Janine Brodie, University of Alberta
The struggle for gender equality in Canada is multidimensional and ongoing, despite the increasingly widespread assumption that gender equality has been achieved (SWC 2005) and the assertion that “we are all equal now.” The Canadian women’s movement (CWM), similar to its counterparts elsewhere, was and continues to be an amalgam of many different streams of political thinking, organization and activism. Although in the 1970s and 1980s the mainstream of the CMW achieved unprecedented access to Canadian governments and bureaucracies, its influence in the corridors of power proved short-lived. In the past decade, the CWM along with all equality-seeking groups has been subjected to a politics of delegitimization, dismantling and disappearance.
The often symbiotic relationship between the CWM and the Canadian state was established 40 years ago with the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW 1970). Appointed in 1967, the RCSW was mandated to “recommend what steps might be taken by the Federal Government to ensure for women equal opportunities with men in all aspects of Canadian society” (1970, vii). Ultimately recommending over 160 tangible government actions, the RCSW also fixed the focus of a growing and increasingly politicized women’s movement on the federal government and on the task of breaking down legislative and social barriers to women’s equality. In 1972, an ad hoc group of prominent Canadian feminists formed what was to become the flagship organization of the women’s movement – the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) – for the precise purpose of monitoring government’s implementation of the RCSW recommendations.
For almost two decades, the women’s movement enjoyed unprecedented access to Canadian politicians and bureaucrats: government ministers and party leaders met annually with NAC to give an account of their progress, federal funding was targeted to support a wide range of local and national women’s organizations, and an intricate network of gender-based policy machinery was established within the federal government. A Women’s Program was set up and given an ever-growing budget to fund a broad range of women’s organization in 1972, and a year later the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women (CACSW) was charged with linking women’s groups to the federal government and giving policy advice. Later in the decade, a Minister Responsible for the Status of Women was appointed to the federal cabinet and Status of Women Canada (SWC) became part of the federal bureaucracy.
All of these innovations proved very effective in advancing a gender-equality agenda in Canada and stood as a model for other governments. Among other things, gender discrimination was written out of many federal laws, a vast array of community initiatives around consciousness-raising, women’s health and violence against women were supported with federal funds, federal election campaigns included a leaders’ debate on women’s issues, a sexual equality clause was entrenched in the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms and equality-seeking groups were funded to challenge to discriminatory laws and regulations through the Court Challenges Program.
This liaison between the federal government and the mainstream of the women’s movement was criticized for being too dependent on government financing and for underplaying power differentials among women tied to race, class, and sexuality. As significant, this liaison was contested and subsequently undone as neoliberalism progressively gained a foothold in Canadian politics. Moving beyond a gender equity model, the women’s movement was early to recognize the implications of neoliberal policies for social rights and social equality, mobilizing against free trade and the decentralization of political power.
Beginning with the election of the hesitantly neoliberal Brian Mulroney government in 1984, NAC and other women’s equality organizations were set on a collision course with the federal government from which it has yet to recover. The women’s movement was first maligned – and delegitimized – in partisan rhetoric and in the popular media as a “special interest,” which neither represented the interests of the majority of (real) Canadian women nor conformed to the emerging governing consensus about minimal government, free markets and individual self-reliance.
After delegitimizing feminism and the organized women’s movement, the federal governments, both Liberal and Conservative, progressively downgraded and sought to dismantle the gender-based policy machinery inside the federal bureaucracy. By the late 1990s, the CACSW was terminated, the Women’s Program was folded into SWC and SWC’s budget was repeatedly cut.
Finally, the gender equality disappeared from the federal policy agenda. After its election in 2006, the Stephen Harper Conservatives terminated the Court Challenges Program, closed the research branch and cut the budget of SWC, and, perhaps most telling, erased the word “equality” from its mandate. Thus, forty years after the RCSW the women’s movement is once again challenged to put gender inequality, in all of its complexities, back on the political agenda.
Janine Brodie, FRSC, is a professor of Political Science and Canada Research Chair (Political Economy and Social Governance) at the University of Alberta. Email: janine.brodie [at] ualberta.ca.