In 1994, Canada was ranked #1 on the UN’s Human Development Index and was regarded by the international community as having the best gender equality measures worldwide. Two decades later, in 2014, our ranking on that exact same index dropped to #8, going hand in hand with our #23 ranking on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index. Since 2014, over 80,000 women left Canada’s labour force, bringing our participation rate down to 61.6% (from 62.2% in 2013), the lowest in Canada since 2002. It reverses decades of blood, sweat and tears that were poured into raising professional gender equality.
This is just one example of how Canada’s once-illustrious international reputation and admirable quest for gender equality has been attacked. In his book “How We Lead”, Joe Clark discussed the sweeping policy change Canada saw under Stephen Harper. The shift in focus of foreign aid from poverty to trade, being the only nation to opt out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and slashing funding for women’s groups have all been indicators of Harper’s disdain for democracy and equality.
On Monday Canadians rallied together, voicing their dissatisfaction, and voted the conservative party out of power. Canadian women can breath a sigh of relief; we are finally rid of the man who created “Harperland” (iPolitics, 15 Jan 2015).
But what exactly happened in Harperland that so adversely affected Canadian women? Here are a few examples…
- Failed to Provide Adequate Universal Day Care
One of the first decisions the Harper government made was to cancel a national child care program. In its place, the government offered the “Canada Child Tax Benefit” which now provides parents the wholly inadequate (read: insulting) sum of $100 each month per child. If you do the math, that only gives a parent a few Saturday nights to pay a twelve year old baby-sitter.
- Slashed Status of Women Canada
Harper also cut funding to Status of Women Canada, arguably the nation’s most important gender equity institution, which provided advocacy, research and lobbying on behalf a number of women’s groups. The government closed twelve out of sixteen of their regional offices and cut their operating budget by almost forty percent. Furthermore, the government imposed changes to the funding criteria for it’s programming, effectively barring advocacy and lobbying groups from receiving funding. As a result, numerous women-led NGOs do not receive funding today because they combine advocacy with services like rape crisis centers. Finally Mr. Harper, being the crowd pleaser that he is, removed the word ‘equality’ from the Status of Women Canada mandate.
- Excluded Abortion in Canada’s G8 Maternal Health Funding
During the G8 talks in 2010, Harper declared that maternal health was a primary concern of his. He proudly professed that he was committed to tackling related issues and promoting women’s health. Everything that is, except access to safe abortions in developing countries. The then International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda stated on behalf of the government, "We're not debating abortion; we're clarifying family planning." Thanks for that clarification, Bev.
Beyond the fact that women should be granted the dignity of choice and autonomy for reproductive rights, WHO has stated, “Complications due to unsafe abortion procedures account for an estimated 13% of maternal deaths worldwide, or 67,000 per year. Almost all abortion-related deaths occur in developing countries.” Such a decision by the Harper government is appallingly ignorant of good public health policy and fails to respect the rights of women.
- Appointed Fewer Women to the Cabinet
The Harper government, not surprisingly, also appointed fewer women to his cabinet than the preceding liberal government. Compared to the (inadequate) 30% of women in the liberal cabinet, Harper reduced that figure to 26%. While this change is not vast, it is certainly upsetting to see a reduced female political representation in the 21st century. Where women make up half of the country (literally), achieve 26% is just plain unacceptable.
- Cancelled the Court Challenges Program
The court program provided funding to organizations that helped women and minority groups challenge court rulings that violated one’s equality rights under section 15 of the Charter. This program changed the way sexual assault complaints were reported in the media, with a Supreme Court ruling that disallowed the publishing of a victim’s name in order to protect victim privacy and encourage sexual assault reporting. The program also prompted the Supreme Court to rule that sexual orientation is an analogous group under section 15 of the Charter, therefore prohibiting discrimination on said basis.
Harper had a war on women. It was horrible, but that war is finally over. So what is in store for Canadian women now that we have a new leader?
Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, was handed a majority government this week. What are his big plans for women?
First, Trudeau says he is eager to proactively increase the influence of women in the public sphere. Specifically, Trudeau has promised that half of a Liberal cabinet will be women. (CBC, 20 Oct 2015)
Second, the Liberals promised to eliminate the Universal Child Case Benefit (UCCB) and introduce a new income-tested, tax-free monthly Canada Child Benefit. They argue this would boost payments to all families with children and annual incomes below $150,000. For those of you who love math as much as I do, a family with a $90,000 household and two children (one under six and one under seventeen) would receive about $490 a month ($5,875 annually).
Third, the Liberal platform declares that it will "immediately" call an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. (Globe & Mail, 15 Oct 2015)
Lastly, Trudeau has pledged to provide more options regarding parental leave. He has said that the Liberal party will give parents the option to receive parental benefits in smaller chunks over a period of up to 18 months, or have the option to take a longer leave (up to 18 months when combined with maternity benefits) at a lower benefit level.
After nearly three decades of progress towards gender equality, though admittedly uneven, Canadian women faced a downward spiral under the agenda of Stephen Harper. The past Prime Minister's contempt for women’s rights drastically hurt the female population and set our country back decades on the international stage.
The election of Justin Trudeau as our new Prime Minister provides the possibility of a new era for Canadian women; a rebuilding of the equality and respect once cherished and promoted by our government. It is an opportunity for Mr. Trudeau to undo the atrocities of Mr. Harper and put Canada back on its path of progress.
The bar is set low Mr. Trudeau, I beg you to raise it.