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Yes, a year, and a regime change, can really make a difference

By Nancy Peckford      

All these efforts are enriching the conversation and providing opportunities for women and men both to engage in meaningful discussion on women’s equality—and how to finally get there.

Liberal MP Pam Damoff, Equal Voice national chair Lynne Hamilton, Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu, Equal Voice's Nancy Peckford, and Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld. Photograph courtesy of Lynne Hamilton
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OTTAWA—Fifty-one weeks ago, parties were entering the final stretch of a 10-week federal election campaign, the longest in Canada’s history. With the writ having dropped in the dead heat of summer, candidates had knocked on doors for months as they attempted to get on the radar of families preparing for the back-to-school frenzy and the Thanksgiving holiday.

While the thousands of hours that candidates and their teams invested in local campaigns may be long forgotten, the energy and ideas they brought forward were key to a vigorous election that saw the Liberals sweep the polls, and voter turnout jump by seven points.

Despite the loss of many talented women from the New Democratic and Conservative caucuses, the most significant shift on Parliament Hill post-election for women writ large has been the appointment of a gender-balanced cabinet. An election promise made in June 2015, it was part of a package of bold, if not provocative, reforms the Liberal Party was offering up.

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Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

At the time, this promise was a side note, an intriguing idea, but perhaps a bit far fetched. The Liberal campaign had likely taken its cue from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley who, with her stunning win in Alberta just eight weeks earlier, had appointed a gender-balanced cabinet. But she was a New Democrat in far away Alberta, and a female leader.

When the Liberals swept much of the country, many wondered if the new prime minister would act on his commitment. Several pundits and commentators, mostly male, wrung their hands at the prospect. Would the calibre of cabinet take a real hit in the face of a gender equality imperative? Who, they opined, of the 188 men in the Liberal caucus, would be overlooked?

We all know the end of this story. In the end, the appointment of a gender-balanced cabinet enabled the PM to put a fresh face on government, and tap both seasoned and first-time female MPs to do some of the heavy lifting.

Of course, it hasn’t been perfect. Equal Voice was recently highly critical of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform’s deliberations in which male experts completely dominated the witness list. It will take time and more political will to fully integrate a substantive gender-equality approach into the complex decision-making apparatus of the bureaucratic and political arenas in Ottawa. But the change in tone and approach to the women’s equality file cannot be overstated.

At a reception marking the beginning of Women’s History Month this past week, Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu who, before being elected in 2015, ran the Thunder Bay homeless shelter, reflected on the importance of women’s activism in driving social change.

She invited a diverse array of women to come together to celebrate advocates who, more often than not, are ( in her words) “speaking truth to power.” Truth that can undermine the success or status of those who dare to speak it. Truth which motivates and drives feminists—in particular—to seek significant, and often unpopular, societal change. Truth that has not always been clearly heard or embraced by previous regimes.

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Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu, pictured in this file photo.

Hadju took the opportunity to celebrate those who often go against the grain, and who find themselves challenging governments and mainstream norms on a regular basis. She also emphasized that “advocacy” is once again an eligible activity for women’s organizations seeking funding from her department.

This is a significant and positive change given how groups—under the last government and dramatically different rules—had to morph their advocacy efforts into the more benign ‘education and awareness opportunities’ in order to access public dollars. In a country with a weak philanthropic culture which offers limited support for the “non-charitable” sector, access to government funds are a crucial component to attracting other partners and producing results in a timely way.

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Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose. Photograph courtesy of Flickr

Perhaps not surprisingly, Conservative interim leader leader Rona Ambrose who served as Status of Women minister in the previous government, is also keen to also show her commitment to women’s equality. While in the U.K. for a conference of British conservatives, she took the time to highlight the plight of Yazidi women, a Kurdish minority group who are fleeing persecution by Islamic militants. This isn’t a one off. Ambrose has always had a strong interest in women’s experiences, and since becoming interim leader, has repeatedly taken the opportunity to underscore her party’s commitment to women’s equality.

Ambrose also moved quickly to appoint a female House Leader, Candice Bergen, after Liberal MP Bardish Chagger made history in being promoted as the first female House leader of a federal governing party. Though some of Ambrose’s views on abortion and childcare remain controversial, there is no doubt that she is committed to leveraging her position to shine the light on certain egregious violations of women’s human rights.

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Government House Leader Bardish Chagger. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

But much of this would not have the same weight without the concerted and sustained effort by the current prime minister, Hajdu and his team to insist that gender equality matters. That women matter. The contagion effect is notable not simply across parties but can be seen in how male MPs are operating as well.

Just two weeks ago, Liberal MP Sven Spengemann introduced a private member’s bill on the establishment of an annual gender equality week. He is using his own political capital and commitment to advance the issue of women’s equality. NDP MP Kennedy Stewart has also spent significant time and resources lobbying for his private member’s bill which would correlate the amount parties are reimbursed for federal election campaigns with the number of women they run.

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Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

All these efforts are enriching the conversation and providing opportunities for women and men both to engage in meaningful discussion on women’s equality—and how to finally get there. And the fact that the issues surrounding women’s equality are viewed as having cache among Parliamentarians and their leaders says a lot about how far the yardstick has moved in less than a year.

Nancy Peckford is executive director of Equal Voice.

The Hill Times 

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