Tax on Tampons: Is It Time to Pull the Plug?

We speak with Jill Piebiak, who’s leading a petition to make feminine hygiene products—considered non-essential by the Canadian government—exempt from GST


Do you consider these luxury items? The Government of Canada does, making them subject to goods and services tax (Photo: iStock)

If a group of Toronto and Montreal women have their way, paying GST on feminine hygiene products could become a thing of a past in Canada. The Canadian Menstruators’ No Tax on Tampons campaign, led by 28-year-old Jill Piebiak, aims to have the items—considered non-essential or a luxury by the Government of Canada—deemed essential and therefore exempt from GST. (They are exempt from PST in B.C., Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia.)

“These are products that we need to live a productive public life,” says Piebiak, a former student at Concordia University in Montreal who hails from Alberta and now lives in Toronto. Inspired by Bill C-282, An Act to amend the Excise Tax Act (feminine hygiene products), which which was introduced by Ontario MP Irene Mathyssen in 2013, Piebiak and co. created the No Tax on Tampons petition on this past January. In less than a month, the group had reached their goal of 50,000 signatures (there are currently 54,774 and counting), and now—since Parliament doesn’t table online petitions—they’re calling for supporters to sign hard copies.

Piebiak talks to about why taxing tampons is unfair, what can be done about it, and where the government might be able to recoup the tax funds should feminine hygiene products become exempt from GST.

How long had you been thinking about the No Tax on Tampons petition before you launched it? What prompted you to take action?
I’d probably been thinking about it for a year, if not longer. A lot of my colleagues at Concordia and friends and I had been talking about it on and off. Around September of last year we decided to launch it on the day that Parliament went back into session. As we did more research we realized that there’d been a private member’s bill that had not been passed, and that similar petitions in the U.K. and Australia had gotten a lot of press. That helped us set our goals and figure out how we’d frame the petition.

Have you ever seen an adequate explanation for why tampons, pads, etc. are taxed as luxury items?
No. I really think that it’s the result of a broad oversight by the government; that it’s not a priority.

Has your petition gotten any political support? Has anyone reached out?
No MPs have reached out to me yet. At the beginning we talked a lot to Irene Mathyssen’s team as well as [Manitoba MP] Niki Ashton, the former status of women critic, and after her position changed in January we started exchanging with Mylène Freeman’s team, and they’ve been supportive the whole time. We’re starting to make better connections now with some other folks; that’s kind of our focus now.

Have you had any opposition to your petition?
As with any content produced by women online, there tends to be trolls, but the negative reactions have been very few in comparison with the number of supporters. The typical negative reaction is a question like, “Well, are tampons any more essential than a product like toothpaste or toilet paper?”

Spoken like someone who’s never had a period. I could go to work without brushing my teeth but I couldn’t go to work with my period and no protection…
It’s a really unfair thing to say because this is a tax that only affects half the population. It’s gender-based. I’m not able to take on the whole tax code and tell the government what is essential and what is not, and get into all of those other products. There’s room for that conversation for all people living in poverty, but when it comes down to it there’s no other product that is taxed in such a gendered way.

I’ve never actually thought about paying tax on feminine hygiene products before. There are probably a lot of women like me who’ve just unconsciously accepted the tax and are now questioning it.
I think that’s potentially why the private member’s bill failed—there hasn’t been enough media coverage, enough rallying up, enough awareness. One of our goals was to get people talking about this tax and about women in Canada and the financial barriers they face, and I think we’ve been pretty successful. Some exciting things have been happening in Canada: there’s been a huge feminine hygiene fundraising drive in Winnipeg, and there’s a party in Peterborough, Ont., that’s planning a similar initiative.

The tax is a pretty significant source of revenue—an estimated $36 million a year. Are you concerned about losing that money?
I’m no tax expert so I can’t say if that’s significant or not. But Irene Mathyssen was asked how she would make up the difference, and she suggested taxing wedding cakes [which, as long as they are edible, are not currently subject to GST]. I totally agree with that.

Related: How One Tampon Mention on Twitter Started a Bloody War