If there was ever any doubt that the federal Liberals wanted to use their feminism as a political weapon, it will be put to rest this week.
About 9,000 activists and community organizers from around the world attending the Women Deliver summit in Vancouver this week will be the backdrop for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and five or six of his ministers to showcase their feminist credentials and launch two new initiatives designed to stand the test of electoral cycles and also bring in private-sector money.
It’s probably the last high-profile spending announcement Trudeau will make in Canada before the election campaign begins, and the goal is twofold: to make a legacy statement about feminism and to make sure no future governments can revoke it — even if they happen to have qualms about the pro-choice or feminist-activist bent of the recipients.
“We need to anchor the progress we’ve made, and prevent it from being eroded,” said Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef in an interview.
Monsef, who is also international development minister, will kick off the four-day conference on Sunday with the rollout of $300 million first booked in 2018 and now being awarded to a consortium of organizations and financiers to bolster feminist activism and women’s groups in Canada and globally. They will call it the Equality Fund.
Make no mistake, this is not money only meant to help mothers in developing countries feed their children, as most of the aid destined for women usually is.
Rather, details of the Equality Fund shared with the Star show that the funding will be used to raise even more money from philanthropists and community organizations, and then divvied up among underfunded organizations that advocate for women’s rights and gender equality.
The consortium includes women’s rights organizations such as Match International, development organizations like Oxfam Canada, domestic groups such as Community Foundations of Canada, and financing firms such as Royal Bank of Canada and Maryland-based Calvert Impact Capital.
The consortium aims to turn the government’s $300 million into $1 billion in contributions and then spend the next 15 years issuing grants, raising more money, and supporting feminist activism in Canada and around the world. They have already raised $100 million on top of the government’s $300 million despite not having officially launched.
There’s an interesting, experimental part of the initiative. Some of the funds will be invested for “social impact” — in companies and projects that are meant to give investors a financial return for supporting feminist-friendly firms and ventures.
Social impact investing holds the fascination of many philanthropists and government officials involved in funding social programs, but it’s only in its infancy in Canada. In this case, the bankers will manage some of the funds and invest them in debt instruments or shares of companies that adhere to a strict list of feminist principles such as pay equity, representation of women on boards, enabling child care and incorporating gender-equity strategies into daily work.
Pro-choice is a given in everything the Equality Fund will do, explains Jess Tomlin, chief executive officer of Match International Women’s Fund and one of the key designers of the initiative.
The returns from those investments will in turn be distributed as grants to activist organizations in Canada, developing countries and emerging markets, she says, with the goal “to disrupt the charity model.”
The government money is the stimulus, but the longevity of the fund and its ability to act quickly and with flexibility come from the power of the non-governmental organizations, philanthropists and foundations involved in the collaboration.
Tomlin talks about the need for stable funding for organizations that help women by promoting pay equity legislation, fighting to end genital mutilation or ensuring reproductive rights.
But at the political level, there’s no question of election motives too. Monsef mentions all the same causes as Tomlin, but she also has an eye on the Conservatives. From her point of view, under Stephen Harper, women’s organizations in Canada saw their funding destabilized and cut, and the same thing is happening under Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
Win or lose in October, she is determined that the Equality Fund will thrive.
Heather Scoffield is an economics columnist based in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @hscoffield