Feminists claim the PM broke a written promise to take action.
When more than 40 women gathered in a classroom at the SFU Harbour Centre campus on December 8, they weren’t in any mood to celebrate. On the contrary, they wanted to alert the media to a series of actions they felt the Stephen Harper government had taken to erode women’s rights in Canada. Seven speakers from different women’s organizations took their place at the front of the room, ready to explain their positions and answer questions from reporters.
But nowadays, women’s equality doesn’t make the cut in most local newsrooms. Nobody from the mainstream media showed up, despite efforts by the organizers to notify newsrooms in advance. There were no TV cameras, no radio reporters, and not a single journalist from Vancouver’s six daily papers and numerous ethnic publications.
One of the organizers, Shelagh Day of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, carried on anyway, preaching to the choir of supporters in the room. She noted that December 10 was not only International Human Rights Day but also marked the 25th anniversary of Canada’s ratification of the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. As part of the CEDAW process, she said, Canada regularly reports on its compliance to the UN body.
“We were last there in 2003, and the committee issued 23 recommendations to Canada, finding major deficiencies,” Day said. “Those recommendations have been so far ignored.”
In 2003, the UN committee called upon Canada to make funds available for equal-rights legal cases in all jurisdictions. In addition, the committee recommended that Canada expand affordable child-care facilities, accelerate efforts to implement equal pay for work of equal value at the federal level, and stamp out discrimination against aboriginal women.
During the last federal election campaign, Harper fired off a letter to the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, promising to support women’s human rights and agreeing that Canada must do more 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,” Harper wrote.
“But today,” Day told the audience at SFU Harbour Centre, “we’re here to talk about the measures the Harper government has taken since it came into office a little less than a year ago. Each one, in fact, contradicts direct recommendations that were made by the [UN] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women to Canada in 2003.”
Day cited four areas of concern: the cancellation of a national daycare program; the elimination of the Court Challenges Program, a funding agency; the pending closure of most Status of Women Canada offices across the country; and the federal government’s refusal to move forward on paying women the same wages as men for work of equal value. The minister responsible for Status of Women Canada, Bev Oda, did not return the Georgia Straight’s call by deadline.
The next speaker, Sharon Gregson of the Coalition of Childcare Advocates of BC, started by explaining how Canada came close to creating a national daycare program when the last federal Liberal government signed bilateral agreements with the provinces and territories. Gregson, a Vancouver COPE school trustee, alleged that the provincial government has not come close to spending the federal funds allocated to childcare during the first two years of the agreement. This year, Harper cancelled the program, replacing it with $100 taxable monthly payments to parents of kids under six.
“It’s increasingly apparent that Prime Minister Harper and, indeed, Premier [Gordon] Campbell don’t give a damn about working mothers or their children,” Gregson claimed. “Their cuts speak louder than their words. Other countries are able to provide childcare for up to 100 percent of children between the age of three and six. Other countries, like Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, even England and the United States, invest more per capita in early-childhood-development services than Canada does.”
B.C.’s minister of state for childcare, Linda Reid, did not return a call from the Straight by deadline.
A right-wing women’s group, REAL Women of Canada, has claimed that “Canada has the most powerful feminist lobby in the world” and cheered the Conservative government when it scrapped the former federal Liberal government’s plans for universal childcare. On September 26, REAL Women issued a news release again praising the Harper government, this time for killing the “troublesome Court Challenges Program”.
“In fact the Court Challenges Program was a profoundly undemo cratic use of taxpayers’ money to restructure society, with the public being deprived of having any input in these challenges,” REAL Women claimed in the release. “The elimination of the Court Challenges Program will go a long way to promoting democracy in Canada.”
At the December 8 meeting at SFU Harbour Centre, lawyer Alison Brewin told a different story. Brewin, program director of the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, began by saying the Court Challenges Program was created to ensure that the promise of equality in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would become a reality for women and other historically disadvantaged groups.
She said the program provided funds to ensure that test cases could go before the courts. Brewin emphasized that all of the lawyers who acted for LEAF did so voluntarily and were not paid for their services.
Then she started ticking off a list of successful results. “Because of that funding, pregnancy discrimination is actually considered sex discrimination,” Brewin said.
