It’s 2015: Women’s Issues are Everybody’s Issues

Adryan Bergstrom-Borins

On November 4th, 2015, Justin Trudeau was sworn in as Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister, replacing Stephen Harper after a decade of Conservative rule. Elected after running on a progressive platform and a guarantee of “Real Change”, the Liberal Party has promised an extensive set of changes – many that will attempt to tackle specific gender-based issues. Most prominently, Prime Minister Trudeau has guaranteed gender parity in his Cabinet selection, while promising to: call an immediate inquiry into the approximately 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women; institutionalize trans* rights by adding gender identity as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act; create and implement a federal gender violence strategy and action plan; end the MSM (men who have sex with men) blood ban; ensure the consideration of the gendered impacts of public policies; research alternative voting methods, such as proportional representation; and increase spending in key social policy areas, such as the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

Thus far, Prime Minister Trudeau has made good on his promise to achieve gender parity in the federal Cabinet, selecting 15 men and 15 women to be a part of Canada’s “first gender-balanced ministerial team.” When asked why he decided to ensure that half of Cabinet members were women, he stated simply, “because it’s 2015.” Prime Minister Trudeau could not be more correct in this sentiment. While some will argue that having a gender quota is in opposition to the notion that the Cabinet selection process is a meritocracy, we need to be skeptical about what this criticism entails. First, it assumes that there are not enough capable female MPs to fill Ministerial roles, and that they are merely receiving appointments because of their gender. This assumption is far from true, as there were more than enough capable women to fill 15 cabinet positions. For example, the new Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould has extensive experience as a provincial crown prosecutor in Vancouver, as an advisor at the BC Treaty Commission, and as Regional Chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations. In fact, several talented women were unable to gain a seat in the Cabinet. One notable example is Vancouver-Quadra MP Joyce Murray, the runner up in the 2013 Liberal Party Leadership Race and previous Environment Minister for the B.C. Legislature, whose leadership bid was backed by David Suzuki due to her “coherent vision for Canada as a sustainable society.”

Second, Cabinet appointments have historically been based on more than just merit, as they must account for regional representation, population representation, the role the individual plays in the party, and their political capital, among other factors. Women have experienced and continue to face marginalization in Canadian society, particularly in politics – an area inherently viewed as a being male-dominated. It is well past the time that gender is treated as a factor with the same importance as the other considerations listed above when selecting Cabinet Ministers.

Yet, we need to be cautious in the excitement surrounding Prime Minister Trudeau’s selections, as the majority of the appointments were economically privileged, cisgender Caucasian men and women. There were only two women of colour, the Hon. Maryam Monsef and the Hon. Bardish Chagger, and one Indigenous woman, the Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould, appointed to the federal Cabinet. Several promising women of colour MPs were sadly overlooked including Celina Caesar-Chavannes from Whitby (a successful entrepreneur, member of the Congress of Black Women, and recipient of the Toronto Board of Trade’s Business Entrepreneur award in 2012) and Salma Zahid from Scarborough Centre (a senior advisor of the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade and recipient of the Diamond Jubilee Medal for Meritorious Community Service). Further, while Prime Minister Trudeau has ensured gender parity in terms of ministerial appointments, only three of the ten Cabinet Committees are chaired by women, and only two committees have more female than male members. As a lot of policy development occurs in cabinet committees, it is concerning that female Ministers are under-represented within them.

As journalist Denise Balkissoon remarked, having a diverse set of decision-makers tends to create better organizational morale, lower turnover rates, and greater profits in a business context. However, as Balkissoon argues, this search for “diversity” often stops at women – usually white women – as they are easily identifiable and allow recruiters to check off the diversity box. While increasing the diversity of people involved within the elite political realm does not mean we need to create an “oppression Olympics”, we do need to make a conscious effort to ensure there is diversity amongst decision-makers that goes beyond gender parity (a policy that often ends up privileging primarily white women). This would mean creating more opportunities for women of marginalized intersectional identities (those facing discrimination based on gender identity and either race, class, Indigenous background, sexual orientation, ability, etc.) to gain access to positions of power.

The Liberal Party and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have promised to ensure that “gender impacts” will be taken into account when creating public policies. However, some of Trudeau’s actions as an opposition leader have compromised his integrity on this issue. In 2013, Justin Trudeau was accused of sexism by New Democrat MP Niki Ashton, who claimed that Trudeau’s “Ladies Night” – where, for $250, women had the opportunity to meet Trudeau and discuss their “favourite virtue” – was “condescending and patronizing.” In the House of Commons, Ashton strongly asserted that “…it’s 2013. All issues are women’s issues.” In the lead up to the 2015 election, the Liberal Party reiterated MP Ashton’s statement in response to a questionnaire sent by the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, stating “it’s 2015, and it is time the federal government recognize that women’s issues are everybody’s issues.”

In addition, during the campaign, Trudeau’s performance in the Up For Debate interview on women’s issues was concerning, with several people “calling him out” for making uninformed comments about the root causes of violence against women (such as the accessibility of porn) and perpetuating racist stereotypes (such as blaming women’s inequality and violence against women on certain types of music and shifting parental roles and absentee fathers). These two instances illustrate that he has yet to develop a deeper understanding of the issues facing women, particularly from an intersectional framework that recognizes the multiple and overlapping oppressions people face.

However, rather than merely chastising Trudeau we need to “call him in.” The Canadian Westminster Parliamentary system is highly centralized, with an inordinate amount of power concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister. Thus, Trudeau now has the power to make “Real Change”, and he needs to be included in these conversations in order to make sure that it happens.

An important part of these conversations is the participation of diverse individuals. Policy-making is incredibly complex and requires decision-makers to think about the potential impacts policies have on diverse communities. In order to make sound policy decisions, policy-makers must reflect this diversity, both in terms of identity and experience. The Liberal Party has put forth some laudable policies to address the inequalities that women face in society. For example, as stated above, the federal government has committed to addressing the systemic problem of violence against women. This will require joint efforts between the Minister of Justice (the Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould), the Minister for the Status of Women (the Hon. Patricia Hadju), and the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs (the Hon. Carolyn Bennett). The hope is that the diversity and lived experiences of these women will positively contribute to the successful implementation of the Liberal Party platform and the creation of inclusive and equitable policies.

The Liberal Party’s monumental victory in the 2015 election is illustrative of Canada’s desire for change. In this quest for change, it is important that Prime Minister Trudeau start putting his proclamation of being a “proud feminist” into action by supporting his female Ministers in implementing gender-related policies and utilizing an intersectional and anti-oppressive framework. If this is done, the next four years promises to be an exciting and historic time for Canadian women. As we learn the value of diversity in Cabinet, we hope to see later governments reflect diversity along even more lines than just gender.

Adryan Bergstrom-Borins is a Master’s of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance, Class of 2017. Adryan is passionate about gender and inclusion policy, actively writing and working within an anti-oppressive, de-colonial, trans-inclusive intersectional feminist framework. When she isn’t volunteering her time with the Gender and Public Policy initiative or the Women & Trans* People Caucus for the Graduate Students’ Union, she is working at UofT’s Multifaith Centre for Spiritual Study & Practice. Adryan is also an avid tea drinker and recently started wearing a wrist watch.

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