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Politics Conservative status of women critic Rachael Harder challenges Liberal version of feminism

Conservative MP Rachael Harder.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Conservative MP Rachael Harder, the party’s critic for status of women, defines feminism as standing up for equality of women “and the right to have every single opportunity that a man has.”

And in that case, she is feminist. “How could you not be?” she says.

“The Liberals have tried to control the narrative on it, as if they own the definition of feminism.”

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Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have sought to stake their claim on being the party that best represents women in Canada: from the Prime Minister’s declaration on the world stage that he is a feminist, to his explanation for the government’s gender-balanced cabinet, “because it’s 2015.”

But some Conservative women say the Liberal government’s perception is not representative of all women’s viewpoints.

Mr. Trudeau has also decreed that his MPs are expected to vote pro-choice on any bills dealing with abortion. A controversy erupted this year over the government’s summer jobs grants, after the Liberals required groups requesting funding to sign a form saying their organizations’ “core mandate” respects reproductive rights.

“I don’t know why [the Liberals] enjoy attacking Christians. I’m not sure. I’d love to know,” Ms. Harder, who is Christian, says in a recent interview.

Ambitious, driven and youthful – the 31-year-old rookie MP from Lethbridge, Alta., wears braces and has a silver stud in her nose – Ms. Harder represents her party’s vision for the status of women if Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer wins power in the 2019 federal election.

When asked if she’s “pro-life,” she answers: “I’ll always advocate for the preborn.”

It’s a personal belief that got her blocked as the chair of the House of Commons committee on status of women last fall, when the Liberal and NDP members walked out on her because of her anti-abortion views. The Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion group, has praised Ms. Harder’s voting record on family and life issues, but says her position on access to abortion remains unclear. In a follow-up e-mail, Ms. Harder refused to clarify but said, “Andrew Scheer has made it clear that a future Conservative government will not re-open the abortion debate.”

“The Prime Minister is dictating to women and girls across this country what a right type of woman or girl looks like. That’s incredibly ignorant and counter to what I would call feminism,” Ms. Harder says.

It’s “really wrong,” she says, for Finance Minister Bill Morneau to push for more women to enter the skilled trades and STEM fields of science and mathematics, arguing that each woman should decide for herself what she wants to do with her life. She doesn’t believe in quotas, either. Citing witness testimony from the status of women committee, she says she’s heard stories about women who are promoted to meet an equity target – only to end up being treated poorly.

“Unfortunately, by putting a quota in place, we allow for men to write them off because they just attribute their seat to gender. How did that advance the conversation with regards to gender equality? It didn’t,” she says.

(Ms. Harder, along with her party, supported the passage of the Liberal government’s Bill C-25, which requires certain corporations to disclose information about diversity among directors and in senior management. Conservative MPs said they support transparency in the process but believe in merit, not quotas.)

Growing up on a horse farm in tiny Kathryn, Alta., Ms. Harder – the middle of five children – said she learned the values of hard work and community volunteerism. With the help of her parents, she started a plan for a dog kennel business at the age of 9. She also did humanitarian work in orphanages in Mexico and at health clinics and schools in Africa.

“I was brought up to perceive the world as a place of opportunity. And I was brought up to perceive myself as someone who is strong and capable and has good ideas to contribute,” Ms. Harder says.

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She attended a Christian college and the University of Lethbridge, where was trained as a sociologist, and she spent her 20s travelling Canada as a youth researcher for non-governmental organizations, universities, churches and faith-based organizations.

After being involved in politics at the grassroots level, she ran federally in 2015 and easily won her seat.

In Ottawa, Ms. Harder says she wants to focus her attention on human rights and advocating for the world’s most vulnerable.

“Of course women are disproportionately the ones who find themselves living in poverty,” she says. “It’s really challenging for them to find ways to economically prosper, particularly if they’re widowed and unmarried.”

For her part, Ms. Harder takes pains to point out that her constituents are more than one gender.

“I don’t just represent women,” she says. “I was elected by women and men.”

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