In September, 2017, I was in the audience at the Women in the World Summit in Toronto, and listened to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talk about his feminist bona fides. Well, first we had to watch a video – many clips set to a pumping rock score – on that subject.
“I am a feminist, and proud to call myself one,” the onscreen Prime Minister said. He went on to add, “A gender-balanced cabinet is a significant accomplishment and one that I am particularly proud of.” Then our chief elected feminist, whose party has never been led by a woman, came out on stage to be interviewed by famed editor Tina Brown.
Mr. Trudeau trotted out a familiar line about goodness-through-utility: “It’s not just about doing the right thing, it’s about doing the smart thing. It’s about recognizing that when you have a gender-balanced, diverse cabinet, you can really make better decisions, have better conversations.”
Then he made a very interesting point about how it was relatively easy to recruit women into politics, compared with keeping them there, which he called “a challenge around retention.” Women would be elected, he said, and after a couple of years wonder if this business was really for them, “because of the nastiness, because of the negativity.”
I’m not sure what the retention challenge was when it came to Mr. Trudeau’s colleague Jody Wilson-Raybould, who quit the federal cabinet this week. Was nastiness or negativity involved? We don’t know, and likely won’t until all the parties write their memoirs, because a government that promised transparency and openness actually operates with a python’s grip on information.
Worse, this government, which branded itself as women’s champions – I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they’re feminists – made a colossal error in hanging out to dry the first Indigenous woman to be named justice minister. The trouble began when The Globe and Mail reported that Ms. Wilson-Raybould, when she was justice minister and attorney-general, was allegedly put under pressure by the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene in the upcoming bribery case of the Quebec construction giant SNC-Lavalin. Ms. Wilson-Raybould reportedly resisted these entreaties (she hasn’t spoken on the matter, citing attorney-client privilege). In the latest cabinet shuffle, Ms. Wilson-Raybould was moved to veteran affairs, which was largely seen as a demotion.
We may have to wait a long time, perhaps until Ottawa thaws, before we understand the underlying realities. The optics, though, are stick-in-the-eye terrible. Mr. Trudeau pronounced himself “disappointed” that Ms. Wilson-Raybould didn’t come to him with her concerns, in the tone that you might take with a wayward teenager. It’s one thing for a government to treat a female cabinet minister shabbily; it’s quite another when the government has hung its entire brand – national and global – on the twin hooks of fairness and feminism. Live by the f-word, die by the f-word.
The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs released a statement calling on the Prime Minister to condemn “the racist and sexist innuendo about Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould that is being spread by unnamed elected officials and staff of your government.” That innuendo was contained in a Canadian Press story in which the minister was described as “a thorn in the side of cabinet” “difficult” and “sort of in it for herself.”
In case you didn’t know, “difficult” is a whistle that feminist ears are particularly good at picking up. It is part of a familiar and timeworn melody. Here I defer to a much more authoritative source, the World Bank’s 2015 report The Female Political Career, which looks at the sources of stagnation in women’s political trajectories around the world: “Once in office, gendered roles and expectations continue to dog female legislators, capping ambitions as surely as they stunt their success.”
It’s no fun pointing out the shortfall between the shiny brand and the dull reality. I’d much prefer there was no gap at all. In fairness, this government has made meaningful progress, including a federal budget developed through gender analysis, as well as important legislation on violence against women and sexual harassment. There’s also Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who spends her time actually doing feminism rather than talking about it.
This government is being held to a high standard because it claimed that space for itself, and then when it fell short, decided to mouth platitudes instead of taking responsibility. Or said nothing at all, which is more the style of a government that likes to communicate through statement socks rather than letting its MPs speak freely.
The abandoned campaign promise of electoral reform is just one issue. Proponents of electoral reform argue that we need a new system to draw in non-traditional candidates, include women and people from different racial backgrounds. This government promised, then chucked, a commitment to systemic change – and left a young minister, Maryam Monsef, to do that dirty work. At the time, Conservative MP Candice Bergen called out the Prime Minister for turning his young female ministers into “political roadkill.”
At least Ms. Wilson-Raybould can count on the support of some of the women in the Liberal caucus, who seem to have defied the Prime Minister’s Office and reached out through Twitter (really, you need a degree in Kremlinology to understand this government). MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes wrote, “As someone on the inside, who knows @Puglaas, I can tell you that she is fierce, smart and unapologetic. When women speak up and out, they are always going to be labelled. Go ahead. Label away. We are not going anywhere.”
Treasury Board President Jane Philpott tweeted a picture with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, the two of them smiling together on a boat, with the words, “You taught me so much – particularly about Indigenous history, rights and justice. … I know you will continue to serve Canadians.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould will undoubtedly continue to serve, and one day, she’ll speak her piece. I’m not worried about her. I’m worried that the idea of a feminist agenda has now become a joke, a tarnished brand, and it’s the women of this country who will pay.