VANCOUVER—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to power describing himself as a feminist and unveiled Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet.
This week, at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver, he reflected on his role as a feminist leader. Standing on stage, Trudeau said he was disappointed by his progress in ensuring women are paid as much as men for the same work, responding to a question about his shortcomings from Star Vancouver.
“Despite the work that we’ve been doing over the past few years, Canada is not a global leader when it comes to making sure that women and men get paid the same amounts for work of equal value,” he said.
While internationally applauded, at home Trudeau has faced increased scrutiny over his refusal (thus far) to repeal laws that affect Indigenous women and sex workers, his reluctance to use the term “genocide” when referring to Canada’s treatment of Indigenous women and girls, and for his office’s treatment of former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Star Vancouver reached out to five prominent advocates to ask how they would grade Trudeau — a former teacher himself — as a feminist prime minister, nearly four years into his time in office.
Co-founder of Slut Walk, a transnational movement combating slut-shaming, and co-ordinator of Safe Harbour Outreach Project, which advocates for sex workers in St. John’s
Heather Jarvis is not impressed that Justin Trudeau’s government has not lived up to its promise to repeal a law against sex workers that puts them in danger.
This law, Bill C-36, was put in place by the Harper government and makes it illegal for anyone to pay for sex work or to work in a support position for a sex worker. For example, if a person acts as a security guard for another sex worker — something sex workers often do for each other, Jarvis explained — that person can be charged for enabling a sex worker.
Trudeau promised he would change these laws if he was elected, Jarvis said. But he hasn’t followed through.
“Sex workers continued to hold them to that in the last four years, and they’ve repeatedly said, ‘Now’s not the right time, we have other issues that come first,’” she said.
This, she said, is a constant problem where people who claim they are feminists don’t take action.
“I think we have too many worrying examples of men who call themselves feminists, while simultaneously upholding systems that hurt women. Justin Trudeau as a prime minister is still existing and upholding systems of government of the state that were built by men for men and that have legacies of violence.”
Trudeau’s government initially said it was committed to reviewing the law, but repealing it was not mentioned in the Minister of Justice mandate letter after the party came to power.
However, Jarvis still think it’s good that Trudeau is willing to talk about feminism on the international stage.
“There’s a lot of celebration here (at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver) for Justin Trudeau as our prime minister. And I think it is important that we have a prime minister who can talk about violence against women and sound a bit informed, who can talk about our LGBTQI2S communities, who can back rights and policies to increase the protection of trans, non-binary and two-spirit people.”
2. Jamileh Naso
Outreach co-ordinator for the Canadian Council of Young Feminists
Jamileh Naso thinks Trudeau doesn’t get enough credit for taking a risk and coming out as a feminist.
“The F-word is a very scary word for a lot of people, especially for men in power, so for him to come out as a leader of a country to say that he’s a feminist and supports the women’s movement, it really means a lot,” she said.
Trudeau’s promotion of feminism is having an impact on young people, she said.
“You have young boys that are growing up in this generation of Trudeau government and girls growing up saying, ‘You know, feminist isn’t a scary word,’ and believing in women’s rights and that equality of women is normalized in the public.”
Naso also commends Trudeau’s work in bringing a “gendered lens” to decision-making within the government. For example, this means that when the government is considering implementing a new program in a community, it must also consider how the program will affect women, girls and other marginalized community members, Naso said.
For Trudeau to bump his grade up to an A, Naso wants him to speak out more about abortion rights. She wants to see him publicly stand up to Canadian politicians who voice anti-abortion views and to say, “It’s not a debate, women have autonomy over their own body.”
She’s also keen to see that the federal government pulls through on the recommendations of the newly released inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“That should be priority No. 1,” she said. “I don’t think anything should come before the relationship with the Indigenous population and Indigenous women and girls.”
