Backwards to Beijing +10 (Jennifer DeGroot)

March/April 2005 Issue

In 1995, representatives from 189 countries gathered in Beijing for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. They were “determined to advance the goals of equality, development and peace for all women everywhere.” States present – including Canada – acknowledged the “increasing poverty that is affecting the lives of the majority of the world’s people, in particular women and children, with origins in both the national and international domains” and dedicated themselves “unreservedly to addressing these constraints and obstacles” through “urgent action.”

Just months before Canada signed the Declaration and Platform for Action at Beijing, the Canadian government tabled its 1995 budget, in which Finance Minister Paul Martin announced “real cuts in real dollars” and overall departmental spending cuts of almost 19 per cent over a three-year period. So, urgent action certainly did follow the Beijing conference, though not of the kind promised. Deficit reduction quickly became the primary focus of Canada’s federal government. This near obsession, and the funding cuts it entailed, seriously compromised Canada’s ability to keep its Beijing promises.

A recent report, Canada’s Commitment to Equality: A Gender Analysis of the Last Ten Federal Budgets (1995-2004), by the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA), analyzes the post-1995 federal spending cuts and the tax cuts that accompanied them. The report concludes that, “Federal budgetary initiatives of the past 10 years have increased the constraints faced by women and the most vulnerable in their daily lives, and conferred greater resources on those already most privileged…. This turns the commitments made at Beijing 10 years ago on their head.”

The report, written by economist Armine Yalnizyan, documents that, while federal program spending had run at just over 15 per cent of GDP from 1945 to 1995, in the years following the Beijing Conference that number dropped to 12 per cent. Over a three-year period from 1995 to 1998 the federal government cut social programs by $4.2 billion. Cuts included training, student-loan supports, unemployment insurance benefits and housing. Women, especially vulnerable women, were disproportionately affected.

For example, reforms to Employment Insurance (EI) forced workers to pay into the fund no matter how few hours they worked, yet the number of hours required for eligibility for benefits was raised. Part-time workers – the majority of whom are women – were most affected. By 2001 only 33 per cent of women workers were eligible for benefits – down from 39 per cent. In contrast, men’s eligibility dropped but a single percentage, from 45 to 44 per cent.

The elimination of the Canada Assistance Plan and its replacement with the Canada Health and Social Transfer also exacerbated the crisis. Provincial transfers were reduced by $8 billion, and transparency and accountability were lost with the disappearance of national standards. Provinces responded by freezing social-assistance rates and slashing programming. While the place of women in society grew more precarious, programs that existed to protect them became less available. Health began to eat up a larger and larger piece of the provincial-budget pie at the expense of programs like housing and child care – both, incidentally, major contributors to a healthy population. Since 2001, federal transfers have increased, yet never have they been enough to undo the damage done in the deficit-war era. Meanwhile, new funding announcements have been misleading, at best.

Seventy per cent of the growth in child-care spaces between 1992 and 2001 was due to the expansion of Quebec’s enviable and universally accessible $5-per-day child-care program. The Canada Child Tax Credit and National Child Benefit Supplement, intended to support the lowest-income families, doesn’t reach those families, because in most provinces the benefit is clawed back from families on social assistance. Affordable housing remains inaccessible to large numbers of Canadians, especially the most vulnerable – most of whom are women. And while maternity leave has been increased to one year, this affects only those women who actually receive benefits – 61 per cent in 2001 – and those whose income is high enough that they can afford to live on 55 per cent of it. The most vulnerable mothers – those working low-paid jobs without benefits – are left to fend for themselves. The report points out that, “while the length of coverage expanded for a select group, the real coverage in dollar terms is significantly lower than rates of 40 years ago.” This lack of benefits is compounded with the lack of child care in all provinces except Quebec.

What has remained hidden in the deficit jargon is that, in the years following the deficit war, the federal government’s capacity to provide for its most vulnerable citizens has never been greater. According to the FAFIA report, since 1998, “Endless deficits have been replaced by endless surpluses.” The deficit had been “slayed,” years ahead of schedule. However, the federal government was committed to hiding this fact and immediately embarked upon its debt war. From 1997 to October, 2004, Canada recorded what the report calls the “largest debt paydown in Canadian fiscal history and the largest such payment in the advanced industrialized world.”

Meanwhile, it has become increasingly clear who are the real beneficiaries of the debt and deficit war. The small gains purported to meet the needs of the most vulnerable – those paying the greatest cost in the war – serve to camouflage the far greater gains made by the richest. New supports are more likely to be brought in as tax breaks, offering no gains for the 32 per cent of the lowest income-tax filers, who pay no tax – a majority of whom we can assume to be women, given women’s – especially vulnerable women’s – prevalence among the poor.

Budget 1999 eliminated surtaxes on the wealthiest Canadians; Budget 2000 dropped the corporate income-tax rate from 28 to 21 per cent; and Budget 2003 benefited the wealthiest eight per cent of tax filers by increasing the RRSP contribution exemption. The phase-out of capital taxes has begun with a promise that they will fully eliminated by 2008.

The FAFIA report concludes that “There is no question that with respect to tax expenditures, the lion’s share of rewards accrued to those individuals and businesses that were already most privileged. As a group the poorest women and families saw little improvement (and some, as in the case of families needing social assistance, saw less). At the same time, those with plenty of money and spending-power saw their disposable incomes rise even more, thanks to Government-led changes in the tax system.”

Finally, it’s worthwhile to note that it’s not only the most vulnerable Canadians who are affected by our government’s fiscal measures. Canada’s international assistance program was among the hardest hit in the spending cuts of 1995-98, losing $1.3 billion in three years and suffering an overall budget reduction of 20 per cent. Women – the poorest of the world’s global citizens – will again be most affected. The Africa Fund announced in 2001 did not fill the gap. Interestingly enough, gender analysis is a strong part of Canada’s international assistance program. While the Canadian government is a global leader in pushing gender analysis at the international level, at home it seems we have a different approach.

A gender analysis shows that, despite the promises made in Beijing, government commitments through the budget have run “completely counter to its proposed actions.”

Fully 20 per cent, or one in five, Canadian women live in poverty. Among certain groups of women poverty is even higher. The Canadian government itself reports in Canada’s Response to the UN Questionnaire to Governments on Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) that 38 per cent of Aboriginal women, 27 per cent of immigrant women and 35.1 per cent of single mothers were in low-income situations.

And yet the government has chosen a fiscal course that would increase the precariousness of life for the most vulnerable of Canadian women. According to the FAFIA report, tax cuts and debt reduction are “possibly the weakest ways in which to invest in the advancement of the Platform for Action.”

On the eve of the Beijing+10 Review in New York this March, a gender analysis of Canada’s federal budgets over the past decade leaves Canadians to wonder just how deep our government’s commitment to Beijing’s promises of equality, development and peace really is.

The FAFIA report is available in French and English on the organization’s website at www.fafia-afai.org.Jennifer deGroot is Project Coordinator for the UN Platform for Action Committee (Manitoba) and producer of the video, Banging the Door Down: Women and the Economy, and the Women & The Economy website at www.unpac.ca. She was a delegate on the FAFIA-led NGO delegation to the December UN Regional Preparatory meetings for Beijing+10 in Geneva.