Sunday, 22 May 2011

The erosion of Canadian women's rights may continue under Harper majority

By Bobbie Saga

     Canadians will welcome 76 women to the House of Commons when it re-convenes for its 41st session, up by 8, for a total of 25 per cent of Canada's 308 Members of Parliament. It's an increase of 3 per cent over the 40th Parliament, and the single largest increase Canada has seen in over a decade. The numbers are said to be important by some because Canada now ranks in the top 40 countries in terms of women’s representation in national Parliaments.*

But what difference will these women make in shaping Canada’s public policy, and for the rights of Canadian women?

Christine Saulnier, Director for the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (NS), and Dr. Jennifer Smith, Professor of Government and Political Science, talked about it, and more, in this CTV interview, May 21. While Saulnier briefly discussed past issues of concern to women and the future direction of women's rights, Smith alluded to Tory talking points. Both views, however, clearly highlight thinly veiled concern, and more skepticism than certainties, on the future rights of Canadian women.

And there is good reason for concern. Many women and justice advocacy groups have long pointed to a number of Harper government past initiatives that spark both debate and controversy. While supporters continue to staunchly back Conservative policies, others hold the view that facts and past actions support claims of an ideologically driven agenda. It is the single most polarizing factor on a number of past policy decisions, and ones that indicate possible problems to come. These include, but are by no means limited to, the Bev Oda affair, the slashing of funding to the Status of Women Canada, plus the abolition of the Law Commission of Canada.

Bev Oda, former Minister of International Cooperation, was chastised for her disingenuous explanation to Parliament concerning de-funding of Canada’s long-standing financial support of KAIROS. For her actions, Oda is now considered by many to be the perfect poster-child of federal Conservative politicians and policies based on a seemingly anti-abortion stance.

Oda first stated in the House of Commons that bureaucrats rejected a KAIROS funding application when it was revealed someone inserted the word "not" on the document. But it was later discovered that, in fact, bureaucrats had actually approved the cash. Opposition members, smelling blood, quickly pounced on the issue by leveling a charge of political interference to stop the flow of money to the organization that supports all forms of planned parenting.

The allegation finally led to a ruling by House Speaker Peter Miliken March 9, that Oda was possibly in contempt of Parliament for her actions. He also ruled she would be subject to a Parliamentary committee review. It was one of two issues under review prior to the three opposition parties bringing down the Harper government on a contempt of Parliament motion March 25. The other was the Harper Government's lack of transparency over the G8/G20, the costs and implications of the corporate tax cuts, and the costs associated with the F35 fighter jets.**

During the election, abortion rights advocates held a news conference at the Morgentaler abortion clinic in Toronto. They charged that despite Stephen Harper’s promise not to reopen the abortion debate, women's reproductive rights will be restricted if the Conservatives were re-elected to form a majority government. Women's advocates had long ago stated he had made similar promises in the past only to break those promises. In an article written April 21 for the National Post, Sarah Boesveld wrote:

"What better place to discuss controversies about abortion funding than a place called Conception Bay?

"At a Newfoundland campaign stop Thursday, Stephen Harper said his government would never endorse anti-abortion legislation while in power, but the Conservative party leader stopped short of revealing his own views about abortion. He was shooting back at Saskatchewan incumbent MP Brad Trost’s assertion at a local Pro-Life conference earlier this month that the Tories have decided to "defund" International Planned Parenthood Federation, an organization that provides family health assistance, including abortions, to women all over the world. His statement that the Planned Parenthood funding issue was not a priority for Canadians triggered a torrent of online dissent from women’s rights advocates and members of the electorate on Thursday."

But no sooner had the election campaign ended, when a well-funded and organized group of protestors descended on Parliament Hill to express their anti-abortion views. It was a very vocal public statement which organizers call the "national march for life." The crowd of thousands, that also included a few hundred pro-choice activists, first demonstrated in front of Parliament's Peace Tower before moving off to parade through Ottawa streets. They waived placards urging the Harper government move to adopt a new abortion law. Still others carried religious slogans, while some beared gruesome photos of aborted fetuses. All was to mark the May 12, 1969 passage of legislation legalizing abortion in Canada.

