Thursday, August 16, 2012

No She Can't: The Harper Government and REAL Women of Canada

This past primary season generated a lot vitriol towards women and women's issues, predominantly abortion and birth control. Commentators, pundits, and politicians alike have decried the Right for waging a War on Women. Some critics even suggested that the current mindset of the modern-day Republican Party lies within the Middle Ages -- enter Rick Santorum.

In Canada, we've had our own flirtation with regression when it came to women's rights. This Spring, Conservative MP Steven Woodworth proposed re-opening the debate on abortion and the right to life. Of course, a heavy stream of opposition headed his way and rightfully so. Since 1988, Canadian women have the right to terminate their pregnancy as part of their Charter right to security of the person. This was probably one of the most significant and famous Supreme Court rulings in recent history as it not only shows the potency of the newly-entrenched Charter of Rights and Freedoms but the progression of Canada as a whole.

Woodworth encountered the frustration and disapproval from women's groups who held demonstrations and protests in cities across Canada. Women took to social media by storm, flooding Woodworth’s Facebook and Twitter accounts with details of their reproductive health. Despite all of this dissent, the story is far from being over. A recent article in The Globe and Mail states that doctors who are members of the Canadian Medical Association want to squash any "backdoor" deals made by Woodworth to table his proposal. Although part of his caucus, Stephen Harper himself didn't back the motion -- M312 -- but stated that MPs are allowed to propose legislation pieces.

So, this brings me to a question: How has the Harper government contributed to the progression of women and women’s rights in Canada?

First, it's important to assess the amount of women MPs currently holding seats in the House of Commons.

The election in 2011 saw an unprecedented amount of women elected into office -- out of the 308 seats in the House of Commons, 76 are occupied by female MPs. Most noteworthy is Elizabeth May, the leader of the Federal Green Party, who finally secured a seat after years of working in politics. Despite having one seat, her presence has been most influential considering her role in the Budget Amendments. Moreover, most of the female MPs were from the NDP, now the Official Opposition mostly due to Jack Layton's performance in Quebec. Out of the 102 NDP MPs elected in the 2011 election, 40 of them are women.

The record-breaking number of women MPs -- from all political stripes -- is indeed encouraging. But, we still have a long way to go. According to Equal Voice, an organization committed to bridging the gender gap in the political process, Canada ranks 40th in Inter-Parliamentary Union. However, the NDP has demonstrated a commitment to encourage more women to run for pubic office. Two women -- MPs Niki Ashton and Peggy Nash -- were contenders for the leadership position for the NDP this past Spring. And, NDP leadership candidate and current MP for Ottawa Centre Paul Dewar proposed his strategy to advance women's involvement in politics and entreprise during his campaign. You can read the whole plan here, wonderfully titled, "A Woman's Place: At the Heart of Our Democracy, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Future."

As noble and progressive this plan is, it's difficult to assess as to whether it would actually work and operate successfully. Nonetheless, it's more than the Tories can say.

Speaking of which, out of the 167-member Conservative caucus that currently holds the majority, only 28 of them are women. Harper's Cabinet, which is composed of 37 other Members of Parliament, only nine are women. Nine! Contrast that with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's Shadow Cabinet where 17 female MPs are poised to be a part of the cabinet, if given a majority.

In terms of what Harper has done to advance women's rights in Canada, the results are very disappointing. As soon as Harper took office, he made significant drawbacks to programs and facilities that help Canadian women in several, several ways. To wit:
- Effectively eliminating the $1B National Child Care program, bolstering evidence that Canada is one of the most regressive countries when it comes to early children's education.
- Moreover, maternal care is at a dangerous level for Canada right now as more and more women die while giving birth. In fact, a woman giving birth in Bosnia and Herzegovina has a better chance at surviving than in Canada.
- Halting funding for the Sisters in Spirit database for Aboriginal Women in Canada who are missing
- Closing 12 out of 16 offices for the Status of Women Canada
- Cutting $1M for a research fund sponsored by the Status of Women Canada
- Didn't improve pay equity for women despite making it one of his campaign promises
- Increasing the age of retirement and cutting back on OAS when approximately 17% of senior women are living below the poverty line
- Slashing public sector jobs which has proven to offer more equitable pay rates for women than private sector jobs

You can read more detailed descriptions of the cuts and how they impact the lives of Canadian girls and women here, here, and here.

