Status of women cannot be a mere token

  • National Newswatch

After a much awaited briefing with the officials of Status of Women Canada, I was shocked to learn its total budget is a meager $29.6 million to address the challenges of over fifty percent of the population, only four offices serve the needs of women across the country, and “commemorative dates for women are an important focus for this government”.Canadians should therefore ask whether the Department is becoming a token nod to Canadian women, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of women and girls hurt in Canada, and unaddressed women's issues cost the Canadian economy billions of dollars.The modest $29.6 million was explained away by the fact that “other departments” also fund women. I asked whether the government collects this information, whether there was a complete accounting of funding of women's programs across government, and could I indeed have the information. It was no surprise that the government does not track this information—ironic, as community boards with half the money can provide a detailed accounting of each disbursement.Of the $29.6 million, $19 million is allocated to grants and contributions, and is delivered through only four points of service for the country: Edmonton, Moncton, Montreal and Ottawa. When I asked how many offices there had been, what cuts had been made, and over what time period they had been closed, no answers were given, and the conversation was, as you would expect, deflected.So here is the history. In November 2006, CBC reported that the Conservative government was closing down 12 of its 16 Status of Women offices by April 1st--and cutting 61 of 131 jobs--, as they were supposedly not doing enough to serve women directly.Heritage Minister Bev Oda said at the time, “What these offices don't necessarily provide is the help directly to women. There was a lot of lobbying groups, there was a lot of advocacy.” Since when do we not want regional offices that are closest to those working on the ground speaking up for women, particularly marginalized women?If her initial comment was not bad enough, she continued: “We don't need to separate the men from the women in this country. This government as a whole is responsible to develop policies and programs that address the needs of both men and women.”Perhaps the Minister did not understand that women face long-standing challenges in this country that need to be addressed—for example, the fight for pay equity and a national child care program--that extend back to 1915 and to 1970 respectively.During the briefing, we were stunned to learn that pay equity is not an issue for the government. The reality is that women earn roughly twenty percent less than men, face barriers to employment, strive to break through the “glass ceiling”, and one third of all women in Canada suffer violence. Canadians should therefore ask where the government stands on women's equality, and the issue of women's rights as human rights.Canadians should demand to know why only $62 million has gone towards ending violence against women and girls since 2007 when the human costs are incalculable, and the economic costs to the Canadian economy range between $4 to $12 billion each year.Instead of addressing pay equity, for example, the lack of which means about $126 billion in lost income potential of women in Canada, the Minister was more interested in freeing up $700,000 from unnecessary rent and utility bills after a $5 million funding cut.The second item I learned is that the gender based analysis which feeds into each budget cycle is protected by cabinet secrecy, and that analyses cannot therefore be ATIPed. Is it not time that we have an equality act, an equality statement with each budget, and equality impact assessments of policies to see if Canada is actually making progress on human rights and on its promises?The third issue I learned is that commemorative dates for women are important, as we have seen repeatedly, for example, with the tribute for the War of 1812. We should all remember that the government came under fire for its planned spending of over $28 million for the celebration. Astonishingly, this was almost as much as the allocation for the Status of Women.We must never forget the horrors women have faced, or we will be doomed to repeat them. We must never forget their triumphs either, so that we can be inspired by them, and we can build on them.But Canadian women need more than commemorative days; they need policies that will address the challenges they face. Canadians should be absolutely outraged to learn that Status of Women Canada has only $10 million for policy development to address such issues ranging from pay equity to child care to 600 missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls.Canadians should demand that Status of Women be bolstered, not systematically starved, and that the real challenges women and girls face be addressed. Girls must be taught to protect themselves from violence, from sexually transmitted infections, and to know how to get help should they need it; and that it is the job of the government to ensure that the necessary supports are available.Girls and young women should be made aware that the world is available to them, and that the job opportunities are endless—for example, higher paying science, math and technology jobs--that they are ensured equal pay for equal work, and equal representation in the board room.The Conservative government must ensure that women who want to work, or want to work more hours, are able to contribute fully to the economy of Canada. This is not just an equality issue — it's an economic issue. In today's competitive global marketplace Canada's future depends on it.Kirsty Duncan, M.P., is the Liberal party critic for CIDA, consular affairs, and status of women.