When Stephen Harper stands in the House of Commons, he is surrounded by women. Earlier this month, he made a big to-do about promoting four new women to his cabinet. But any suggestion that Harper and the Conservatives genuinely care about women or the many issues women face can easily be refuted. Let’s start with the following list.

1. Lost gains  

Canadian women and the organized feminist movement made several gains after the Royal Commission on the Status of Women which began in early 1967 and recommended federal government initiatives to ensure equal opportunities for men and women in all aspects of Canadian society. Over the years, gains have included the legalization of abortion, improved sexual assault laws, and the inclusion of gender equality in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (leading to many favourable court decisions).

However, since 2006, Stephen Harper and his Cons have been cutting back women’s rights in an unprecedented way, often by stealth, as they throw around the word “equality” and act as if the gender playing field is level. The Cons have been promoting a free-market, survival-of-the-fittest, socially conservative society. (In their first year, they tried to roll back same-sex marriage legislation.) Harper has followed the Chretien tactic of fighting the deficit by cutting social transfers to the provinces and weakening federal participation in social programmes — health, education, and social welfare. He has ignored calls for anti-poverty initiatives, such as a national housing strategy.

The Cons have further justified their attacks on Canada’s socially progressive state by diminishing government revenues with cuts to the GST and corporate taxes. Harper prefers to use our tax dollars to develop and promote environmentally unfriendly, non-renewable fossil fuels, thus poisoning and threatening our communities. He has turned away from previous “soft power” international strategies that enhanced the security of women and their families, expanded Canada’s military capabilities, promoted the arms industry, weakened gun control, including the elimination of the Long Gun Registry in 2012, and put more Canadians behind bars. (Canada’s female federal prison population grew by 40 per cent in the past decade, a rate that appears to be speeding up.)


2. Child Careless

In the May 2006 budget — Harper’s first — the planned National Child Care Program of former Prime Minister Paul Martin was eliminated and related bilateral agreements with the provinces cancelled. This was replaced by a National Child Care Benefit, a $100-monthly taxable allowance for pre-school children, which barely covers hiring the odd babysitter. (In British Columbia, child care costs from $9,000 to $14,000 per year.)

This policy reversal was cleverly presented as a way to reduce costs and broaden parents’ child-care choices, even though their options are limited. In December, 2008, UNICEF ranked Canada last among 25 developed nations on early childhood education and child care. The lack of affordable child care in Canada has also been criticized by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Quality, affordable child care allows working parents (70 per cent of mothers now work) to maintain a better living standard with two incomes. It allows single mothers — many of whom are poor — to attend school or skills training, get decent jobs and accept job promotions. The incidence of single mothers living below the poverty line in Quebec has dropped since the introduction of universal access to regulated child care. At the same time, thousands of live-in caregivers, mainly from the Philippines and the Caribbean, are particularly vulnerable because immigration regulations require them to live with and work for the employer named on their work permit. The Cons have eliminated funding for community programs which helped such women at risk.


3. Anti-advocacy  

In 2006, the Harper Cons cut funding for Status of Women Canada (SWC) by 37 per cent — from $13 million to $8 million — forcing the closure of 12 of its 16 regional offices. As usual, they hid behind arguments of fiscal responsibility and “efficiency savings.” They argued that the SWC’s job was done because women were equal. The SWC mandate was also changed to exclude “gender equality and political justice.” Program funding criteria were ideologically redrafted so that activities for research, advocacy, and lobbying were ineligible.

The loss of this important funding source set back or eliminated groups, including: the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women Womenspace, the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, the New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity, the Feminist Alliance for International Action, le Conseil d’intervention pour l’accès des femmes au travail, the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, Réseau des tables régionales de groupes de femmes du Québec, and Action travail des femmes. By cutting support for so many women’s organizations, the Harper Cons contravened Canada’s obligation to maintain and improve domestic human rights — as required under the UN and other international treaties.  Sadly, with the infamous “enemies list,” those women’s groups which have survived are afraid to speak out against the Cons in case their future funding is cut.


4. Legal rights wronged

The Cons regularly condemn what they call “judicial activism” — meaning pro-equality rulings by judges. In 2006, they eliminated funding for the Court Challenges Program which for years had provided financial support for women, women’s groups, and others to bring equality cases to court. This meant that Harper and company were deliberately undercutting women’s ability to challenge discriminatory laws using Article 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Not only had Con cuts undermined women’s ability to analyze federal policies and recommend reforms, they had also denied them the opportunity to turn to the courts to seek justice. In September, 2007, the offices of the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL), a well-respected organization that had made valuable contributions to improving women’s human rights in Canada, were closed. For more than 30 years, the association was involved in precedent-setting legal work on behalf of women, including amendments to the Criminal Code concerning sexual assault, improvements to the Divorce Act, and the adoption of equality rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


5. Killing Kelowna and more

After cancelling the Martin Liberals’ historic Kelowna Accord which promised $5 billion to improve shockingly low Aboriginal education, employment and living standards, Harper’s policies toward Canada’s Aboriginal peoples have been aggressive and negative.

