Former broadcaster, Marci Ien, was appointed Minister for Women, Gender Equality and Youth today. She takes over the relatively new department, Women and Gender Equality Canada, at a crucial time and in the face of enormous uncertainty and extraordinary challenges. Minister Ien and her new cabinet colleagues have much unfinished business ahead to advance gender equality and ensure an inclusive and gender just recovery.
Gender equality advocates were holding their collective breath going into Election 2021—waiting to see whether their hopes for universal quality child care would once again be dashed, waiting to see whether a National Action Plan to end Gender-based Violence would get off of the ground, and waiting to see whether meaningful income security reform for people with disabilities would finally proceed.
Advocates have fought many long hard years for these reforms, the need for which is acutely evident over these past 18 months as Canada’s beleaguered care economy was pushed to the limit and private market provision of essential supports like housing and long term care failed miserably to protect vulnerable people and marginalized communities.
During the election, the Conservative Party was effectively promising more of the same, more “cash for care”, more private market delivery, more laissez-faire economic policy. However, with the return of a minority Liberal government, the conditions are in place to move ahead with essential investments in our social infrastructure.
The women’s movement is mobilizing behind proposals for a gender just recovery—and we will see in a few years time whether this combination of ideas and action wins the day.
On this score, the impact of proposed investments in universal child care cannot be understated—in terms of its impact on children and families, female workers and the economy more broadly. People will look back on this election as the “child care election”—the moment Canada got serious about the care economy and inclusive growth.
But it is also true that despite the acknowledged impact of the pandemic on women in the different party platforms—and the high-profile debate about federal options for supporting child care—women’s rights and gender justice as called for by the Up for Debate coalition did not actually figure prominently in the campaign.
This isn’t an observation about the specifics of the different platforms and the proposals presented. As stated, gender equality advocates will be watching for parties to make good on their promises with swift action on the Calls for Justice from the MMIWG Inquiry, the speedy reform of EI now that emergency benefits have effectively ended and the introduction of the Canada Disability Benefit, the Employment Equity review, and action to ensure access to safe reproductive health care services in every province and territory.
Rather, it is an observation about the shift in the way that gender equality has been publicly discussed in recent years—if discussed at all—as either a diversion from substantive policy matters of the day or as a wedge issue to further define and divide the electorate rather than to move forward decisively with meaningful investment and change.
This is the difference between talking about substantive change and reducing the number of people living in poverty. This is the difference between talking about a National Action Plan and reducing the number of women returning to violent homes for lack of affordable housing. This is the difference between talking about a Canada Inclusion Plan and reducing the number of people abandoning their education or employment because no reliable attendant care is available.
To advance gender equality and tackle the entrenched disparities that undermine the health and well-being of marginalized women and communities, the Mandate Letters should include:
A firm mandate for care that involves: completing national plans for child care and caring services for seniors and people with disabilities (across the life course); developing national labour force strategies in key sectors such as health care that tackle challenges relating to education and training, certification, recruitment and retention; boosting federal transfers through bilateral and mutually negotiated agreements—tied to outcomes; and publicly reporting on progress at least once a year, using common metrics.
Urgent action to implement the Calls for Justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) under the direction of Indigenous women, and a comprehensive and appropriately-resourced National Action Plan to prevent and combat all forms of violence against women.
Immediate plans to strengthen Employment Insurance, transform the Canada Workers Benefit and create a Canada Disability Benefit so that all effectively reduce poverty—prioritizing those experiencing the deepest rates of poverty, now at heightened risk with the wind down of emergency benefits (See the 2022 Alternative Federal Budget, set for release on November 9th, for concrete solutions).
Increased investments in training and skills-building that prioritize women and other marginalized communities and updated employment protections for workers (e.g., 10 days of paid sick leave), especially for those in non-standard, precarious and/or informal employment.
A permanent Women and the Economy Task Force would be an excellent vehicle for monitoring the economic recovery, keeping up to date on new research and engaging the community in policy development.
Gender equality advocates are under no illusion that there is a fight ahead in communities across the country to realize the tremendous potential of Election 2021. The flourish of federal-provincial collaboration on display a year ago has all but disappeared; the vitriol on which our political system seems to thrive is back. The election, according to some, has further deepened these divisions.
There are no shortcuts. With respect to child care, there are several years of system building ahead, but the child care movement is mobilizing—in the provinces and territories that have announced bilateral agreements (NL, PEI, NS, QC, MB, SK, BC and Yukon) and those that have not (NB, ON, AB, NWT and NU).
Advocates in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Ontario have already released roadmaps for transforming the provision of child care from a market-based patchwork to a comprehensive, publicly managed and funded system. Municipalities in hold-out provinces are passing motions to enter into direct agreements with the federal government to participate in the federal child care plan.
The prospect of moving other key policy reforms forward hinges on the same formula driving transformation in child care: strong federal leadership, a willingness to set and enforce measurable national standards, and sustained and significant financial commitment. And, most importantly, sustained community advocacy.
The reason we are on the cusp of achieving a national child care program is because of the extraordinary efforts of countless people pushing for change for over 50 years. The women’s movement is mobilizing behind proposals for a gender just recovery—and we will see in a few years time whether this combination of ideas and action wins the day.