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Sea change for gender equity in Canada: great smoke, how much fire?

Justin Trudeau has pledged to open a national inquiry into the staggering rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls. What are the prospects for broader gender equity in Canadian society?

Kristen McNeill Molly Churchill
23 November 2015

Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has been making waves in the news for more than his looks. He appointed Canada’s first-ever gender-balanced Cabinet, and his response to a reporter’s question about why he had chosen to do so – “Because it’s 2015” – has gone viral. Trudeau proclaims himself “proud to be a feminist,” is resolutely pro-choice, and led an electoral platform that included several components of particular relevance to gender equity. It is about time for Canada to take action. Just this year, the UN Human Rights Committee singled out issues of gender equality and violence against women as areas of critical concern in the country.

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Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Photo: flickr

The Trudeau government has committed to including “meaningful gender-based analysis in Cabinet decision-making.” A number of concrete policy proposals target work and caregiving – such as providing more flexibility in federal parental benefits, facilitating formal requests for flexible working conditions for federally regulated workers, expanding benefits for adults providing unpaid care for a seriously ill family member, facilitating the hiring of non-family caregivers, and providing a modest tax benefit for teachers and early childhood educators – thereby improving policies that disproportionately affect female workers and highly feminized professions. Trudeau has promised to take steps towards building a national framework on early learning and childcare within 100 days of taking office. His platform on international development affirms that the Liberals will cover a “full range of reproductive health services” as part of the Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Initiative – which is code for a reversal of the prior Conservative government’s ideology-driven policy of refusing to fund organizations that discuss abortion, and underfunding contraceptive services. Trudeau has promised to end the ban on blood donations for men who have sex with men, to recognize “trans* rights as human rights,” and to include gender identity as a prohibited ground for discrimination in core legislation.

Around gender-based violence, Trudeau has promised more support for survivors and more prosecution of perpetrators, as well as a comprehensive federal gender violence strategy and action plan. The issue of violence is particularly salient for indigenous women and girls in Canada, who are four times more likely to disappear or be murdered than other Canadian women. Canada has been harshly criticized by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and others for its persistent failure to address violence against Indigenous women, over 1,100 of whom have been murdered or gone missing in the last three decades. While his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, characterized the issue as not “high on our radar” and persistently refused calls to launch an inquiry into the issue, Trudeau pledged to launch an “immediate” inquiry upon taking office, and the newly appointed Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, said the government plans to start pre-inquiry consultations “within the next couple of weeks.” Another potentially significant Cabinet appointment is lawyer Jody Wilson-Raybould, a member of We Wai Kai Nation, as Minister of Justice.

These are all promising signs. But even a well-designed and well-executed national inquiry is only one step of many needed to address the staggering rates of violence against Indigenous women in Canada, and to make the country a place where all women can live in safety. High rates of victimization speak to profound systemic inequities. Indigenous women in Canada are disproportionately likely to experience risk factors for violence compared to non-Indigenous women: they are twice as likely to be living in poverty, twice as likely to be unemployed, and four to ten times more likely to be living in crowded housing. Violence against Indigenous women does not come only from members of the public – systematic police abuse of Indigenous women has been documented in the province of British Columbia, and recently come to light in the province of Quebec. At its root, the disproportionate risk faced by Indigenous women is tied to the persistence of colonial patterns and attitudes that continue to shape both official government policy and broader societal racism towards Indigenous peoples. The traumas of cultural genocide, a term used both by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, combined with persistent underfunding and gaps in public services for Indigenous peoples – from health, to child welfare, to education, to housing and infrastructure, and beyond – compound the gender-based structural inequities that all women experience.

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February 14th Strawberry Ceremony for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirit. Photo: Peter Kernaghan

Promising elements of Trudeau’s campaign platform include increased funding to the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy; explicit mention of including First Nations in the development of a National Early Learning and Child Care Framework; a commitment to lift the two-per-cent cap on funding for on-reserve First Nations programmes, which has been shown to lead to inequitable results; and increased investments in First Nations education. But most of these initiatives focus on on-reserve populations, while more than half of the Indigenous population lives in urban centres. Issues of poverty, housing inadequacy, and violence are real for Indigenous women off-reserve, too. Nothing in Trudeau’s platform on fighting poverty or increasing affordable housing, for example, acknowledges the over-representation of Indigenous women among the population in need of such policies.

A potential game-changer is Trudeau’s commitment to “immediately re-engage in a renewed nation-to-nation process with Indigenous Peoples” to address core concerns such as housing, infrastructure, health care, community safety and policing, child welfare, and education, and to work with Indigenous peoples to enact the 94 Calls to Action issued recently by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These are hefty promises to make, and signal a complete 180 degree shift from the prior position of Canada’s government. Key to pursuing these promises in a gender-sensitive manner will be ensuring that Indigenous women are not excluded from processes and discussions about decisions that affect them, as they were from constitutional amendment discussions in the early 1990s. It remains to be seen whether the Trudeau government really understands what it means to act on the issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

A similar question can be raised on a broader scale as well – does the Trudeau administration truly understand what it would take to advance gender equity in Canadian society? We may have reason to worry. A failure to recognize the systemic and structural foundations of gender inequity in Canada runs through the Liberal platform. Plans for fighting poverty and stimulating growth make no mention of the barriers faced by women, and especially minoritized, marginalized, and Indigenous women, in entering the workforce and getting and retaining high-quality jobs – despite the fact that 13.3% of Canadian women and 30% of Indigenous women live in poverty. Addressing the gender wage gap is never mentioned – a gap that is double the global average and places Canada 30th out of 34 OECD countries on gender pay disparities. The Liberal platform takes great strides in recognizing the dual burden often borne by women in the workplace – but what about the root causes of this gap? The postsecondary education plan includes no mention of greater female representation in STEM fields, or greater male representation in traditionally feminized fields.

The Trudeau government faces the additional challenge of reversing the retrogression in women’s rights that occurred under the previous Conservative regime. For example, funding to the governmental body Status of Women Canada was cut by almost 40%, 12 of 16 regional offices were closed, and the word “equality” was eliminated from its mandate. In 2006, the Conservative government also stopped providing funding to women’s groups doing advocacy, government lobbying, or research – the main pathways to achieving systemic change. These issues must be addressed immediately to open space for the action and advocacy of women’s rights groups that are crucial inputs for transformative change.

The Canadian public, and gender equity advocates the world over, must stay vigilant to ensure that over the course of Trudeau’s mandate there is real fire under all of the sweet-smelling smoke – that this government will question and transform the conditions that feminize certain professions, that place a heavier burden of caregiving on women than on men, that place women - especially Indigenous women - at risk of sexual and domestic violence in the first place. Much remains to be done, but Trudeau has shown himself to be a politician unafraid to take controversial steps, and he has surrounded himself with high-quality Ministers of all genders. The signs are hopeful - but we won’t check gender equity off our bucket list just yet.

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