To support claims federal Conservative policies take a bite out of women's rights, advocates point to the drastic past political shifts affecting organizations doing general work and research on behalf of Canadian women. Massive changes, for example, were made to the mandate and operation of Status of Women Canada. Due to funding cuts to the Trudeau-era agency, all but 4 of 16 offices closed nationwide April 1, 2007. The agency’s goals and previous objectives of helping women’s organizations participate in public policy was altered, and increasing public understanding of equality issues was also all but gone. As well, the word "equality" was eliminated from Canadian Government literature.

Initially, advocacy groups thought the core program for the Status of Women had escaped going onto the chopping block, but the administrative side of the agency felt the pain of the axe in the fall of 2006. Oda, then Status of Women minister, announced the government would no longer be funding the Status of Women for projects involving advocacy work, lobbying of government, or general research. It was to become the new terms and conditions laid down by the Harper government. While Oda kept herself unavailable for comment, others were both outraged and shocked by the move.

"When you look at this Conservative government’s policy it’s like, ‘Be good girls, be quiet.’ It’s shocking, really," Monica Lysack, Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada spokesperson, said at the time.

Yet perhaps for Canadian women, another disconcerting policy shift was closure of the Law Commission of Canada. The once independent Commission, created by an Act of Parliament in 1997, worked very well, questioning existing approaches to Canadian law, as well as keeping an eye on necessary reforms with an aim of making them responsive to the needs and expectations of Canadians; most notably, those laws related to violence against women – particularly domestic violence. Women, critics charged, are identified as the victims of many brutal acts and are still the vast majority of victims of domestic violence in all its forms. The Commission couldn’t actually change law; but its job was to let government and everybody else know when changes were needed and why they were needed. But again, and with that move, funding for the Commisssion was completely gone.†

© Saga Times 2011

*The New Democratic Party leads the way with 40 women elected, or 39 percent of its successful candidates. The Bloc Québécois elected one woman of the four remaining BQ Members, while Conservative and Liberal women members comprise 28 and 6, or 17 and 18 per cent respectively. Further, the Green Party made history in electing Elizabeth May, its national leader, who now serves as its sole woman and voice of the Green Party.

National results (# of women elected of total seats - by party)

18 %17%39%25%100% 

**Bev Oda was re-elected to a fourth term May 2. In an article published following the initial results of the election, it was reported Oda said she, "enjoyed her international work as the minister of international cooperation, bringing 'practical new thinking' to the table and seeing the respect Canada's reputation has in countries across the globe."

With only 4 per cent more votes cast for Oda over all other combined candidates, the win was reported to be a "landslide" victory. The unofficial results for her riding of Durham were: Total voter turnout -- 58,195 of 91,165 registered electors, or 63.8 per cent. By party and candidate the results were:

Conservative Bev Oda -- 31,431 votes, 54 per cent;
New Democratic Party Tammy Schoep -- 12,551 votes, 21.6 per cent;
Liberal Grant Humes -- 10,389 votes, 17.9 per cent;
Green Party Stephen Leahy -- 3,138 votes, 5.4 per cent;
Christian Heritage Party Andrew Moriarity -- 498 votes, 0.9 per cent;
Libertarian Blaize Barnicoat -- 188 votes, 0.3 per cent.

† Brian Mulroney's majority government got rid of the Law Reform Commission of Canada, leaving a great lacuna when it came to objective criminal law research and writing. The Law Reform Commission of Canada (1971-1993, 1997 - 2006) was part of Pierre Trudeau's Just Society. It began operation as a permanent independent body, and by an Act of Parliament, to study and undertake a systematic review of Canadian Law. The LRCC recommended improvement, modernization and reform of some federal laws and deletion of others, as well as providing a basis for philosophical inquiry into legal issues. In 1997 the Chretien government re-established both the organization and its mandate under the Law Commission of Canada.


Canadian Union of public Employees, press release, December 1, 2006
Criminal Law Quarterly, Editorial, Volume 52, Number 1, November 2006
CTV News, Atlantic Bureau, May 21, 2011
Department of Justice Canada, Press Release, Ottawa, May 10, 2005
Durhamregion, Jennifer O’meara, Durham, May 3, 2011
Elections Canada, May 22, 2011
National Council of Women of Canada, Press Release, May 3, 2011
National Post, Sarah Boesveld, Conception Bay, April 21, 2011
The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Historica Foundation of Canada, 2011
The Canadian Press, Ottawa, May 12, 2011
The Canadian Press, Toronto, Thursday, October 5, 2006
The Star, Bruce Campion-Smith and Allan Woods, Ottawa Bureau, March 9, 2011

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