Erin Gee is the co-host of the Bad + Bitchy podcast.
It seems like only yesterday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, fresh off his party’s majority win, announced a gender-balanced cabinet to the world, “because it’s 2015.” At the time, the story was about Mr. Trudeau’s courage in appointing a gender-balanced cabinet, gaining him praise in international media outlets.
But it’s no longer 2015, and even when there was much buzz around Mr. Trudeau’s initial cabinet, the by-the-numbers analysis was actually relatively disappointing in terms of diversity. Of the 30 members of his first cabinet, only three were women of colour, with Jody Wilson-Raybould holding the most senior position among them, as the minister of justice and the attorney-general of Canada.
Since then, not only a pandemic, but also a racial reckoning have begun. Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast have protested against racial injustice in our country, from the police disproportionately killing Black and Indigenous people to the unmarked graves being found at sites of former residential schools. There is increasingly an understanding that people who have lived experiences with the intersections of race and gender have much to offer in terms of analysis through such lenses.
And yet, despite the creation of new ministries meant to highlight diversity, efforts within the public service to address unconscious bias, and the Prime Minister himself taking a knee during the aforementioned protests about race, it is clear that women of colour are seen only as a “nice to have” in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet-making considerations – a box to check, to avoid outside criticism. Women of colour rarely hold positions of power, and when they do, they lack the freedom to botch their files or collect alleged ethics violations in the way male cabinet ministers have, so long as they toe the party line. And Tuesday’s cabinet shuffle shows more of the same: In the Liberals’ new 38-member, gender-balanced cabinet, only four are women of colour, with half of them in lower-profile or tokenizing ministries.
The big story coming out of the shuffle will be about Anita Anand, who is taking over as the Minister of National Defence, the first woman since 1993 to hold the role. Her time as a highly effective minister of public services and procurement in the COVID-19 crisis makes her qualified to replace Harjit Sajjan, whose six years in the role included bungling the sexual-assault crisis with which the Canadian military is grappling. But the situation in the department has devolved so much that one must wonder if Ms. Anand is being pushed toward a glass cliff, where women are promoted to positions of power only when things are going poorly.
Mary Ng, the only other woman of colour to stay in cabinet besides Ms. Anand, added economic development to her previous portfolio, making her the Minister of International Trade, Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development. What will her role be as the economy recovers from the pandemic while global supply chains are being disrupted and with rising inflation?
Marci Ien and Kamal Khera, meanwhile, are the women of colour who are new to Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet. Ms. Ien is now the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth – handing her the reins of a full ministry – while the 32-year-old Ms. Khera was named Minister of Seniors, a file that typically falls under Employment and Social Development Canada.
There is no doubt that Ms. Ien will be able to dole out the funding to women’s groups that her role requires. But as someone who was highly touted as a star Liberal candidate, her appointment to a role as specific and siloed as Women and Gender Equality and Youth may leave some wanting.
Notably absent among the racialized women in cabinet is Bardish Chagger. She has held several leadership roles within the Liberal caucus, including House Leader and minister of diversity and inclusion and youth, but it seems as though Ms. Chagger’s involvement in the WE Charity scandal was too much for the party this go around.
An intersectional approach and perspective would be useful in some high-profile portfolios – such as Environment, Immigration, Infrastructure, Families, and Public Safety, particularly given how climate change, disasters, pandemics, and policing disproportionately affect racialized communities. The narrowness and lack of women of colour among the appointments is thus a big miss.
Mr. Trudeau’s approach seems to suggest the government would prefer to address issues that affect women and racialized communities in siloes, when they in fact permeate everything. Change on this front needs to start at the top. If the Liberals continue to tokenize women of colour at the cabinet level, the public service and other government entities will do the same – and Canadians will feel the effects as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.
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