Lifelong Indigenous women’s rights activist, lawyer, college instructor
Sharon McIvor has spent much of her life fighting for justice for Indigenous women. Specifically, she challenged aspects of the Indian Act in court and won. But she’s angry that Trudeau’s government has not fully implemented the changes the courts recommended and that the Canadian Senate tried to write into law.
“Justin Trudeau from my perspective is a feminist when it’s politically OK, but at heart and really deep down he really doesn’t care about equality, especially for Indigneous women.”
The Indian Act is a piece of legislation that sets out the terms of the relationship between Indigneous people and the Canadian government. It also sets out the definition of who the government recognizes as an “Indian” and thus gives “status” to.
As it stands currently, Indigenous women can’t pass their status down to their descendants with the same ease as Indigenous men. For example, McIvor can’t pass down her “Indian status” to her grandkids, but her brother can.
To fix this, senators made amendments to the Indian Act to remove the sexist discrimination, but Trudeau refused to pass the bill with those changes, McIvor said. And even though a January 2019 UN Human Rights Committee ruled it needed to change, the amendments to the bill are still in limbo.
“The legislation is sitting there now, and so any time that the cabinet meets (every Tuesday) … they can actually bring into effect legislative sections that will in law, make the Indigenous women equal to their male counterparts,” she said.
The federal government says it is working on the issue. It is supposed to provide an update to parliament on next steps for the legislation on June 12
Lifelong Catholic feminist activist, university instructor
Rosemary Ganley worked alongside Justin Trudeau in 2018, writing a report on the G7. She attended the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver and brought along a costume from the Handmaid’s Tale — the Margaret Atwood dystopian novel in which women’s fertility and daily freedoms are tightly controlled — to draw attention to a global pushback against women’s rights.
Ganley think’s Trudeau’s feminism is “a genuine commitment,” and his recent announcement to increase global aid for women’s and girls’ health to $1.4 billion annually comes from “a profound feminist understanding of the world.”
“The Americans have drawn back on women and children’s health, they’ve drawn back on any real humanitarian engagement of the world … but particularly Canada has stepped up,” she said.
“In the rest of the world, Canada is punching way above its weight.”
But she’s disappointed the funding won’t come into effect until 2023, and that’s why she won’t give him an A.
“Waiting means more deaths, more malnutrition, more civil unrest, more misogyny, more violence against women, so any delay is regrettable.”
That said, she’s glad that so many women’s organizations will be seeing increased funding.
“I’m all in for this leadership.”
“This government has discerned that putting resources in the hands of women’s organizations is the way to make change. I come from the grassroots and speak from the grassroots and know that change is fostered at the grassroots, and women’s organizations have been doing it from around the world on a shoestring,” she said.
Ganley would also like to see Trudeau’s government find a way to step in and provide comprehensive sex education in provinces such as Alberta and Ontario, where it’s being pulled back.
Lawyer, Indigenous feminist
Naomi Sayers gave Trudeau an F for “fake feminist.”
“He hides behind feminism and uses his feminist hot takes to treat professional women, namely his former ministers and specifically his (former) justice minister (Jody Wilson-Raybould), in a demeaning and condescending manner,” she told Star Vancouver through a direct message on Twitter.
In February, Sayers wrote a “letter of support” to former justice minister and attorney general Wilson-Raybould, published by the Huffington Post days after Wilson-Raybould — then Veterans Affairs minister — resigned from cabinet.
Her resignation followed what Wilson-Raybould described to the House of Commons justice committee as “a sustained effort by many people within the government” to get her to interfere in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, an international engineering company. Trudeau has denied that either he or his staff acted inappropriately.
“If someone wonders what integrity is today, I hope they think of you. I know I will,” Sayers wrote in her open letter.
“I know you do not need my words of support, but I want you to know that you still give me hope, as an Indigenous woman and most certainly as an Indigenous lawyer.”
With files from Ainslie Cruickshank and David P. Ball.
Tessa Vikander is a Vancouver-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @tessavikander