputy prime ministerial position, with a threefold mandate:
- Coordinate a whole-of-government approach to equity. No minister should be able to make a decision without at least being aware of the impact on the bottom quintile, the most vulnerable or the marginalized. Just as gender-based analysis is catching on across government, an equity screen of every policy or funding decision would highlight unforeseen impacts and sensitize both ministers and public servants to equity issues.
- Act as minister responsible for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Canada is a signatory to these United Nations global goals. The successor to the UN’s Millennium Goals, the SDGs set the next ambitious goals for eliminating poverty and providing access to health care, gender equity, democracy and 13 other measures of development by 2030. Unlike the Millennium Goals, the SDGs apply to all countries. There are 17 goals, 169 targets and hundreds of indicators. They are meticulous and measurable, and equity underpins them. They are a ready-made system for tracking whether and how we are reaching those who are the hardest to reach. The minister would use the SDGs as guidance for a whole-of-government strategy on equity.
- Increase the vibrancy and sustainability of the nongovernmental sector. Moving slowly away from a broad granting approach, the minister would use his or her power and leverage to work with the NGO sector to help its organizations diversify their funding, identify and groom philanthropic partners, connect with like-minded organizations and increase their communications, external relations and donor relations work. Government should not merely be a passive donor but should work to shape the sector to which it donates. The short-sighted limit on overhead costs should be increased, to allow organizations to focus on sustainability, governance and human resources. Government should provide technical assistance and training for NGOs and should consider encouraging co-funding for projects. Co-funding is controversial because it could lead to some organizations losing government funding. Small NGOs may struggle to find the needed co-funding for a project, and this additional burden would need to be carefully considered. A shift away from a broad granting approach would need significant consultation to provide a full understanding of the impact on service delivery, clients and the sector.
Ultimately, these changes would increase the impact of the department and the NGO sector, regardless of who is the minister. They would help create an expanded, healthier, more sustainable civil society sector able to work with government on advancing equity, and they would set the work of achieving equity in Canada within a measurable, accountable global frame.
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