The Liberals are talking about gender, and that will change Ottawa

Posted on June 28, 2017 in Equality Delivery System – News/Politics/Opinion
Jun. 25, 2017.   CAMPBELL CLARK

Last week, Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Status of Women, announced a strategy to address gender-based violence. Two weeks earlier, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered a speech declaring that women’s rights are at the heart of Canada’s foreign policy, and a few days later, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced a “feminist” foreign-aid policy.

Nothing is more regularly the focus in the Liberal government’s announcements, and its politics, than gender-equity and policies and symbols about women. On the day he was sworn in as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau famously named a gender-balanced cabinet. Since then, almost 60 per cent of the judges appointed by the federal government have been women. In the military, women have been promoted to senior, high-profile positions on the Liberals’ watch, including the appointment of the new Judge Advocate General, Navy Captain Geneviève Bernatchez, last week. The March federal budget came with the gender-based budget statement.

“We are changing the world with this work,” Ms. Monsef said in an interview. She often seems earnest, but there’s no doubting she believes in the impact of these things: that girls such as her eight-year-old niece will be inspired by seeing women in positions of power, or that other countries will feel pressure to follow the example. France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, unveiled a gender-balanced cabinet too, she noted.

In fact, it’s not easy for the Liberals to show their gender policies will change the day-to-day lives of women here, let alone around the world. And political opponents dismiss a lot of it as branding.

But there’s no doubt that this government’s focus on women will have a lasting impact on Canadian politics and government. Even the symbols: It’s hard to imagine a future prime minister appointing a cabinet where two-thirds of the ministers are men.

Some of the symbols around gender issues that delight Liberals seem to particularly irritate their opponents, such as Mr. Trudeau’s repeated assertions that he’s a feminist. “Pinkwashing,” one New Democrat called it – accusing the Liberals of mounting a marketing exercise when they won’t back substantive policies to address, for example, the gender gap for low-income women. Some Conservatives argue the Liberals spend money on bureaucracy to signal their good intentions, but their plans won’t have concrete effects.

But opponents who dismiss it as political marketing tend to admit it probably works. “Oh, they’re kicking our ass,” said one Conservative. When in power, Conservatives were often reluctant to talk about the representation of women in positions of power; on the left, touting a feminist foreign-aid policy, for example, can help the Liberals compete with the NDP for progressive voters.

And it’s clearly not motivated by just electoral politics. There are true believers, cabinet appointees such as Labour Minister Patty Hajdu and influential senior aides such as Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford. The government, under Ms. Telford’s eye, has applied gender-equity tools on matters so boringly inside the machinery of government, such as gender analysis in every department and on all initiatives before cabinet, that it can’t possibly be aimed at voters. It’s hard to say if that will really have an impact, but in theory, the government will know if infrastructure funds for hockey arenas or daycares are going to create jobs for men or women, or benefit one gender more.

When an investigation by The Globe and Mail’s Robyn Doolittle found that one in five sexual-assault complaints was dismissed as unfounded, and that the rate of this finding varied dramatically from place to place, it sparked an immediate e-mail chain between Ms. Telford, Ms. Monsef, and Ms. Hajdu. A month later, the budget set aside $100-million for a gender-based violence strategy.

The thing is, gender-based violence is a big, complex problem. Ms. Monsef called it the “greatest barrier to gender equity in this country.” The centrepiece of the government’s new strategy is collecting data, and there have been questions about whether that’s really an adequate response.

Ms. Monsef noted that figures haven’t been collected since 1993 – “We have cyberviolence. That didn’t happen in 1993,” she said. Data will help design effective prevention programs. But a key reason she offers is that they will honour the stories of survivors by collecting “evidence” for policies. Another Liberal government insider suggested that with solid numbers, it’s harder to argue about the scale of the issue.

It’s unclear what impact the strategy will have. But the Liberals have done a key thing to the politics: They’ve raised demand, and expectations.

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