Columnists

Ashifa Kassam
2008: Stephen Harper vs. women

| January 8, 2009
As 2008 fades into memory, one can't help but point out that it was an interesting year for women.

South of the border, the world watched as a woman ran for what is arguably the most powerful job in the world. When that saga had played out, we watched as another woman set her sights on being vice-president of the same country.

In Canada, the political scene was no less dramatic. 2008 marked the year that women became equal to men - at least according to the Harper government. That must have been what they were insinuating when they attempted to axe women's right to appeal for pay equity to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The move came bundled in their ill-fated November economic statement.

Pattern would suggest that this move wasn't borne out of the belief that women in Canada have achieved equality to men, but rather is the latest blow in a series of attacks on women's rights by the Harper government.

This is, after all, the same government that killed plans for national childcare, drastically cut funding to Status of Women and ended the court challenges program that sought to help women and minorities fight for their rights. News recently leaked of a secretive, parliamentary anti-abortion caucus, touted by its chair Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge, as opening a "new era" of advocacy for the unborn.

And just in case the Harper government's war on women wasn't obvious enough, a reminder that this is the group who removed the word "equality" from the Status of Women mandate.

But all these moves seemed like water under the bridge, as the Harper election machine decided this fall that it needed women's vote in order to win a majority in the 2008 election. Harper held babies, visited families, promised to expand women's access to maternity benefits and wore sweaters - all in the name of wooing women voters over to his side.

So what motivated him to take up arms again, squaring off against women? Women's groups muse that it might have been revenge for a November statement they released criticizing the newly-elected government for doing nothing to address the issue of persistent poverty among women. Finance minister Jim Flaherty said instead that it was the bogus phenomenon of "double pay equity" that drove them to curtail women's rights. Women, he explained, could access pay equity as well as benefit from their union's negotiated salary increases. He chose to ignore the fact that many women are not unionized and that negotiated salary increases still do not guarantee that women earn equal salaries for doing work of equal value to men.

The measures against pay equity were also camouflaged amongst other contentious proposals, such as eliminating government subsidies for political parties and suspending the right of federal employees to strike. Weeks later, many of these controversial moves have been retracted.

But Harper and his cronies remain tight-lipped on pay equity. No recanting here.

Far from equal, women in Canada desperately need access to pay equity, say groups like the Canadian Federation of University Women. A woman with a post-secondary degree can expect to earn around 69 per cent of what her male counterparts will earn. Just over two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women, a fact that may explain why one in five Canadian women live in poverty.

Just as horrifying as the government's attempt to limit pay equity was the fact that few Canadians seemed to care. Many women - beaten down from years of attacks by this government - simply added pay equity to the grocery list of the Harper government's anti-women measures. The media for the most part, lumped in pay equity as just one of the many changes proposed in the statement. Only a handful of columnists - most of them women - sought to deconstruct the attack on pay equity.

The issue deserves more thought and discussion. Because unlike the attacks on political parties or federal employees - this is an issue that lashes out at half of the Canadian population. It's a step backwards for Canadian women and an insult to the many women before us who fought for equal rights. Who exactly, sitting around the government table, thought that limiting women's rights - and essentially encouraging women's exploitation - would be a viable way for the government to save money in an economic crisis?

In unveiling the party's stance on pay equity, Flaherty told parliament that, "since the mid-1980s, Canadian taxpayers have paid out over $4 billion in pay equity settlements." In tough economic times, he must have reasoned, this figure would resonate with Canadians as an expense to be reckoned with.

But the figure is sobering for another reason. It's not often that you can quantify - to some extent - the discrimination that Canadian women suffer. But here it is, plain as day.

The number stands as proof that women are not getting what they deserve for the work that they do. It's a four-billion dollar testament to the need of pay equity for women.

And it's proof that no matter what the Harper government tries to tell us, in 2009 Canadian women are still not equal to men.