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It’s not the live leadership debate on women’s issues that they were trying for, but the Up for Debate coalition is ensuring that women’s issues are addressed by federal politicians during this election campaign.

The coalition of 175 Canadian organizations has organized Q&A sessions with the leaders of the major parties have agreed to participate, with the exception of the Conservatives. Those one-on-one interviews will be aired on Sept. 21

The Q&A sessions follow on the Sept. 7 release of a report commissioned by the federal government earlier this year, which notes that Canada is failing to address gender inequality. Canada is ranked 31st of 34 OECD countries in terms of the salary gap between women and men, providing lower than average child care and parental leave support, and failing to address violence against women.

Up For Debate increased awareness of gender inequality by calling for a nationally broadcast leaders’ debate on women’s rights, but the request was denied by the Conservative Party, and subsequently by the NDP. With only the Bloc Québécois, Green Party and Liberals agreeing to participate, the debate was cancelled.

Kelly Bowden, a spokesperson for the Up for Debate coalition, noted that during the first, and only leaders’ debate to date, “the word ‘woman’ was only mentioned four times, and there was no discussion of women’s rights or gender equality.” Bowden added that, “Without commitment to a standalone debate, and in the absence of discussion in other debates, life and death issues impacting women and girls in Canada are invisible in the federal election campaign.”

Perhaps more to the point, the prospect of the debate has led all parties to engage in a conversation on women’s rights and position in Canada.

I reached out to the four main parties to clarify their positions, and only received a response from the NDP before press time.

Mira Oreck, the NDP candidate for Vancouver-Granville, explained that as a feminist, she feels the party has a strong stance on women’s rights, “I have always been a feminist. I generally look at politics through a feminist lens. A lot of this is about leading by example and actually having women elected to add to this conversation. … The NDP is bravely putting forward an agenda that supports women.”

The NDP currently have the highest proportion of female nominated candidates with approximately 43 per cent, according to recent numbers from Equal Voices. The Liberals are second with 32 per cent, followed by the Greens at 29 per cent, the Bloc at 27 per cent and the Conservatives in last with 19 per cent.

Oreck believes that the promise of $15-a-day child-care plan, $15 an hour minimum wage for federal works, and investments in affordable housing will particularly benefit women, who make up the majority of the poor in Canada. “Income inequality is on the rise and we know where women fall. Women are always at the bottom of the bag. So in addition to targeted policies, you need structural policies,” she notes.

The NDP has also promised to begin an inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women within the first 100 days in office, and reinstate funding for the Shelter Enhancement Program, providing $40 million over four years to create or renovate 2,100 places in emergency shelters and over 350 places in transition houses.

In regards to the NDP decision not to participate in the leader’s debate on women’s rights, Oreck acknowledges, “It is important that the leaders get to discuss these issues. The real person that needs to be held accountability about where women are right now is the prime minister. Having a debate without the sitting prime minister is hard to do.”

The Conservative stance on women’s issues focuses largely on law enforcement and supporting businesswomen. Prime Minister Stephen Harper promises to continue to implement a $700 million fund through the Action Plan for Women Entrepreneurs, encourage gender diversity on corporate boards, and enforce laws to protect families and children.

The party also argues that it defends women’s rights abroad by participating in bombing campaigns against the Islamic State in Iraq.

However, the Conservatives have refused to hold an inquiry in the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.

Recently, Conservative MP for Kootenay-Columbia David Wilks was quoted as saying, “I don’t think when it comes to missing and murdered Aboriginal peoples that it’s fair for the government of the day — whether it’s us, the Liberals the NDP or the Greens — to say ‘what are you going to do about it?” He added that the issue should be discussed broadly as “missing and murdered people,” without the term “Indigenous” or “women.”

This echoes previous sentiments from the Conservative Party, which has argued that policies that specifically addressing women’s rights are unnecessary. After cutting funding to the Status of Women Canada in 2006, Bev Oda, the minister responsible stated, “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.”

Both the Liberals and the Greens support an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. The Liberals also say they will support the development of more women’s shelters through their commitment to provide $20 billion, over 10 years, for social infrastructure.

In addition, the Liberals promise to increase the tax-free child benefit payment to up to $533 per child per month, commit to gender parity in the cabinet and government appointments, and create more flexible employment benefits for people caring for sick family members.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau caused controversy last year when he demanded all Liberal MPs support the party’s pro-choice position.

The Greens advocate for legislation that would immediately implement pay equity for women working in the federal sector and apply equal opportunity criteria to government appointments. They advocate amending the Canadian Human Rights Act to explicitly protect people from discrimination based on gender identity or expression, creating job re-entry programs for mothers returning to work, instituting universal child-care program and providing tax incentives for employers to create more child-care spaces.

They also promise to re-establish funding, cut by the Conservatives, for organizations advocating for women’s rights.

Julia is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer at Simon Fraser University. She holds a PhD in Peace Studiesfrom the University of Bradford, and has worked in North America, Europe and Africa on issues related to human rights, development and global health for over 10 years. @juliaheather

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