In 2015, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau positioned himself as a proud feminist wanting to be Canada’s next prime minister.
Trudeau successfully campaigned on promises to provide more support for survivors of sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence. He promised to develop a comprehensive national strategy to combat gender violence, consider gender impacts in all government decisions and launch a national inquiry into the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Trudeau positioned himself — as his re-election campaign is attempting to do once again — as the opposite of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, whose nearly decade-long reign included removing the word “equality” from the mandate of Status of Women Canada (now Women and Gender Equality Canada) and slashing its budget by 37 per cent, the ripple effects of which stripped funding from organizations like rape crisis centres.
By 2015, Canada had dropped to 25th on the UN’s gender inequality index, down from first place in 1995.
Enter Trudeau, whose feminism is so overt as to draw the occasional scorn (see the reaction to his preference for the term “peoplekind”). Canada has climbed back to 12th on the UN index, which evaluates countries on the basis of indicators like reproductive health, education levels and the number of women in government.
But how much has Trudeau’s leadership helped move the needle on issues like domestic violence, femicide and equal pay for equal work?
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Women still face violence, femicide in Canada
There’s “a bit of an urban myth” that existing Canadian laws are enough to protect women, says Suki Beavers, executive director of the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL). She says the current laws need work if they’re going to protect the rights of all Canadian women.
On average, one woman is killed in Canada every 2.5 days, according to a 2018 report from the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability. That’s a statistic that hasn’t changed in four decades.
Shelters — which could offer women refuge and support — are also increasingly underfunded, according to a new report from Women’s Shelters Canada.
In 2015, the Liberal campaign platform included changes meant to make women safer, particularly victims of intimate partner violence.
In many respects, Beavers says, the Liberals delivered by making the following changes:
- Upping paid leave for victims of family violence to 10 days
- Redefining family violence to include violence against animals and property
- Axing the two-year marriage time requirement for people sponsored by a spouse for immigration purposes
- Taking steps to remove sex-based discrimination from the Indian Act
Still, Beavers says, for all the positive legal advancements, there has consistently been room for improvement. For instance, NAWL would have liked to see the definition of family violence in the Divorce Act “explicitly reflect (its) gendered nature.”
“There have been a number of laws enacted or amended by this government that will have some very positive impact on women, but in almost every case, there are real, specific weaknesses,” she says.
Others say some of the laws are a big win. Kharoll-Ann Souffrant, a PhD student in social work at the University of Ottawa, lauded the immigration law change, saying that previously, “some women would feel obligated to stay in violent relationships just so they didn’t lose their permanent residency.”
She says the changes helped, adding that now, “we talk a lot more about feminism and women’s rights.”
Racialized women are still at greater risk of violence
To be an Indigenous woman in Canada is to be at a greater risk of violence. During the 14 years between 2001 and 2015, Indigenous women were killed at a rate almost six times greater than non-Indigenous women.
Trudeau promised to address this issue in 2015, saying he would launch a national inquiry. That inquiry, which was plagued by scandal and only wrapped up last summer, found the murders were part of an ongoing genocide. But for all the headlines the word “genocide” garnered, action on the report’s many recommendations have yet to dominate this election campaign.
There is now a public discourse about how different groups of women have different experiences, meaning while white women deal with sexism they don’t also have to contend with racism and sexism as women of colour do. But Souffrant says, marginalized women — Indigenous women, LGBTQ2 people, black women, for instance — still don’t get as many resources or as much attention. This issue came to the fore in the aftermath of the B.C. manhunt this summer, when many wondered how the murder of two white foreigners could draw so much attention when thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls had garnered so little.
“What’s needed is a look at how policies differently impact more marginalized women,” Souffrant says. “We still don’t know as much about these groups of women.”
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Women in political power still face challenges
“Because it’s 2015” may have been a good soundbite, but it also indicated a new approach, says Cheryl Collier, an associate professor at the University of Windsor and former co-director of the Health Research Centre for the Study of Violence Against Women.
“It says a lot about the leadership and whether or not you value women,” she says. However, Collier notes, even then, most of the women serving as cabinet ministers were put into the so-called “traditional caring roles.”
“Putting a woman in health is not groundbreaking because we have often made connections between that as a caring role and a social policy area that a woman would have expertise in,” she says. Canada has never had a female finance minister at the federal level, she says. “We still don’t.”
Trudeau’s record on this front is complicated by the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Collier says. When Trudeau named Jody Wilson-Raybould as the minister of justice in October 2015, she became the first Indigenous person to hold the job. Then, he shuffled her to veterans affairs in January 2019, a move widely perceived as a demotion well before the scandal itself became public.
Wilson-Raybould resigned as veterans affairs minister in February. In March, Treasury Board president Jane Philpott announced she, too, would step down from cabinet. In early April, Trudeau kicked both women out of the Liberal caucus, saying: “The trust that previously existed between these two individuals and our team has been broken.”
