Is Justin Trudeau living up to his self-proclaimed feminist ideals?
‘Feminist scorecard’ shows Canadian PM has only lived up to promise in one area, as critics say he is practising ‘token feminism’ for a narrow group of women
A slight note of exasperation crept into Justin Trudeau’s voice, suggesting that this was a topic he had broached many times before. “I’m going to keep saying loud and clearly that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug,” he declared to an audience at the United Nations in New York.
His words sparked delight around the world. But one year on, Trudeau’s heady promises have run into the realities of government, prompting the question: has electing a self-described feminist to helm the country translated into real change for Canadian women?
The answer seems to be no – or at least, not yet.
This month, Oxfam Canada released its first ever “feminist scorecard”, envisioned as a tool to track Trudeau’s progress. The group concluded that some 17 months after taking power, the prime minister and his team’s “bold feminist rhetoric has not yet translated into tangible spending decisions”.
No one doubts that scale of the challenge: as many as 4,000 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in the past three decades, while the number of Indigenous women in prison has rocketed. Child care costs in the country rank among the highest in the OECD, and a persistent pay gap has sent the country tumbling to 35th place in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap rankings.
According to Oxfam, solid progress has been demonstrated in just one area: women’s representation and leadership. “You can’t overstate the importance of the first gender-balanced cabinet in Canadian history,” said Lauren Ravon of Oxfam.
The government fared worst in the category of jobs, where Oxfam noted that no actions have been taken to address a gender wage gap that ranks among the worst in the OECD or to ensure living wages for the working poor, the majority of whom are women.
While the government has committed to tabling pay equity legislation for federally regulated sectors, it has said it will not do so until 2018.
Still, Oxfam was hopeful that the government would steadily improve its performance on the scorecard in the coming years. “For the most part we’ve seen good first signs. Things are moving in the right direction,” said Ravon. “As the Liberal government embarks on the second year of its mandate, it is time to turn feminist words into action.”
Among those who have been left waiting are Indigenous women and girls, said Pamela Palmater, who heads the centre for indigenous governance at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Trudeau came into power vowing to overhaul the fraught relationship between Canada and its Indigenous people, rattling off promises that ranged from extending the right to self-determination to making significant investments in First Nation education.
To date, little progress has been made. “Trudeau is failing on literally every promise to Indigenous peoples generally and Indigenous women and girls specifically,” said Palmater.
While the government did launch the long-awaited inquiry into the thousands of missing and murdered women in August, some seven months later the inquiry has yet to hold its first public hearing.
“Justin is practicing token feminism,” said Palmater. “He made his cabinet half women, but these are women who are already privileged and in power. So, essentially, he shared some power around a small group of elites.”
Palmater is not the only skeptic: others have asked if Trudeau is a “fake feminist” and questioned the depth of his commitment to the idea.
Many were incensed by Trudeau’s launch of a roundtable on female entrepreneurs alongside Donald Trump last month.
“How could the prime minister possibly sit down and discuss women in the workforce with President Trump without first denouncing his misogynist comments?” Sheila Malcolmson, an MP with Canada’s New Democratic party, asked in parliament.
Her party has consistently pushed Trudeau on the issue of gender equality, putting forward a bill last year that would have forced parties to nominate a greater number of female candidates to parliament. Despite the fact that just 26% of the MPs elected in Canada’s last election were women – a proportion that lags behind countries such as Uganda, Guyana and Laos – Trudeau’s Liberals were among those who voted against the bill, citing now cancelled plans to reform the country’s electoral system.
For Sharmeen Khan of No One Is Illegal Toronto, Trudeau’s reputation as a feminist has become an obstacle as the organisation attempts to draw attention to the government’s continued use of policies that marginalise some of the country’s most vulnerable, from temporary foreign workers to migrants without status.
“It is incredibly frustrating,” said Khan. “It’s been really difficult for us to put heat on this government or pressure them because I feel people have been like, ‘Why are you criticising this government?’, even though the policies haven’t changed since they got in.”
Some worry that might be exactly the point. So far, the prime minister has shown little interest in what Kathryn Trevenen, a University of Ottawa professor, described as the “radical edge” of feminism, which aims to tackle overlapping injustices and systems of oppression – a critical gap in a country where more than half of those living in poverty in Vancouver and Toronto belong to racial minorities and where nearly half of the children in foster care in the country are Indigenous.
Instead, Trudeau’s feminism is a version that is much more palatable to the mainstream, said Trevenen, focusing on women who are mostly straight, white, middle to upper class and cisgender. “I think that Justin Trudeau’s commitment to feminism comes out of a historically liberal type of feminism, one that often gets called white feminism these days, that focuses on giving rights and privileges to only a very narrow group of women.”
The distinction means it’s not clear that “Justin Trudeau is living up to the hype really, and living up to the name feminist”, said Trevenen. “If someone is going to claim the mantle of feminism, I want them to claim the mantle of that feminist – the intersectional feminism that looks for profound structural change – not the sort of white liberal feminism that involves the assimilation of a few privileged women into institutions of power.”