What Has Four Years Under a "Feminist" Government Done for Canadian Women?

Here’s what you need to know about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s track record with women before this fall’s federal election

Justin Trudeau against a red background
(Photo: Getty; Art: Joel Louzado)

The writ has dropped and it’s go-time on another federal election. That’s right: Four years have already passed since the Liberals made a surprise sweep to power in the federal election, achieving a majority rule—and trotting out a gender-balanced cabinet, to boot. On October 21, Canadians will decide whether they’d like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to keep being PM or if it’s time to put someone else in power. It also means this election will be a referendum on Canada’s first self-declared feminist government.

The F-word handle has afforded Canada a ton of global attention (the variations on “Trudeau is hot” memes were truly endless), and the Liberals LOVE talking about feminism. But is life actually better for women now than it was back in 2015? Here’s your primer on everything you need to know before doing your civic duty. 

Are Canadian women safer?

In June 2017, the government announced its strategy to prevent and address gender-based violence. The Liberals have been listening to key experts that work with women first-hand to try to keep them safe, and did that by way of an advisory council to help ensure their strategy would actually work. There have been more women appointed judges under Trudeau, which can make a crucial difference in the outcome of sexual assault cases. And making the status of women agency a full-fledged ministry—renaming it the Department for Women and Gender Equality—increased its relatively paltry budget in a way that would start to push real money in the direction of organizations and projects focused on ending gender inequality. This is especially significant after the Conservatives under Stephen Harper shuttered offices for the status of women across the country and significantly defunded that portfolio, says Katherine Scott, a senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and director of the Making Women Count project.

“After a decade in the wilderness with nothing…certainly on the violence file, you have an influx in funding that’s helping to get critical projects off the ground,” says Scott. “But it falls short of a national action plan that would require a coordinated approach.” To make a real impact, she says, there needs to be much more participation and buy-in from the provinces and from municipalities, where things like healthcare, education and policing are controlled. A coordinated action plan, like the one suggested in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry conclusions would go far further, Scott says (more on MMIWG later), but a federal strategy does at least show leadership that will hopefully trickle down to the provincial and municipal levels. For example, there have been more provinces offering paid leave to those fleeing domestic violence since the Liberals changed the labour code recently to give survivors 15 days of time off, 10 of them paid. That doesn’t smooth over the patchwork of legislation across Canada for this type of leave, but giving the time to federally regulated workers should help encourage private sector businesses and unions to follow suit.

Are Canadian women making more money?

It depends on whether they’re one of the lucky ones who got some of the new jobs created in Canada over the past four years, or benefited from some new tax credits that help alleviate the cost of having a child. But pay equity promises haven’t led to action just yet, and life is still super pricey in Canada’s biggest cities.

Cost of living will likely be at the forefront of the federal election and while the 2019 Mercer Cost of Living Survey found Canada’s most expensive cities—Toronto and Vancouver—are getting a tiny bit more affordable relative to others around the world (and Canada’s joblessness rate has dropped to the lowest its been in 43 years), it sure doesn’t feel that way. According to a new report from the CCPA, there is no neighbourhood in the Greater Toronto Area or Metro Vancouver area where a full-time minimum wage worker could afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment without blowing at least 30% of their earnings. The Liberals’ 2019 budget did introduce measures to make it easier to buy a home—first-time buyers would have the chance to share the cost of their first abode with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. But, of course, housing prices are still on the rise, meaning home ownership is still wildly out of reach for 1.9 million Canadian women living in poverty and young professionals—the majority of university grads are still women—who are trying to build a life after graduation.

The Liberals have also put an end to the income-splitting tax break of the previous government, which was seen as a sexist policy that largely benefited men while raising taxes on women. Cancelling it has put more money into women’s pockets at the end of the day, says David Macdonald, senior economist at the CCPA. But the government could do more to close a lot of tax loopholes that directly benefit men, he adds.

The Canada child benefitwhich funnels more help towards lower income families with kids—has also been important for women, Macdonald says, because the cheque is typically made out to the mother. 

While these changes have helped lower-income Canadians with the cost of raising a family, the government has ultimately raised taxes on middle class Canadians, says Paige MacPherson, the Atlantic director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. She argues that income-splitting actually helped women because it ensured more flexibility—taking that away has penalized both breadwinner women and those who rely on a male partner’s income. “For women in particular, policies that allow for flexibility are key,” she says.

The government has also introduced “historic” pay equity legislation, which aims to close the gender gap. (Canadian women still typically make 31% less than men.) But they only have power over the federal workforce, and the plan itself doesn’t go far enough, says Scott: “We needed pay equity legislation that sets the bar and we didn’t get that.” This is because the act includes a caveat about balancing “the diverse needs of employers”—a clause Scott says is “unprecedented in any other Canadian human rights legislation and actively subverts the legislation’s stated intent.” A 2004 report on pay equity offered a blueprint for the federal government, and Canada is home to some of the world’s best experts on this issue. And yet, she says, it didn’t seem to be reflected in the legislation. “We’re still waiting for the pay transparency regulation, too,” says Scott. Pay transparency is an important accountability tool that ensures workers have the right to information about pay based on gender and position. “The other shoe hasn’t dropped.”

