Ottawa Citizen

Liberals accused of using feminism as political weapon

- Joanna Smith


Rachael Harder took it as a personal insult.

“Women and girls from across this country had a prime minister stand up and say, ‘As the prime minister of Canada, it is up to me to dictate whether or not you hold the right beliefs,’ ” said the Conservati­ve MP for Lethbridge, Alta.

“What prevents him from saying that to any one of the women in this room?”

She was speaking to a crowd of Ottawa-area Conservati­ves gathered at a pub overlookin­g the Rideau River one weeknight last month, referring to the time last fall when Liberal MPs on the House of Commons status of women committee decided to block her nomination as chair over her views on abortion.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau backed the move, saying the committee should be led by someone who would unequivoca­lly defend the rights of women.

“There is a prime minister that claims to be a feminist prime minister,” Harder, the Conservati­ve critic for the status of women, said in an interview.

“Yet, he has shown very little to no respect for personal choice or individual liberties among women.”

Trudeau has made the push for gender equality a top priority for his Liberal government.

The gender-balanced budget. The feminist internatio­nal assistance policy. The proposed gender chapter in the North American Free Trade Agreement. The G7 gender equality advisory council, featuring none other than Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.

And, of course, the because-it’s-2015 response when a reporter asked Trudeau why he chose to name an equal number of men and women to cabinet.

The Liberal government has firmly branded itself as a feminist one. So, where does that leave a Conservati­ve woman who considers herself a feminist?

Sabrina Sotiriu, 31, who came to hear Harder speak that night, said it leaves her frustrated. And, reluctantl­y, a little impressed.

“I hate it,” she said with a laugh, “but I think it’s very successful.”

Sotiriu, a Conservati­ve staffer on Parliament Hill, said the Liberals have done a good job of defining feminism on their own terms, so that if critics disagree with the Liberal approach to gender issues, or the economy, they’ll be dismissed as an anti-feminist.

“You know, you have to be progressiv­e and progressiv­ism has to do with feminism and if you’re not progressiv­e, you’re not feminist,” she said.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau suggested as much when he appeared before the House of Commons finance committee to discuss the budget, which had undergone, for the first time in Canadian history, a genderbase­d analysis.

“Isn’t this just a way to get a woman’s vote?” Conservati­ve MP Lisa Raitt, the deputy leader of her party, needled him at the meeting.

Morneau said he took offence — and then he went on the offensive.

“My view is that we will be more successful collective­ly if we’re actually able to successful­ly promote women into leadership roles,” he said.

“We will drag along the neandertha­ls who don’t agree with that, and that will be our continuing approach.”

Rachel Curran, who served as policy director to Conservati­ve prime minister Stephen Harper, said that as a longtime feminist, the commitment to championin­g the rights of women was one of the things she liked about Trudeau when he first came to power.

Now, she thinks the Liberals are using feminism as a political weapon.

“They are turning gender issues into this sort of wedge issue or identity-politics issue, which pits women who maybe hold a certain set of beliefs, or approach women’s issues or feminism in a certain way, against what the government sees as the true or correct or right version of feminism,” she said.

The controvers­y over the Canada Summer Jobs program is seen as one such example.

The Liberal government is now requiring organizati­ons seeking federal grants for hiring summer students to attest to their respect for sexual and reproducti­ve health rights — including abortion — as well as other human rights.

Many faith-based organizati­ons said they were being forced into choosing between their values and grants that helped them run programs having nothing to do with abortion.

There are also ideologica­l difference­s in approaches to gender issues that are more broadly about how Conservati­ves and Liberals view the world, which, according to Harder, boils down to this: equality of opportunit­y versus equality of outcome.

To illustrate her point, she brings up a figure included in the 2018 federal budget: women represent four per cent of apprentice­s in skilled trades. The budget committed $19.9 million over five years for a pilot grant program aimed at narrowing the gap.

“Should we be making sure that all barriers are taken down and women have the opportunit­y to enter these fields? Yes, absolutely. But should we be somehow social engineerin­g a society where there is 50-per-cent women and 50-per-cent men in every single sector?”

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