Canada’s Commitment to Equality: A Gender Analysis of the Last 10 Federal Budgets

11 December 2009
December 11, 2009

Ce document est seulement disponible en anglais.

In 1995, 188 countries, including Canada, adopted the Beijing Platform for Action, setting out a detailed plan for addressing women’s poverty, economic security and health. A decade later, the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action is asking: are women in Canada better off?

In 1995, the Government of Canada agreed to undertake a gender analysis of all its macro-economic policies and its budgets. To date, no federal Minister of Finance has begun this process. A commitment to greater equality cannot occur without a commitment of resources for programs that make change possible. Fiscal policy is the way resources get raised and allocated, the way commitments become realities.

Canada’s Commitment to Equality: A Gender Analysis of the Last Ten Federal Budgets (1995-2004) is the first gender budget analysis of its kind in Canada. It tracks a decade of federal fiscal policy, looking at what the Government of Canada said it was going to do (budgets) and what it did do (public accounts).

Analyzing the patterns of federal decision-making during the deficit era (1995 to 1997) and during the surplus era (1998 to 2004), it has become clear that, in good times and in bad, federal priorities actually ran counter to the promises made 10 years ago to improve economic security for women.

Though the economy grew by 62% between 1994 and 2004 – meaning almost $480 billion more a year in market value was being produced by Canadians – a growing number of women over the same decade were finding their pay rates virtually stagnant while the costs of basics like housing, tuition, child care, transit and utilities continue to soar. Paying more for less has become the norm for many households over the last decade. Women working in low-wage and part-time jobs continue to be hardest hit.

Yalnizyan’s analysis of the federal spending cuts made between 1995 and 1997 demonstrates that they disproportionately hurt women, particularly those already most vulnerable. Billions of dollars in reduced funding translated into significantly less support for women just at a time when the burdens they faced were increasing.

Since the beginning of the surplus era in 1998, the federal government has not redressed the damage done during the deficit era, let alone advanced the agenda for action promised to the women of Canada in Beijing in 1995. The way the surplus was allocated between 1998 and 2004 ruled out any serious response to the systemic problems faced by women and the most vulnerable and marginalized people in Canada. Instead, initiatives were selected that essentially redistribute resources towards those already more advantaged.

Between 1998 and 2004, the federal government allocated $152 billion to tax cuts and $61 billion to pay down the debt. In comparison, only $34 billion in net new resources were transferred to the provinces for health care and child care over that seven year period. Departmental spending expanded by $42 billion in new spending initiatives over the seven years, but much of it went to defence and “innovation” programs such as public investments in Research and Development under the Canadian Opportunities Strategy.

Remarkably little of the increase in new funds actually spent in this seven year period was devoted specifically to enhancing the security of Canada’s most vulnerable individuals.

The single largest initiative to alleviate the effects of poverty was the increase in the Canada Child Tax Benefit, representing an additional $15 billion over the 7 years since 1998. These amounts are counted by the federal government as a tax measure, and represent only 10% of the total costs of the federal tax reform agenda. Despite this infusion of funds, Canada’s poorest families have not benefited, because the program permits provinces and territories to “claw back” funds from those on social assistance.

A small number of tax measures introduced since 1998 have addressed women’s realities – for example, tax credits for care-givers and increased tax deductions for expenses on child care – but these measures do not help women who have no taxable income. Tax measures also do little to fund and regulate services, in order to ensure that reliable social supports are available in the first place. But a focus on tax measures instead of spending initiatives allows the Government of Canada to maintain its new commitment to “small government”.

The federal budget of 1995 set out to “right-size” government, and shrank federal program spending as a share of the economy from 16% to 12% of GDP in three short years. It has remained at less than 11.6% of the economy since 2000-01, and is projected to stay at roughly that level for the foreseeable future. The rate of contraction, and the holding constant of this transformation, is unmatched in any other advanced industrialized nation.

But the commitment to small government may be antithetical to the interests of women, since women need the systems that governments put into place to protect basic economic security, address violence and injustice, and ensure quality and accountability in the provision of public goods, such as childcare and health care.

The economic strength that Canada has demonstrated in recent years—and the fiscal capacity that flows from it—means that there are more than enough resources for the federal government to honour the commitments it has made to women’s equality in domestic law, and under international human rights treaties and agreements. It is simply a question of priorities.

For a full copy of this report, please see FAFIA’s website at

Canadian Feminist Alliance For International Action (FAFIA)

about NAWL
The National Association of Women and the Law is a not-for-profit feminist organization that promotes the equality rights of women through legal education, research and law reform advocacy.
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