In 2011, former Auditor General Sheila Fraser noted that federal inaction had failed Aboriginal women and their communities, noting that very few of her 31 audits and related recommendations had been acted upon. The Cons have done little or nothing to address violence against Aboriginal women both on- and off-reserve.

In 2008, the UN Committee for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) demanded that Canada take immediate action to protect Aboriginal women’s rights. Over several decades, the high rates of violence against Aboriginal women have become a national tragedy. Lack of decent housing, jobs, and adequate social programmes have forced women to leave their reserves, and all too many have gone missing or been murdered. In 2010, the Cons cut funding for the Sisters in Spirit database project which kept track of these women.

On December 12, 2011, the Con-dominated Standing Committee on the Status of Women released its report, Ending Violence against Aboriginal Women and Girls: A New Beginning. Many experts felt that this document showed what one observer called “a shocking disregard for the safety and well-being of Aboriginal women and girls.” The 2011 report failed to address systemic human rights violations and concentrated instead on partial, short-term solutions. The Cons also used the report to push their own ideology, promoting the privatization of Aboriginal land, resource exploitation, and their bill on matrimonial property (since passed) — which the Native Women’s Association of Canada and many others did not support. The Cons are still refusing to conduct a national inquiry into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women, even after the premiers’ call for one.


6. Aborting promises

Before he became prime minister, Harper promised Canadians his government wouldn’t re-open the abortion issue. But Con backbenchers have been doing exactly that by introducing Private Members Bills in an attempt to diminish freedom of choice. The 2008 Unborn Victims of Crime Act (Bill C-484), supported by Harper at Second Reading in the House of Commons, would have criminalized harm to a foetus by establishing its “personhood.” This died on the order paper after an election was called, but it was soon followed by another bill “to protect the conscience rights of Canada’s health-care workers,” so they would “never be forced to participate against their will in procedures such as abortions.” This failed to pass.

In spring 2010 Harper launched his G8 maternal health proposal, theoretically aimed at saving “the lives of mothers and children all over the world.” When women’s health advocates and others asked for details, Harper was vague, hiding behind his usual doublespeak. Canadian maternal health policy now denies funding for abortion services in the developing world, despite the deaths and injuries caused by the lack of such services. In September, 2012, the House of Commons voted on Con MP Stephen Woodworth’s private member’s motion to study whether a foetus should have legal rights before birth. Ten Con cabinet ministers, including Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose, voted for this. In December, 2012, Con MP Mark Warawa introduced a motion regarding sex-selective abortions — to “condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination,” but later withdrew it. He claimed he wanted to defend human rights, but many saw it as another attempt to outlaw abortion.


7. Pay inequity

Harper has called pay equity “a rip off.” In the fall of 2006, the Harper Cons refused to improve Canada’s pay-equity legislation, arguing that Section 11 of the Canadian Human Rights Act was adequate — even though many advocates had pointed out that the complaints-based system is flawed.

In the Conservatives’ 2009 budget implementation legislation, previous gains among public servants (62 per cent are women) were aggressively undermined with the removal of public employees’ right to pay equity — making this right subject to market forces. It also removed the right of public servants to claim equity protection under Sections 7, 10, and 11 of the Canadian Human Rights Act or take their complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. This meant a return to the regime which originally led to women’s lower pay rates in spite of protests by the Public Service Alliance of Canada and others. (Pay equity is a human right and should not have been tampered with in the budget bill.)

A $50,000 fine will now be imposed on any trade unions daring to help their members file complaints with the Public Service Labour Relations Board. In March, 2012, Bill C-38 brought an end to the application of the Employment Equity Act in federal contracts. It changed the Federal Contractors Program — leaving compliance with the Employment Equity Act for federal government contractors to the discretion of the Minister. Economist Marjorie Griffin Cohen pointed out that there would have been “no reason to change this legislation if the Minister intended to continue to apply the employment equity provisions.”


8. EI, OAS and other attacks

The 2009 federal budget changes to the Employment Insurance (EI) system did little to help women because fewer than 33 per cent of unemployed women qualify for EI, even though they’ve paid into it for most of their lives. This is because of the high number of work hours required in order to make a claim. Also, most part-time and atypical workers aren’t covered. Women’s advocates believed the number of hours for EI eligibility should be lowered to 360, but the Cons ignored this and, instead, extended the benefit period from 45 to 50 weeks. Even when women do qualify, their EI payments are so low — 55 per cent of minimum wage — they can’t support their children or pay the rent.