She also said that as a result of this funding, “implied consent”—meaning what a woman wears—cannot be cited in court to justify sexual assault. In addition, she said, men accused of sexual assault are no longer entitled to unfettered access to the personal records of their accusers. Moreover, as a result of a case funded under the program, human-rights law now prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“The Court Challenges Program is there to provide an important piece of democracy in our system,” Brewin said. “Access to our courts is essential for historically disadvantaged minorities to address the sometimes discriminatory impact of majority rule.”
Day bluntly stated that without a Court Challenges Program, there is no constitutional right to equality simply because of the cost of going to court. “There is a big sign up that says, ”˜If you haven’t got a quarter of a million dollars, don’t come here,’” Day claimed.
She added that the Harper government has also ignored recommendations from a federal task force to move toward what she called a “proactive pay-equity system”. Day explained that she thinks there needs to be a “clear obligation on employers in the federal sector” to provide women the same pay as men for work of equal value.
“The Harper government has come forward a few months ago and simply said they’re not going to do anything on pay equity,” Day said. “The law will stay the way it is. They will simply send out more inspectors.”
REAL Women applauded the Harper government last September for cutting Status of Women Canada’s budget by $5 million.
“This is a good start, and we hope that the Status of Women will eventually be eliminated entirely since it does not represent ”˜women’, but only represents the ideology of feminists,” the group claimed.
At SFU Harbour Centre, none of the speakers shared that point of view. Asia Czapska of Justice for Girls said she is “outraged” that the Harper government is cutting the only federal department that has stuck to its mandate of promoting equality for girls and women. “This is a part of the attack on basic, really basic, human rights of girls and women,” Czapska said.
Shauna Paull, who is with the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women–Canada, decried the loss of 12 out of 16 regional Status of Women Canada offices. She also criticized the loss of about $1 million in research funding, which enabled women’s groups to keep track of emerging issues.
“We have the conversation in the media about trafficking, but the research that started that all was in the Status of Women research funds,” Paull said.
Gina Whitfield, a volunteer at a rape crisis centre and transition house, noted that at least 60 women are murdered by their husbands every year in Canada. She discussed the importance of increased funding for direct services for groups that help women organize.
“The vast majority of feminist-run centres integrate service and advocacy, and therefore will no longer meet the terms and conditions to receive Status of Women funding,” Whitfield said. “What would be the point of funding groups fighting against violence against women only on the condition that they do not advocate for an end to violence against women or for women’s equality?”¦What will be lost with these cuts is not just ?bureaucracy but women’s lives.”
Elsie Dean, a researcher with Women Elders in Action, highlighted ?how research funding helps women’s groups to bring forward suggestions aimed at eliminating poverty among the elderly, and especially women. “We feel that Minister Oda is not fulfilling her mandate.”¦She will not recognize that women are retiring into poverty and that that needs to be corrected,” Dean said.
Last March, Statistics Canada reported that the average annual pretax income of women aged 16 and over from all sources—including employment, government transfers, and investment income—was $24,400. The average annual pretax income of men aged 16 and over from the same sources was $39,300.
Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies told the Straight that she believes “a massive campaign” is developing to take on Harper’s socially conservative agenda to undermine women’s equality. “I don’t think people thought we would have to gear up for this again 40 years after the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, but we do,” Davies said. “He is really trying to turn the clock back here, and there is a very strong sense of solidarity that we’re not going to let that happen. But it’s going to take a massive effort.”
Independent MP Garth Turner, a former member of the Conservative caucus, recalled how Harper informed his MPs at a morning caucus meeting about the budget cuts to the Court Challenges Program and to Status of Women Canada.
“He said, ”˜We have determined a series of cuts, expenditure cuts, which will be announced. They have been determined. They are our position. And”¦anyone [who] has got any problem with that—who says anything about it—is going to have a short political career.’ He said that in caucus,” Turner told the Straight. “It was a threat.”
Less than a month later, Turner left the Conservative caucus to sit as an independent. He said on December 12 that Oda has recently claimed that the $5-million cut to Status of Women Canada is not really a reduction because the money will be applied to other services for women. Oda made the same claim in an opinion piece that her office faxed to the Straight on December 12.
“She says there are no cuts,” Turner said. “It leaves one to question: why did you make the big announcement as part of the $1 billion you were cutting? Maybe they had second thoughts and it is a decision that has been reversed and all the money has been added back in.”
Turner, an ex–revenue minister, said it’s a “minuscule amount of money” and a “dumb move” that pleases REAL Women, but has big implications for other groups. “It’s bad politics on one hand,” Turner commented. “But maybe for the neoconservatives, it’s good politics for their support group.”