Does Canada’s Feminist Government Still Have Winds in its Sails?

by Ian Thomson | April 16, 2024
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Does Canada’s Feminist Government Still Have Winds in its Sails?

by Ian Thomson | April 16, 2024
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Eight years into the Trudeau government’s time in power, is the government living up to its feminist ambitions?   

As you may recall, Prime Minister Trudeau declared himself to be a feminist and to be leading a feminist government when he first came to power.  On the day he appointed the first gender balanced cabinet in Canadian history, a reporter asked him why and he simply quipped: “Because it’s 2015.”   

Ever since, women’s leadership has been a priority for this government: around the cabinet table, in the public service, in supporting feminist movements and in its approach to public policy. 

Earlier this month we released Oxfam Canada’s eighth annual Feminist Scorecard to assess the federal government’s progress on “walking the talk” of its feminist agenda.   

This year’s scorecard reveals a government that is still making strides on realizing feminist public policy in many areas but also falling short in serious ways.  Five out of twelve policy areas in the scorecard rated a score of “Green” for significant progress.  However, four policy areas scored “Yellow” for some progress and three areas scored “Red” for exhibiting little progress at all. 

Let’s start with the good news.  The government introduced several new federal programs that will support low-income people, the majority of whom are women and gender diverse people.  A new pharmacare plan that prioritizes contraceptive drugs among the first ones covered will ensure access to contraception to all regardless of financial means.  A new dental care plan will allow low-income seniors and children in low-income families to visit the dentist and care for their oral health.   

In the more immediate term, low-income and middle-class families received a one-time grocery rebate last July as the cost of food shot through the roof.  A recently announced national school food program promises to address food insecurity for families who have fallen through the cracks of existing provincial and community food programs.   

Together with the provinces and territories, the government continues to roll out its national child care program that will increase access and affordability for families. With child care more affordable, demand has increased and the government needs to focus on expansion of the program. More than $1.6 billion in infrastructure funding announced in the past 12 months will help build the child care spaces needed to achieve the program’s ambitious goals by the end of the decade.   

In addition, $1.7 billion in federal support will help improve the wages of personal support workers, who tend to be racialized women who are chronically underpaid yet perform critical life-saving work. 

But it wasn’t all good news.  Indigenous women’s organizations reported seeing little progress from the government in tackling the most pressing issues for First Nations, Métis and Inuit women.  The government received a failing grade on its actions to end the epidemic of violence facing Indigenous women and girls.  Over-incarceration of Indigenous women has hit an all-time high under this government, with little progress in addressing this national travesty.  Long-term drinking water advisories persist on reserves, which imposes additional care work on women who are water keepers in many First Nations cultures. 

Migrant rights advocates were also disappointed with the government’s failure to introduce a ‘regularization’ program for undocumented migrants and those with precarious migration status, as it has promised to do.  To make matters worse, the government expanded its Safe Third Country Agreement with the US that puts people seeking asylum at the Canada-US border at increased risk of persecution and human rights violation.   

There was also an apparent double-standard in how refugees are welcomed into Canada, with the government limiting the number of Palestinian refugees who would be accepted and putting administrative hurdles in the way, unlike Canada’s nimble and open-armed approach for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict in their country.  

Other policy areas assessed in the scorecard saw some progress but not enough to be truly significant. As conflicts and crises erupt in so many places around the world, Canada isn’t always taking a principled, feminist approach – prioritizing some refugees or humanitarian situations more than others.  Climate actions, like capping emissions from oil and gas or tabling legislation on a just transition, are being counteracted by new loopholes in the country’s carbon pricing framework and continued public dollars going to the fossil fuel sector. 

It’s not too late for the government to forge ahead with this unfinished business.  The affordability crisis is challenging the government to craft new policies and programs that respond to the needs to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. And the climate crisis demands the federal government stay the course on carbon pricing, which benefits most low-income Canadians already.  Ending fossil fuel subsidies will allow the launch of many new programs to make our lives greener and more affordable, all while creating well-paid green jobs.  Canada should also ensure more of its international climate finance is accessible to feminist climate solutions in the global South. 

A stronger feminist lens is needed given the feminization of poverty in this country.  Economic stimulus programs in Budget 2023 tended to favour male-dominated industries like the automotive sector and oil and gas sectors.  Twenty-one percent of spending in Budget 21% was more beneficial to men, while only 12% was more beneficial to women. 

Accelerating the feminist agenda needs to become an urgent priority for everyone in government.  Canada needs to be a feminist force as inequality rises here at home and the global geo-political context becomes more strained and complex.   

Gender equality can’t wait.  After all, it’s 2024. 

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