With the March, 2012, change of Old Age Security (OAS) qualification from 65 years to 67, women will be hit harder than men. Only 30 per cent of women employed in the private sector have some kind of pension, so they are more vulnerable to the two-year wait. Also, women’s earnings peak in their 40s — men’s in their 50s — so the first generation of women to be affected by OAS changes in 2023 will be less able to soften the impact on their incomes than their male counterparts. In the same budget, the Cons reduced EI eligibility, forcing unemployed workers to accept “suitable employment” within 100 km of their home. They have made Canadian workers’ lives less secure by bringing in underpaid temporary foreign competitors and closing Service Canada centres which dealt with access to social-programme issues.


9. Hiding inequality

In 2004, the World Economic Forum gender-gap index ranked Canada in seventh place. By 2009, Canada had dropped to 25th on the list of countries in terms of their gender equality records. Financial and human resources for gender-equity programming have been reduced in certain government departments, including Foreign Affairs. Internal government memos have instructed officials to stop using terms, such as gender-based violence and gender equality. Instead, they must use “the equality of men and women.” This has minimized awareness and understanding of the inequality and discrimination faced by women, as well as other forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity.

It is interesting that when the Harper Cons eliminated the compulsory long-form census, the first question to be removed from its voluntary replacement was the one on unpaid work. This means that the government will not be collecting data on how much more unpaid work women do than men — in the home looking after the kids, cooking, cleaning, attending to aging parents, doing volunteer work. (By 2007, almost one-quarter of the female population over age 45 was caring for a chronically ill relative or person with disabilities in their own home.) With the Cons’ funding cuts to Statistics Canada and related organizations, other statistics used for social development affecting women will also no longer be available.


10. Slipping backwards

In 2010-2011, Status of Women Canada spent just over $10 million on violence against women — an inadequate response to a serious problem which directly affects about one in six Canadian women. A Department of Justice study revealed that spousal violence alone costs the economy $4.8 billion a year in missed work, medical services, policing and justice. Advocates have called on the Harper Cons to work with the provinces and territories to develop a national strategy and action plan to combat violence against women. The plan should include: national consultation on the effectiveness of efforts to increase the safety of women and children (Canada falls far behind other countries in funding such research), holding perpetrators to account, violence awareness and prevention programmes, a national 1-800 hotline for abused women, sustainable support for homeless women’s shelters, second-stage and transitional housing units, sustainable funding for legal aid, and increased training for court officials and law enforcement officers.

In December, 2012, Amnesty International (AI) reported:  “In recent years, not only has there been a failure to make progress in addressing serious and longstanding violations against women’s human rights, including alarming levels of violence and entrenched economic inequality; there has also been a series of policy and funding decisions which have undermined efforts to protect women’s human rights … Furthermore, since publishing its groundbreaking survey on violence against women two decades ago, the Government of Canada has moved backwards, collecting less and less information …”

The former Minister responsible for Status of Women, Rona Ambrose, indicated that she did not see the need for a national plan of action.


11. ‘Forgotten’ women

Women with disabilities represent a huge, but largely ignored segment of Canadian women.  According to one observer, these women — more than one in five — have been “forgotten” by successive governments, both Liberal and Conservative. Spread among all other minority communities, they are the poorest in the country and face the alarmingly high rates of unemployment and violence. The general rates of abuse, violence, and neglect for women with disabilities are as high as 90 per cent, according to some studies. The Cons’ elimination of the long-form census and the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) data has ruined the statistical profile experts were beginning to build.

Core funding for national disability organizations no longer has a “protected envelope,” meaning there is more competition for less money. Calls for a national strategy on disability, along with increased investments in disability-related supports, the alleviation of poverty among people with disabilities, supports to increase labour-force participation, and new initiatives to promote access, inclusion, and full citizenship for all Canadians with disabilities are being ignored.  After much fuss, the Cons finally signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but there are no signs that they are implementing its recommendations in spite of their obligations. They have avoided signing the Optional Protocol which would allow Canadians to file complaints under the Convention — meaning there is no real commitment to the Convention or the people it is supposed to protect.


12. Cuts to women’s health

In 2012, at a time when stress, inadequate nourishment, and environmentally caused diseases, including cancer, were reaching epidemic proportions for women and all Canadians, the Harper Cons cut funding for the Women’s Health Contribution Program, effective March 31, 2013. This affected six health research programs and eliminated the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health (BCCEWH), Le Réseau québécois d’action pour la santé des femmes, the Canadian Women’s Health Network, the Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, the Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence, and the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health.

“This cut threatens the significant work on women’s health that has been undertaken across the country, and represents an enormous loss of capacity to monitor and improve the health of women in Canada, particularly those who are marginalized,” warned Dr. Liz Whynot, chair of BCCEWH. According to Health Canada, the Women’s Health Contribution Program distributed about $2.95 million to eligible groups annually. Assisted Human Reproduction Canada was also eliminated in 2012, as well as the National Council on Welfare which indirectly dealt with health issues.


