Volume 41, Number 2: March/April 2007

Back Atcha Backlash

On September 25, 2006, Prime Minister Steven Harper’s government announced a cut of $5 million to the budget for Status of Women Canada (SWC), the agency responsible for follow-up on the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.

This attack on women’s equality should not have been a surprise to feminists across the country, given the backlash already at play across the nation. The corporate media has promoted a fictional narrative of feminism as passé in a “post-feminist” world since at least the 1980s. Popular culture – much of it imported from the U.S. – regularly vilifies women who challenge the status quo. So strong is this anti-woman sentiment that even men who call themselves progressive often dismiss feminists as too angry, too radical, or too “out there.” But women have not backed down from the latest assault. In fact, their outrage has been loud, their organizing extensive, and their mobilization for the 2007 federal election has begun.

The Cuts

National women’s organizations were quick to denounce the forty-per-cent cut to the SWC’s budget, suggesting that its funding should be considerably increased so that its function as a watchdog for women’s equality could be enhanced, as recommended by the Expert Panel on Accountability Mechanisms for Gender Equality just before the last election. Women’s groups also pointed out the prime minister’s betrayal of a pledge – signed during the 2006 election campaign – if elected, to “take concrete and immediate measures, as recommended by the United Nations, to ensure that Canada fully upholds its commitments to women in Canada.”

Instead, Harper’s government adhered to its socially conservative agenda, removed the word “equality” from the SWC mandate and removed funding from groups who engage in advocacy and lobbying at any governmental level – local, provincial, or national. Doing so effectively opens the door for groups like the right-wing organization REAL Women and businesses like the Royal Bank of Canada to apply for funding.

The third prong in Harper’s approach included eliminating the independent research component of SWC and closing eleven of the fifteen SWC offices across the country, effectively cutting its staffing component in half. Minister Bev Oda, seen by many as a pawn in the anti-woman agenda of the Conservatives, defended the decision, saying, “We don’t need to separate the men from the women in this country…. This government as a whole is responsible to develop policies and programs that address the needs of both men and women.” This is a complete denial of the reality that women in this country experience.

Other than in four major centres in the country, Canadian women will no longer be able to access SWC program officers – many of whom have years of experience working with women’s equality issues – for assistance with developing proposals and implementing projects. The Edmonton office will now, geographically speaking, serve half the country. This decision will destroy a vital link between women and the federal government and greatly hinder the advancement of the status of women in our country.

The Context

As a neighbour to the U.S., Canada is inundated with American culture. Best-selling pulp fiction, Hollywood films and television promote an image of women that is grossly distorted, and an image of a movement that is out of date. At the same time, the level of violence has increased exponentially, especially since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Canada’s role in Afghanistan, initially touted to be for the equality of women and the education of girls, has instead become a heavy-handed military occupation. Our troops, who may well have gone there with good intentions, are now forcing a U.S.-friendly government on the Afghan people.

In her Person’s Day Address at the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) breakfast fundraiser in Regina, Nettie Wiebe, an organic farmer and a philosophy professor at the University of Saskatchewan, stated that militarism and violence have proven to be “very dangerous for women and girls.” She suggested that women should be “very worried about that agenda,” because it instills fear in people. And fear, she said, is very often a pretext for the suppression of rights and freedoms. Rape and sexual assault go hand-in-hand with war and military action. “Militarism,” according to Wiebe, “is the patriarchy reinforcing itself.”

The REAL Women organization’s website reveals the undercurrent that they are unhappy with the work of SWC and want to remove it from its ministerial mandate. They also want to rid the country of human-rights tribunals because they interfere with traditional Judeo-Christian marriage.

Indeed, feminism has mucked with the traditional marriage, the numbers of which are decreasing. Feminists have also worked to have same-sex marriages recognized by law, much to the dismay of many social conservatives. And feminism has moved more women into the workforce at somewhat higher rates of pay, which is viewed by some as competition for men, the traditional breadwinners. Certainly middle-aged and older men must experience a sense of emasculation when they see their lives as wage earners threatened. They must feel betrayed, and angry.

This, then, must feed the culture of masculinity, which is fertile ground for the development of a men’s movement where, as one angry man puts it, men and boys are seen as having been “successfully demonized and discriminated against by the loathsome tactics” of feminists and their cronies. And younger men, who missed the last reign of Canadian conservatism and who have no real sense of what their roles as men are, are more easily able to buy into the anti-feminist rhetoric. As they struggle to find their places in a changing world, they seek out a connection to and with other men. Their fathers have, in essence, failed them, and they, too, are angry.

It follows, then, that with the encouragement of the corporate media, some men and women may feel threatened by women who are feminists, especially when branded as “man-haters” or when the movement is dismissed as a lesbian hobby. How could men or heterosexual women feel anything but anxious or doubtful with the stereotyping being perpetuated by the mass media?

The Response

As those of us who lived through the eighties in Canada can attest, there is nothing quite like an attack to spur a speedy response. And now, even those of us who cut our teeth on the axe that Mulroney’s Conservative regime wielded are more prepared than ever to stand our ground during this assault.

Within 24 hours of the first announcement regarding cuts to SWC, nine national women’s organizations issued a statement denouncing the cuts. The next week saw several organizations, large and small, issue similar statements. On October 2, a Declaration of Women’s Groups was read to the media during the federal, Quebec, provincial and territorial Status of Women ministers’ meeting in Saint John, New Brunswick. By October 11, a website, StatusReport.ca, was online to “combat inaccuracies and indifference towards Status Of Women Canada” and to “rally support for Status of Women Canada (SWC) and related issues.”

By the middle of November, another website, TheWomenAreAngry.org was up, encouraging women from across the country to express their anger, and promoting campaign buttons, postcards and stickers. In early December, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) Sisters’ campaign, the F-email Fightback, was underway, urging women and their friends and families to e-mail the prime minister to express strong disagreement with the change in direction to Canada’s “long-standing commitment to the promotion of women’s equality and human rights.”

Women have been organizing on the ground, too, with demonstrations in major centres from coast to coast to coast. In Moncton, more than 300 gathered and marched, demanding equality now. In Hamilton, women carried placards complaining of “unjust cuts.” In Regina, university students organized a noon-hour “Funeral for the Future” that brought out 150 demonstrators on a cold winter day. In N.W.T, the Yellowknife Women’s Society hosted a good, old-fashioned bra-burning event in front of the Greenstone federal building. But the big event, in Ottawa on the commemoration of Human Rights Day, where hundreds of women gathered in song and solidarity to protest the actions of the Harper government, was virtually blacked out by the mainstream media. Just two national media outlets were on hand to report it to the nation.

It will be an uphill battle – as it always is for feminist women – to be heard in the mainstream media and to overcome the Harper agenda. But it is this kind organizing that will be crucial to defeating the New Conservative Government at the polls. In fact, it will be the women’s vote that ensures Harper’s defeat.