On a hopeful note, the government now applies a gender lens on its federal budget and on policy work, which means they’re weighing how policies impact women differently from men. For example, it meant more money towards training women in the trades in the last federal budget. “If the government is actually analyzing what spending choices would help women, it really makes a difference,” says Lauren Ravon, director of policy and campaigns at Oxfam Canada, which put out a report on childcare this year and has published three annual Feminist Scorecards assessing the Trudeau government’s performance on women’s issues.

Is it easier for Canadian women to have children (and also a career)?

The federal Liberals have definitely made some strides in this area, but an actual childcare plan would be a game-changer. The Trudeau government is big on trying to get more women in the workforce and make life more equitable at home—that is, seeing more men take on the feminist value of being a more involved caregiver. To the latter point, in 2017 they extended maternity leave from a year to 18 months. However, should a family want to take that extra six months, they won’t get any extra money from the government, the same amount will simply be spread over the 18 months. Then, in 2018, the Liberals added a “use-it-or-lose-it” bonus of five to eight weeks of paid leave for the family’s second caregiver—which in hetero couples would usually be dad—if both parents take some leave. While it may encourage more men to spend some time at home with baby, it doesn’t make financial sense for most families unless the mother makes more money than the secondary caregiver does, meaning it won’t actually help get more women back to work.

In 2017, the federal government allocated $7 billion over 10 years to the provinces for childcare, but there is still no national affordable childcare program in sight—a move feminists say would really help get women back to work. “When Quebec implemented a low-fee subsidized program, the level of poverty went down and the level of women’s employment went up. It had a big boost in Quebec GDP,” says Ravon. Federal changes to the structure of childcare funding—or a national childcare plan—could go a long way to shifting the view of childcare from a cost on society to an investment in the future, she says. 

Has Canada made strides on climate change? 

Climate change is poised to be one of the major issues in this fall’s election—a recent Abacus Data poll found 82% of Canadians consider it a serious problem. “While we may not always think of climate change as a feminist issue, for women on the front lines of defending their lands and natural resources around them, this is a women’s rights issue,” says Ravon. In Canada, the women on the front lines are disproportionately Indigenous—and many of them were disappointed to see the federal government push ahead with the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which is also now partly owned by taxpayers.

“We have to look at the exclusion of Indigenous leaders in some climate change meetings,” says Gail Paul, interim president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada—a problem that was somewhat rectified when NWAC was invited in 2018 to take part in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Indigenous women are the protectors of the Earth—“our first mother”—and of water, she says, so it’s important to have their voices at the table.

Canada has at very least declared a climate emergency and is moving forward with actions on climate—but they’re extremely polarizing. The government has also introduced a carbon tax to pay for the fight against climate change—and a rebate for Canadians who are making efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. But some, like MacPherson think it negatively affects women. “Women do a lot of driving kids to school and daycare, and [the tax] makes it particularly expensive to self-employed entrepreneur women,” she says.

Regardless, Canada is failing to meet its Paris Agreement targets to reduce emissions. And, this spring, Canada’s Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand said Canada is not doing enough to combat climate change. A recent report from Environment and Climate Change Canada said the country is warming up twice as quickly as the rest of the world—creating “irreversible” damage. 

What has Canada done for women’s rights?

The Liberals have been vocally pro-choice, despite there still being barriers to abortion access for rural, Indigenous and Atlantic Canadians. They’ve also given serious money to cash-starved women’s rights organizations in Canada, which had been disqualified for funding under the Harper government if they did any advocacy work. The strengthening of these organizations is “something you can see in your community,” Ravon says.

The Canadian government has also shown strong leadership promoting women’s rights globally, and given real cash that puts other Western nations to shame. When Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States, he quickly reinstated what’s known as the Global Gag Rule—a policy that bars non-governmental organizations from getting U.S. funding if they do so much as even provide information about abortion to women in developing countries. It has meant that key non-profits like International Planned Parenthood Federation have lost crucial support. Marie Stopes International estimates it’s caused an $80 million funding gap that will lead to more than 2.5 million unplanned pregnancies and 870,000 unsafe abortions, the United Nations Foundation reports. Just after Trump’s inauguration, the Trudeau government announced $650 million for sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide, which would help make up for that missing cash from America. Then, this June, the PM pledged an increase in reproductive rights funding to $1.4 billion a year, starting in 2023 (just in time for another election, if the Liberals are re-elected this fall).