13. Gaps Not Gains 

In 2012, Statistics Canada noted that the Canadian gender pay gap was the fifth largest among the 34 OECD countries. Cleverly, in recent years, the right-wing has been pushing to calculate the gap based on average hourly wages because it is smaller than the gap based on full-time revenue, weekly or annually. When you calculate revenue which, unlike pay, includes pensions, social assistance, and so on, the annual gap between men and women is much higher. Almost one-third (27 per cent) of women worked part-time compared to 12 per cent of men (often due to lack of day care). Also, 8.1 per cent of women lived in households with moderate or severe food insecurity, compared to 6.1 per cent of men.

Lone parent households have the highest — 22.1 per cent — rate of food insecurity and 82 per cent are headed by women. In its 2008 review, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) expressed concern about the “predominance of women in part-time work,” the “persistence of significant job segregation, with women taking up low-paid, traditional jobs,” “the continuing employment rate gap between men and women,” “the fact that poverty is widespread among women, in particular Aboriginal women, minority women, and single mothers” and “the impact of the lack of affordable childcare and affordable housing.” Women’s annual pay is 60-65 per cent less than men’s. With these in mind, many regretted the loss of good unionized jobs for women with the Cons’ March, 2012, announcement of public sector cuts. (The Cons have been regularly attacking labour rights with back-to-work legislation, Bill C-377, and more.)

In 2012, Statistics Canada announced that it would discontinue the University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS), which gleaned useful data used to negotiate salaries and track the progress towards gender equality among faculty and staff in Canadian Universities and Colleges.


14. More bad ratings

The UN Annual Human Development Index for 2012 revealed that inequality in Canada has been growing. We had dropped to 15th place, behind such countries as Iceland, Denmark, and Slovenia. This was mainly because of the high level of income disparity. Also last year, Canada learned that it was slipping compared to 135 other countries in terms of gender equality. In fact, we had fallen out of the world’s Top 20 countries mainly because of low female representation in politics.

According to the World Economic Forum’s seventh annual gender gap ranking, we dropped three spots to 21st — behind the Philippines, Latvia, Cuba, and Nicaragua. The rankings were based on data relating to economic equality, access to education, political participation, and access to health care. The most economically equal societies continue to be the Nordic ones: Iceland still in first place, followed by Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Yemen took last place.

Canada’s position has varied over the past few years. In 2006, it placed 14th among 115 countries. Last year’s decline reflects “a small decrease in the secondary education ratio and in the percentage of women in ministerial positions,” the study said. Lack of political empowerment is Canada’s greatest failing — based on years with a female as head of state, women in ministerial positions, and women in parliament. In this, Canada stands at 38, behind the UK, Ecuador, and Sri Lanka.


15. Women, window dressing and the continuing lack of equality 

Despite the fact that Harper always has women sitting around him in the House of Commons, the July, 2013, International Parliamentary Union ranked Canada 45th when it comes to equality in national parliaments. Only 31 per cent of Harper’s Senate appointees have been women – a drop from 44 per cent under Chretien.

Privy Council data showed that Harper appointed fewer women to Canada’s more than 200 federal tribunals, boards, agencies, and Crown corporations between 2006 and 2010. From 2002-2005, about 37 per cent of those holding such jobs were women. Post-Harper, that steadily dropped to 32.5.

The May, 2011, federal election brought 103 New Democratic Party members of parliament to Ottawa as the Official Opposition — with more than 40 per cent women. The Conservative caucus is a mere 17 per cent female. Even Harper’s recently touted advancement of women during his cabinet shuffle was mainly window-dressing. There are now 27 men and 12 women in his cabinet of 39 (the largest in Canadian history, adding to taxpayer’s expenses).

The main decision-making power remains in the hands of white men — Jim Flaherty (Finance), Tony Clement (Treasury Board), John Baird (Foreign Affairs), Jason Kenney (Human Resources and Social Development), James Moore (Industry), and others. Of course, Harper and his approximately 90-person Prime Minister’s Office (again, the largest in history and expensive to maintain) call the shots — but rarely take the blame for scandals, heartless policies, and Canada’s increasingly unjust society.


Kathleen O’Hara has worked for the media, government, non-profit groups, and, most recently, Elizabeth May MP and the Green Party. She was a member of the Catch 22 Campaign which targetted ridings where the Cons were most vulnerable during the last federal election.  Her book, Lost and Found in London, was published in late 2011.

Kathleen O'Hara

Kathleen O’Hara has been a print, radio and television journalist for 15 years. She worked as a producer for national programs, including “As It Happens” on CBC radio and “The...