WATCH: Trudeau defends his feminist credentials after expelling Wilson-Raybould, Philpott from caucus
While there were many issues at play, Collier says the optics aren’t great.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland remains, but Collier says the departure of two strong women from cabinet “raises questions” — questions compounded this week after Liberal MP Eva Nassif told the Globe and Mail that she was not nominated to run again in her Quebec riding because she didn’t publicly support Trudeau as a feminist following the scandal (Trudeau denies this).
“You can have good intentions,” Collier says, “but that alone is not going to get you to the finish line.”
The struggle to curb sexual harassment and sexual assault
Although federal politicians from all parties praised former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose’s bill that would require federal judges in Canada to undergo training on sexual assault law, the bill languished and died in the Senate. The bill was introduced on the heels of several comments from prominent judges that drew outrage. In one case, a judge asked a rape victim why she couldn’t keep her knees together.
“There’s still much work to be done in the criminal justice system in order to better respond to the needs of sexual assault survivors,” Souffrant says.
WATCH: Are police mishandling sexual assault cases across Canada?
The government has taken steps to address sexual harassment in the workplace. Nearly a year ago, it amended the Canada Labour Code and the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act to bolster employee protections. Those changes, which will impact federally regulated workplaces and the federal public service, come into force next year.
The government also earmarked $2.8 million for a project dedicated to fixing workplace harassment and established an advisory board for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Canada’s national police force has long struggled with issues of workplace sexual harassment and reached a second $100-million sexual harassment class-action settlement in July.
The impact of a gender-based budget
One of the promises Trudeau kept was the introduction of gender-based analysis into the budgetary process.
“We haven’t seen that, ever,” Collier says. “Is it really doing anything? Good question, but at least it’s there. It’s a good start and it’s much better than the Harper Conservatives when we had equality taken out of the mandate at Status of Women.”
The gender-based analysis has yet to really materialize for most departments, according to internal documents obtained earlier this year by the Canadian Press. An internal survey revealed fewer than half of Canadian departments and agencies had a plan to evaluate how their policies might affect men and women differently depending on their age, income, race and culture, among other factors.
Do women still make less money?
Late last year, the government passed a pay equity act that would require federally regulated workplaces with more than 10 employees to make sure men and women receive equal pay for doing the same work. To ensure employers follow through, the Canadian Human Rights Commission will add a pay equity commissioner to enforce the requirement. That act will come into force in 2020.
Still, the law only applies to federally regulated workplaces. Women across the country earn just 84 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to a global study by job search giant Glassdoor released earlier this year.
In 2017, Statistics Canada said Canadian women were making 87 cents for every dollar earned by men. It takes the average woman 15.5 months to make the same amount as a man does in one year, according to the Ontario Equal Pay Coalition.
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But that number drastically changes when you look at different economic classes.
In August, a University of Guelph study found that while men and women with PhDs earn similar amounts during the first three years after convocation, the gap is much bigger for people with lower levels of education. The average woman working in trades earns about $32,500 while the average man earns $40,500 — 25 per cent more.
“We know that women and girls are at a high rate of poverty,” says Andrea Gunraj from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
“They’re living on low incomes, and it’s all the worse for people who are facing multiple barriers: Indigenous women, women with disabilities, trans and non-binary people.”
Reducing the pay gap is crucial, Gunraj says, along with universal childcare and affordable housing.
The need for more funding — and a better strategy
In March, Oxfam Canada released its 2019 feminist scorecard, its annual grading of the government’s steps toward gender equality. While the charity approved of some of the major milestones Trudeau’s government had managed to hit in 2018 — pay-equity legislation, gender budgeting, the first-ever Poverty Reduction Act — it made clear that for feminist words to translate into feminist actions, the government would need to put some serious financial heft behind its promises.
Those findings were in keeping with another report released around the same time by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which showed that despite new federal policies, gender-equity disparities in major cities continued.
“If (the Trudeau government) really wants to cement a legacy on a feminist approach to policy-making, a massive injection of funds is needed to turn their feminist promises and progress into lasting change,” said Lauren Ravon, director of policy and campaigns for Oxfam Canada, at the time.
So far during the election, the Liberal party’s more women-focused promises have focused on time and money to help raise children and accessible childcare. The NDP party platform prioritizes equal pay, including “pro-active pay equity legislation and regulations right away.” It also includes “stable funding” for women’s organizations, and a focus on addressing violence against Indigenous women and girls.
The Green Party platform also takes a stand on violence against women, including implementing all recommendations made by the MMIWG inquiry. The party’s platform also includes a promise to increase shelter access by spending $40 million over four years.
The Conservative Party so far has not made any women-specific promises, according to its website, although leader Andrew Scheer released a statement following the MMIWG report in June saying his government would “carefully review the details of the final report” and that a number of its recommendations could “meaningfully improve the lives of Indigenous women and girls.” However, Scheer rejected the inquiry’s use of the term “genocide.”
While there have been some improvements, Collier says, there is a question we should be asking:
“Are we resting on the laurels of the easier things and not really getting to the things that are going to require a lot more heavy lifting and, probably, a little bit more bolder action?”
— With files from the Canadian Press
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