Do you have to be cold to be cool? Canada joins the Nordics as a world leader on rights.

November 21, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

I was in Canada last week, having a lot of fun on a speaking tour with Oxfam Canada, followed by a couple of days with Oxfam Quebec in Montreal. One of the striking impressions is how much Canada’s foreign policy rhetoric echoes that of the Nordics in its focus on rights (an even more striking impression was that minus 20 degrees centigrade is really not much fun).

We visited what, as far as I (and Google) can work out, is the world’s only Human Rights Museum, a beautiful piece of architecture stuffed full of thought-provoking exhibits. Trouble is it’s in Winnipeg, which even other Canadians say is in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it could set up Virtual Reality rooms in museums elsewhere so people could take a tour without actually going there?

On the tour I discussed how change happens and women’s rights with Shirley Pryce, a self-described ‘energy bunny’ who set up the Jamaica Household Workers’ Union, and Oxfam Canada boss and influential feminist Julie Delahanty, plus great local activists in each of the 5 cities we visited.

First, indigenous rights. What rapidly became clear was that Canada is living through a painful period of introspection about its treatment of its native peoples. A court case brought by some of the estimated 150,000 people removed from their families as kids and sent to grim Residential Schools (the last one closed in 1996) led to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose report in 2015 has galvanized the whole debate.

Second, women’s rights. In June 2017, Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development and La Francophonie, launched Canada’s new Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), echoing Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy. The FIAP focuses on six areas:

  • Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls
  • Human dignity
  • Growth that works for everyone
  • Environment and climate action
  • Inclusive governance
  • Peace and security

I asked various people about the roots of ‘Canadian exceptionalism’ on FIAP, and got some useful insights:

History: in past decades, Canada has had a strong, government-funded women’s movement, led by National Action Committee on the Status of Women, some notably strong women in government such as Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald in the 1980s, and has played an active role at a diplomatic level on UN conventions such as CEDAW. More broadly, Canadian John P. Humphrey was one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while Prime Minister Lester B Pearson is recognized as ‘the father of modern peacekeeping’.

Under the widely criticised previous administration of Stephen Harper ‘gender’ was more or less excised from government vocabulary, in favour of a more traditional focus on women as mothers, entrepreneurs or victims. That thinking led to significant funding for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MCNH) programmes, though without any attention paid to sexual and reproductive health and rights. And in fact, little spent on the M part of the equation.

After winning the 2015 election, the new government led by Justin Trudeau wanted to put daylight between itself and Harper, and gender equality was one of the options. Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire are both pro-choice feminists. The rapturous response both inside Canada and beyond to initial steps such as insisting on a 50% female cabinet and Trudeau’s speech at UN Women confirmed that this was a rich symbolic battlefield. Hence the FIAP.

So what happens next? I was struck by a level of defeatism among some of the people I spoke to – ‘in 18 months this will be gone’ prophesied one academic and former aid official. Cynics cite the lack of new money accompanying the announcement – it’s all style and no substance.

But it seems more promising than that. The Harper Administration tied up a lot of aid spending in advance of the new government, and as that runs out, the new grants are being subject to close scrutiny and new policies. The government committed C$650m on Women’s Reproductive Health Rights (a much welcomed response to Donald Trump’s move in the opposite direction) and additional money to support women’s rights organizations. The Minister’s office is also reportedly sending back funding proposals that are not focused on gender equality and women’s rights.

But if there is to be more than a short-term spending spree, activists need to think about how the FIAP can be ‘locked in’ even when the political tide turns against Trudeau-style feminism. There may be some useful lessons from two contrasting and comparable initiatives in the UK: Labour’s much trumpeted 1997 ‘Ethical Foreign Policy’ bit the dust after a couple of scandals and disappeared without trace; in contrast, its commitment to spending 0.7% of national income on aid ended up becoming bipartisan and enshrined in national law. Which of these contrasting fates awaits FIAP?

So far, the biggest impact of the new policy has probably been symbolic – unashamedly using (and celebrating) the F word. That has shaken up more conservative thinkers (including among the NGOs, judging by my conversations!). A next step is to start turning that into not just policy, but institutional reality. Julie Delahanty recommends putting more resources into the endeavour and explicitly hiring feminists that also have the technical skills needed – ‘stop hiring people because they are good at agriculture or education and then expect them to apply feminist principles’. It might also mean finding new partners that adhere to feminist principles

As well as changing the people and the policies, lock-in would be helped by overhauling the institutional plumbing – effectively, sticking the word ‘feminist’ in front of the nuts and bolts in the aid organigram of human resources, procurement, monitoring and evaluation etc, then brainstorming on what that might look like. Oxfam Canada, which made women’s rights its main focus over a decade ago, is now talking to the government on a lot of this agenda. Beyond aid, what would feminist mining policy look like? A Feminist NAFTA renegotiation, anyone?

Another symbolic battleground could be Canada’s 2008 ODA Accountability Act. Its current text does not explicitly mention feminism or gender equality. Amending it might send further good signals and (slightly) raise the cost of any future backsliding.

Other ideas?

November 21, 2017
Duncan Green