Probably one of the most telling and harrowing outcomes of major blowbacks to social assistance programs for women is an inability for them to reach out to their community and seek for help. Especially if they're in dire need like an abusive relationship, for example. In the early to mid nineties, when Ontario was under Conservative rule with PC Premier Mike Harris, a 1996 report issued by the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses suggested that 66% of women stayed in an abusive relationship simply because they did not have enough access to social assistance.* That's just across a province. Imagine the entire country, devoid of any assistance programs to help and protect its own citizens. 

However, there is a group of women who are fiercely and proudly Conservative. In fact, they are REAL Women of Canada -- whatever that's supposed to mean. According to their official website, their view runs counter to that of "established feminist groups" and seeks to emphasize that the "family is the most important unit in society." Although this NGO -- which claims to be non-partisan, by the way -- wants to progress women in the workplace, its real goal is to focus the debate back on the woman's role as the primary care provider for children and the family. In fact, they call themselves "pro-family."

I'm not too sure what constitutes as "anti-family." Working? Common-law relationships? Same-sex relationships? Abortion?

Well, REAL Women seem to oppose a woman's right to choose, believing that a woman should care for each member of her family, born or unborn. Using anti-feminist rhetoric, REAL Women claim that it is feminists themselves who are the oppressors in this issue, not the other way around.

On Same-Sex Unions, REAL Women are not in favour of them, arguing that they are not a real relationship because the union could never spawn children. I have to say, most of what's reported in this newsletter on same-sex relationships is pretty disgraceful. I mean, suggesting that homosexual couples are inherently unfaithful, unwilling to commit, and are just plain not real, is insulting to a significant amount of women, approximately 3 472 married couples**, who this organization supposedly represents.

And REAL Women do not support common-law relationships, at all. Again, in their newsletter, REAL Women argue that common-law relationships are "not a safe place to be in, physically, financially, or emotionally." Of course, it's indisputable that there are tax benefits for the married, but to suggest that common-law relationships are noxious, especially when an increasing number of women, approximately half of all Canadian women between the ages of 20 to 29, decided to choose an alternative to marriage.

Lastly, REAL Women have a rather peculiar approach to equal pay for equal work and I feel that I should leave it to their own statement. From their position paper on Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value:
We oppose, however, the new different concept of equal pay for work of equal value, which is a comparison of different jobs for several reasons...The equal value concept means government wage control, since the government bureaucracy is required to oversee and enforce the program -- rather than having wages reflect the forces of supply and demand -- in the marketplace, regulated by laws that ensure fairness to all.
So, REAL Women of Canada are essentially against their own interests with matters other than the family. Instead of fighting issues that would advance women -- like working, pay equity, abortion, common-law relationships -- they do the exact opposite and pine for a 1950s reality where women were routinely oppressed and discriminated against. When Harper released his budget in 2007, REAL Women of Canada championed the cuts, calling them a "good start." They claim that all the cuts inhibit the actions of feminists who do not represent the interests of real Canadian women. One of the main duties for the Status of Women in Canada is to fund and assist rape crisis facilities. But, remember, according to REAL Women of Canada, cutting these services is a good start.

So, we have a completely disastrous record from the Harper government and an equally absurd women's group who supports this government. Both of these issues are compounded by the fact that the Conservatives are not big fans of dissent -- at any level, and certainly not when it comes to women's rights. The Centre for Canadian Policy Alternatives*** have called the Conservatives and their assault on basic rights to free speech as "unprecedented in Canadian history" as women's services are defunded thereby limiting their right to speak out. Moreover, by tabling legislation like Public Sector Equitable Act, wages are determined by the "market demand" meaning women are competitively stacked up against men who are paid more anyways, sticking with discriminatory policies of the past. But, by eliminating the Court Challenges option, it's not like these women can oppose these antiquated payment policies.

Canadian women have certainly come a long way, making impact after impact with each turning decade. Prime Minsters, of course, have helped paved the way for all Canadian women seeking to achieve equality under the workplace and within their own lives. In 1993, Canada made history when PC Leader Kim Campbell became Prime Minster all for a mere four months. So, the seemingly impenetrable glass-ceiling that is still a burden to the United States has almost become chards for Canada.

But, not quite.

As mentioned before, we still have a long way to go. However, it doesn't seem like Harper and the REAL Women of Canada are helping us make any significant progress.

*Gordon Laird, Slumming It at the Rodeo: The Cultural Roots of Canada's Right-Wing Revolution, (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1998), 151.
**According to CBC, there are 7, 500 married same-sex couples in Canada, with 46.3% of them being marriage between two women. So, simple math was done to acquire that number.
***This piece in the CCPA is suggested reading.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, lots of shady stuff involving this organization. They were part, and as far as I'm aware, part of the real 'conspiracy' in having a director and other members in the beginning of the Northern Foundation.