Twenty-five years ago Canada signed the most comprehensive human-rights treaty on women’s rights, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This was an enormous accomplishment for women around the globe who had worked for many decades to establish a human-rights treaty that specifically addressed the persistent and systemic discrimination against women. Canada was among the first to sign this treaty in 1980, and ratified it with the consent of all provinces and territories in the fall of 1981.
It was a time of watershed moments for women in Canada. After a long struggle and much contention, women had just won the equality-rights provisions regarding sex discrimination in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women was consolidating the efforts of organized women to ensure that the recommendations from the Royal Commission on the Status of Women a decade earlier were implemented. The federal government had established the Women’s Programme to help support the efforts of grassroots and national groups to educate, mobilize and support the efforts of women in their communities to combat poverty, violence and other realities.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Fast-forward 25 years, however, and the picture is much bleaker than one might have presumed, given the energy and successes of the early 1980s.
There was some progress following Canada’s ratification of CEDAW. Some changes: significant reforms to marriage and property law; increased awareness and penalties for the perpetrators of violence against women; recognition of the right of Aboriginal women to maintain their status regardless of who they married; adoption of employment equity legislation for the public service; and decriminalization of abortion in o rder to enhance women’s reproductive choice. But many of the promises of the UN convention have yet to be fulfilled.
This is in part because, in tandem with these advancements, in the 1980s successive federal governments began pursuing a neoliberal economic agenda, which has effectively compromised the scope of the welfare state. In particular, governments began to retreat from their historic role of facilitating the delivery of public services in the post-war economy through financial transfers to provincial governments.
In 1978, the Trudeau government placed a cap on the amount allocated to provinces for health, education and social services assistance, regardless of the costs provinces and territories incurred for the provision of these programs. This trend continued throughout the 1980s with the election of a Conservative government, and culminated with the elimination of the Canada Assistance Plan by the Chrétien Liberals in 1996. This last action cemented the federal government’s commitment to devolve the bulk of responsibility for programs and services to the provinces and territories.
Over time, the reduction in fiscal support from the federal government slowly eroded the provinces’ and territories’ ability to offer comprehensive social programs that are delivered across regions and upon which many women and their families rely. These measures have resulted in fewer and less reliable public services, inadequate income security and Canadians’ greater economic vulnerability to market trends. As a consequence, countless women have been left to assume more care-taking responsibilities in the private sphere and expend already scarce financial resources on the provision of basic services for themselves and their families
In effect, the welfare state has been “hollowed out.” Marginalized groups of women, including Aboriginal women, women of colour, women with disabilities and low-income women, suffer the brunt of these changes as a result of multiple oppressions.
An Anniversary and a Call to Action
These realities have not gone unnoticed by the United Nations. When Canada signed CEDAW in 1981, it agreed to undergo periodic reviews by an internationally renowned expert body. Canada has undergone five such reviews since signing the convention, and the response from the UN is indicative of the cavalier nature with which Canada has treated its obligations regarding women’s equality.
During the most recent review in January, 2003, the UN treaty body reviewing Canada’s compliance with CEDAW noted that the federal government must take urgent action to remedy the profoundly unequal status of Aboriginal and First Nations women and the systemic discrimination confronted by immigrant and refugee women. As well, it called upon the government of Canada to attend to women who come to Canada under the live-in caregiver program; the downloading of care-giving onto women due to cuts in social programs; and the scarce resources for legal aid.
Since the UN made these recommendations in 2003, the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) has mobilized to have them implemented. We have petitioned the federal government over three years, written an open letter to Prime Minister Paul Martin, met with all federal ministries affected by the recommendations and with the federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for the status of women to discuss the possibility of developing a pan-Canadian action plan. Despite this, the federal government has been remiss in acknowledging its responsibilities under the convention, and has not come forward with an implementation plan for the most recent set of recommendations from the UN.
To mark the 25th anniversary of Canada’s ratification of CEDAW, FAFIA has embarked upon a campaign called “25 Years: Ready or Not?” Our aim is to achieve meaningful government action in six areas, including Aboriginal women’s human rights, improving women’s access to legal aid and increasing funding for front-line, women-led violence-against-women services.
Many women and decision makers in Canada are not familiar with the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, in part because the Canadian government has not publicized its own obligations under this international treaty. We are working to ensure that this will not to be the case after this anniversary year.
Janine Brodie, Politics on the Margins: Restructuring and the Canadian Women’s Movement (Fernwood Publishing, 1995).
Janine Brodie, “Restructuring and the Politics of Marginalization,” in Women and Political Representation in Canada, M. Tremblay and C. Andrew, eds. (University of Ottawa Press, 1998).
“UN CEDAW Toolkit: Commitments Abroad, Inequalities at Home,” published by the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (2004). www.fafia-afai.org/proj/ce/cedaw_toolkit.php
“Canada’s Failure to Act: Women’s Inequality Deepens”: Submission of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on the Occasion Of the Committee’s Review of Canada’s 5th Report. www.fafia-afai.org/proj/ce/cedaw_shadow_report_eng.php
“Canada’s Obligations under CEDAW”: Open Letter to the Honourable Paul Martin, Prime Minister (March 8, 2003). www.fafia-afai.org/proj/ce/let0304.php
Report of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 28th Session, January 13-31, 2003: Recommendations to Canada. www.fafia-afai.org/proj/ce/repUN0103.php
This article appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Women Speaking Out).