Oxfam Canada’s Feminist Scorecard has also consistently given Trudeau high marks for representation—sending a strong feminist message to the world. Yes, it’s part of his branding, but it has positioned Canada globally as a country that will stand up for women’s rights, Ravon says—and that matters. Canada convened the very first G7 Gender Equality council last year, which, she says, “sends a signal to the world and to our global counterparts this is not only important for internal matters but that women’s rights are a priority to the world.” (The council continued its work in Biarritz, France this summer).

The gender-balanced cabinet may have been given some hard side-eye for pandering to quotas, but it has also given rise to some seriously high performers on the world stage. Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland not only deftly handled NAFTA negotiations with Trump, but she also stood firm in drawing attention to women’s rights activists detained in Saudi Arabian prisons, says feminist Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (They are, however, still languishing in jail, she points out, and it didn’t necessarily help Saudi-Canadian diplomatic relations.)

Finally, Trudeau’s discussion with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence about America “backsliding” on women’s rights by introducing anti-abortion laws was met with mixed reviews. The PM’s feminist branding has done so much to lift up women’s rights, but it’s also turned people off because of its “smugness,” Renzetti says. “It’s a bit of a patronizing, paternalistic attitude that we know what’s best, we’re going to show you the path to righteousness. And I think that rankles with a lot of people.” 

What about Indigenous women’s rights?

The Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry was widely considered an organizational mess, mired with many staff departures. But in June, Chief Commissioner Marion Buller did emerge with 231 very good recommendations for arriving at justice on a painful reality here in Canada—and Trudeau did “accept” the report’s finding that Canada has carried out a genocide on Indigenous peoples. The inquiry was “a huge job, and they pulled it off,” says NWAC’s Paul. “The results of the inquiry show that we’re seeking justice and we’re going to move forward and try to implement justice for Indigenous women.” The Trudeau government promised a thorough review of the report’s recommendations and an action plan to follow.

In February, the feds signed an accord with NWAC promising a greater role for Indigenous women in policy development across government and Indigenous women got a huge equality win this summer when Crown-Indigenous Relations minister Carolyn Bennett pushed through the last provisions of Bill S-3, reinstating the lost First Nations status of women who married non-Indigenous men. “It’s success for Indigenous women and their families, but there are still inequities that exist,” Paul says. The Indian Act needs reform to maintain the good parts that ensure Indigenous peoples’ rights, Paul says, but get rid of the parts that are products of colonization. Indigenous women are having more babies than non-Indigenous Canadian women, and they desperately need better healthcare, clean drinking water and on-reserve schools. The Trudeau government has also been subject to a number of non-compliance orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, for failing to give compensation to Indigenous kids harmed by the child welfare system (which disproportionately takes Indigenous children into care, an after-effect of residential schools, therefore affecting these childrens’ mothers).

How about Trudeau’s treatment of women in his caucus?

This government had a major hit to its reputation this spring when the SNC-Lavalin scandal hit, forcing the resignation of key gender-balanced cabinet member Jody Wilson-Raybould as well as former health, Indigenous services and treasury board secretary Jane Philpott. (This summer, the ethics commissioner found Trudeau breached Section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act when he pressured Wilson-Raybould, in her role as Attorney General, to help the Quebec-based company avoid a criminal trial.) “If you, especially as a man, present yourself as a groundbreaking feminist who frankly courts the world’s press because of your feminist bona fides and how great you are to women of your country…I think he did set himself up a bit for this,” Renzetti says.

Trashing the 2015 campaign promise to enact electoral reform was another “betrayal” by a feminist government, Renzetti adds, because changing our electoral system to one of proportional representation (versus our current one, which is something called “first-past-the-post”) encourages more marginal candidates, including women, to run—and actually helps them win. Trudeau abandoned this promise in early 2017, leaving young rookie female cabinet ministers Maryam Monsef and Karina Gould to handle fall-out from that decision.

What does it all add up to for women?

This has not been a perfect past four years for women, but having a feminist government that has (mostly) put substance behind the branding and has shown that it cares about women through policy, has mattered to progressive women voters. “We haven’t seen this much progress in recent memory,” says Ravon. “It’s not just rhetoric.”

MacPherson, on the other hand, sees Trudeau’s government as being more restrictive on women. “The PM and the Liberals have talked a big game about making life better for women in Canada, but ultimately many of their policies have made life probably more difficult for families or working Canadians, because they mean a lessening of flexibility.”

Renzetti believes this government has not just been talk—it is more feminist than it was in 2015 when it first trotted out the gender-balanced cabinet. “Maybe it’s not a feminist utopia, but we’re way luckier than women in a lot of other countries,” Renzetti says. “That is not down to [only] Trudeau—it’s down to the work of all of the women and feminists who have laid this infrastructure for decades to make life better for all of us.”

Related:

Why I Turned My Back on Justin Trudeau During Daughters of the Vote
Justin Trudeau Addressed Those Sexual Misconduct Allegations—But We’re Not Buying His Response
What You Need To Know About SNC-Lavalin And Jody Wilson-Raybould

 

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