At the end of the January 2006 election campaign, Stephen Harper promised that: “Yes, I’m ready to support women’s human rights and I agree that Canada has more to do to meet its international obligations to women’s equality. If elected, I will take concrete and immediate measures, as recommended by the United Nations, to ensure that Canada fully upholds its commitments to women in Canada.”
Yet, as soon as he was elected, Prime Minister Harper reneged on this promise. In spite of its minority government status, his government has set into motion a series of policies that have sent a powerful message: women’s equality is not a priority of this government.
Indeed, the government has made a number of very bad decisions in the last year that will decidedly move us away from an agenda of promoting women’s human rights: it has abolished the funding agreements for a pan-Canadian childcare programme, decided not to adopt a federal pay equity law as recommended by the Pay Equity Task Force, abolished all funding for the Court Challenges Program, dismantled the Law Commission of Canada, and made radical changes in the mandate and funding policies of Status of Women Canada.
Slashing the operations budget of Status of Women Canada by 40% and closing down 12 of the 16 regional offices of the agency has effectively ended the capacity of the agency to provide research for policy reform. But most importantly, the government has changed the funding criteria of the Women’s Program, and it will no longer fund research, advocacy or lobbying for women’s rights. In addition, the promotion of women’s equality has been withdrawn from the mandate of the Women’s Program, that will now only fund initiatives that further the “participation” of women in the economic, social and cultural sectors. Newly eligible to access these funds for women’s participation are both for-profit and religious groups. Ironically, the protection and promotion of the legal and political rights of women is now taboo at the Women’s Program. The government’s drastic changes to the Women’s Program will have a chilling effect, muzzling the voices of women’s organizations, and seriously inhibiting the work of NAWL and other equality-seeking women’s groups.
Particularly disturbing in all of this are the positions taken by the Minister for the Status of Women, Bev Oda, who has essentially declared that women’s equality has been achieved in Canada and that it is no longer necessary to fund law reform and advocacy groups. Minister Oda has argued that the feminists who disagree with this position are “victimizing” women.
On October 6, 2006 she stated in the House of Commons: “Mr Speaker, we have to stop this narrative of victimhood. We as women and as Canadians do not see women as victims”.
A few weeks later, on November 10, she said: “Mr Speaker, we have to understand that if women are continuously told that they are not equal, they will continue to believe that. We say that everyone in Canada is equal”.
In other words, this government is turning its back on a vision that calls for “substantive equality”, which recognizes that inequality between men and women continues to persist, and that the state must adopt systemic measures to promote the equality of men and women in Canada.
But feminists know that the battle for women’s equality and human rights is far from over. One need only consult the most recent Statistics Canada report on women to realize that a lot of work remains to be done to achieve real equality for women, particularly women from historically disadvantaged groups. Indeed, in its January 2003 report on Canada, the United Nations’ Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women was very critical of the federal government’s inaction.
The CEDAW Committee called upon Canada to prioritize its efforts to end the poverty of women, to reform discriminatory laws and practices against Aboriginal women, to change the Live-in Caregiver Program, in particular the obligation for workers to live with their employers. It called on the Canadian government to respond to the issue of violence against women, to adopt measures to increase the representation of women in political and public life, to work towards a national childcare strategy, to improve maternity/parental benefits, to increase efforts to reach pay equity and to fund civil legal aid and the Court Challenges Program. Not only has the Harper government been negligent in responding to these recommendations, several of its recent policies constitute a blatant rejection of the suggestions of this important UN Committee.
The Harper policies gave rise to a huge mobilization from women in all provinces and regions across Québec and Canada: the Ad Hoc Coalition for Women’s Equality and Human Rights was created and it swung into action last October, producing fact sheets, lobby pointers, and writing to ministers and opposition leaders. MPs were the subject of intense lobbying in their local ridings throughout the fall, and more than 500 local, provincial and national groups signed onto the December 10 Statement for Women’s Equality and Human Rights, drafted by NAWL, asking Prime Minister Harper to reverse these bad policy decisions. The Coalition organized a pan-Canadian day of action on December 8 and a huge demonstration on December 10, marking the 25th anniversary of Canada’s ratification of CEDAW. The demonstration started as a rally in front of the Supreme Court of Canada and ended with rousing speeches at the Famous Five Monument.
The Harper policies also attracted attention internationally: women’s groups from around the world sent letters of protest, and a collective letter was signed by six women who had received the Nobel Peace prize, including Shirin Ebadi and Rigoberta Menchu.
In the House of Commons, all of the opposition parties made several calls on the Harper government to reverse their policies (see Samantha Hendrickson’s article), and several Critics called for Minister Oda’s resignation, but to no avail. She was confirmed in her position after the January 2007 Cabinet Shuffle. However, the mobilizations have not abated. The Federal/Provincial and Territorial Ministers on the Status of Women were very concerned with this situation, and in February they met without even inviting the Federal Minister on the Status of Women. At the outset of this meeting, they expressed their concern to the federal government about the cuts and changes to the funding criteria for women’s groups, and requested that these decisions be reversed.
For Valentines Day, NAWL sent a “Heartfelt Reminder” to every parliamentarian about the importance of being aware of systemic discrimination, of being accountable under the Charter and international human rights and of supporting advocacy by women’s groups. For March 8, International Women’s Day, the Ad Hoc Coalition produced a sticker and information flyers on the theme “Put Equality back on Track!”, and throughout the month of March, women’s groups across the country occupied the regional offices of Status of Women Canada, asking that they not be shut down.
While we were not able to reverse the changes in the mandate and funding policies for women’s groups, the Harper government did backtrack on the funding cuts, allocating the $5 million cuts that it took from Status of Women Canada operations budget to the Women’s Program. This move, however, will not restore SWC’s capacity to defend women’s rights within government, nor will it ensure that advocacy groups such as NAWL will receive funding in the future.
The Standing Committee on the Status of Women has been holding hearings on the impact of the cuts and changes to the funding criteria on women’s groups. NAWL testified before the Committee on December 6, 2006. The Committee’s Report should be released this Spring.
In the meantime, NAWL and the other members of the Ad Hoc Coalition for Women’s Equality and Human Rights are gearing up for a possible Spring election. It is of critical importance to our democracy for women’s groups to continue to receive funding, to intervene in favour of legislative reform for women’s equality. It is not only the equality of women that is at risk, but also the democratic health of our society and our ability to maintain and retain our human rights. This is a message that all candidates need to hear, loud and clear. For more information, please go to the NAWL website, at nawl.ca, and the Ad Hoc Coalition’s website at www.womensequality.ca.
Andrée Côté is the Director of Legislation and Law Reform for NAWL.