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“Women’s Issues,” Really? 4 Takeaways From Up for Debate

Four of the five federal leaders (ahem, no-show Stephen Harper) shared their position on "women's issues" on Monday. Here's what you need to know

up for debateJustifiably outraged by the fact that during an election year not one of the candidates—save the Green Party’s Elizabeth May—sought to engage in a public debate around so-called women’s issues, feminists took action. They created Up for Debate, a panel discussion that centered on issues that directly pertain to the health and welfare of Canadian women.

The night of debate, which took place at the Isabel Bader Theatre at the University of Toronto, saw four of the five candidates conduct taped interviews (see the videos here) with journalist Francine Pelletier, which were then debated by a panel of activists, intellectuals, feminists and professionals. None of the candidates made a personal appearance, sadly—mental note: PM Stephen Harper didn’t deign to participate—but their statements did provide ample fodder for an interesting conversation about what the future might look like in a political landscape that values and endorses gender equality.

Here are four takeaways that may help you when it comes time to cast your vote on October 19.

up for debate

Trudeau, Mulcair, Duceppe and May (Photo: Maclean’s)

It might be time to retire the phrase “women’s issues.”
As the evening’s moderator, Maclean’s writer Laura Payton suggested, the phrase “women’s issues” feels a tad “dated.” Gender equality, zero tolerance for sexual violence, pay equity, health care, an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, universal day care—these aren’t just issues that concern women; they are the necessary concerns of a just and equal society. To continue to marginalize them as special interests is not just a disservice to more than half of the population; it’s an injustice.

Violence against women is an urgent problem
Violence against women costs the Canadian government an estimated $12 billion a year, said panelist Kate McInturff of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. That’s almost equivalent to the burden smoking places on the Canadian health care system, she added. It’s a potent analogy. Consistent and provocative No Smoking campaigns have been successful in curbing smoking in public places and have shifted the culture’s view of the once accepted social norm. One can only hope that a similarly vigorous national strategy for reducing violence against women—particularly indigenous women who are the most vulnerable to harm–could be as powerful.

Canadians debate better
Sure, our politicians aren’t ideal and they are as wont to indulge in the kind of doublespeak that drives conscientious voters crazy. But they’re not afraid to get controversial and some of them even speak their mind. Standouts of the evening were the Green Party’s Elizabeth May and Bloc Quebecois’s Gilles Duceppe. In her video answers, May truly told it like she sees it and appeared entirely unafraid to take on what she dubs a “patriarchal” society and testosterone-soaked political culture. Duceppe, too, wasn’t afraid to delve into controversial waters either, citing religion as one of the primary engines of systemic misogyny. Even more startling: both Mulcair and Trudeau publicly declared themselves feminists. You’ve got to feel good about a political culture that actually gets political rather than turns into a media circus starring Donald Trump (see the recent Republican national debate).

More women in the halls of power is good for everyone
Mulcair, Trudeau and May all endorsed equal representation in the House of Commons in one way or another with Mulcair and May suggesting that it should even be federally mandated. And after listening to the female panelists and May speak, it’s hard not to think that one of the solutions to breaking the chain of marginalization and entrenched sexism is to govern it out of existence. That’s not the only option, however. As one panelist pointed out, it’s not just female MPs who can and should bring issues surrounding gender equality to the political forefront; it’s female voters too. Our power—psst, women vote more than men—lies in action. It’s a shame to waste that power on someone who doesn’t take us seriously, don’t you think?

Related:
From Chatelaine: The Federal Leaders Tackle Women’s Issues in a Q&A Series
From Maclean’s: Here are the Issues Canadians Care About Most this Election