Status of Women Canada 2018

Status of Women Canada

What Happened

In 2006, the federal government significantly reduced Status of Women Canada’s (SWC) annual budget and also modified its mandate preventing SWC from funding research and advocacy work.

After self-proclaimed feminist, Justin Trudeau, won the October 2015 election, gender (and racial) injustice received increased public visibility. Advocacy became part of the SWC's mandate again and its budget growth in 2016 and 2017 reflected new recognition of its importance.

Even though the federal budget, produced in February 2018, includes gender equality as its major theme for the first time in Canadian history, optimism remains cautious as the budget still sidesteps women's diversity.


In September 2012, Voices/Voix published a case study of Status of Women Canada (SWC) under Stephen Harper. Documenting severe cuts to SWC funding and mandate---including the forced closure of regional offices, the refusal to fund advocacy, lobbying, and general research promoting equality, and equality’s disappearance as an objective—it portrayed a federal government in retreat from justice. As a subsequent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives affirmed, SWC attention was redirected from women’s organizations to “programs led by, or partnered with, business groups with a much narrower, primarily economic focus”.

Ottawa could not, however, escape reminders of the plight of many Canadian women. Just before the 2015 federal election, the CBC acquired under Freedom of Information a damning internal report, marked secret, prepared by SWC. Never intended for public release and apparently not shared with the Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, Conservative M.P. Kellie Leitch, it highlighted persisting gendered violence, poverty, and the wage gap.

That argument, all the more powerful in the context of sexual assault charges involving CBC star, Jian Ghomeshi, produced no shift in Conservative policy. Indeed Prime Minister Harper confirmed his administration’s ‘war on women’ in refusing to participate in the 2015 election panel on women’s issues.

When a self-proclaimed feminist, Justin Trudeau won the October 2015 election, Liberal election promises seemed to signal a sea change for SWC. Very soon, commitment to addressing issues ranging from violence against Indigenous women and girls to child care and reproductive rights were tested. The fate of SWC, being the harbinger since 1976 of federal commitment to gender equality, was one part of this test.

Status of Women Canada 2015-2017: The Return to Equality and Advocacy
From the start of the Liberal mandate in 2015, the exceptional public visibility of gender (and racial) injustice, with an associated surge in feminist and Indigenous consciousness, made it increasingly difficult for politicians to walk away from campaign or other promises of fair dealing. Although electoral reform was abandoned, Canada’s feminist prime minister invested significant political capital in differentiating himself from an American self-proclaimed “pussy-grabbing” president.

Given the secret pre-election report, SWC likely faced severe repercussions if Harper had won. Instead, after the Liberal victory, the policy advice and funding agency received Patty Hajdu as a strong new minister, with a history of commitment to grassroots feminist politics. Under her tenure (November 2015-January 2017), SWC recovered much lost ground. In July 2016, after a hiatus of almost a decade, advocacy work once again became eligible for funding and equality returned to its mandate.

That restoration proved a boon for many civil society groups. In BC alone, the Ending Violence Association of BC, the Inform’elles Society, the Minerva Foundation, the MOSAIC, Rise Women’s Legal Aid, the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology, and WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre received significant funds to advance gender equality in September 2017. Such invaluable support had counterparts across the country.

In addition to a renewed commitment to funding feminist activist research and service, SWC’s case for ‘gender-based analysis plus,’ which pointed to the ways that gender, race, sexuality, class, and other identities are constructed, fluid and intersectional in shaping opportunity, found new government sympathizers. Initial results seemed promising with “more than 60 Budget 2017 measures … identified as having different gender impacts”

Growth in SWC’s funding in 2016 and 2017 reflected new recognition of its importance. The larger budget was, however, judged insufficient to meet the demands placed upon a still relatively small agency (Kate McInturff, “The Budget”).

In January 2017, Maryam Monsef, previously Minister for Democratic Institutions, where she presided over Trudeau’s reversal of his election promises to implement proportional representation, succeeded Patty Hajdu. Her October 2017 ‘mandate letter’ from the prime minister was significantly more detailed than that from 2015, with more emphasis on integration of ‘Gender Based Analysis’ into government efforts and the notable addition of “work with the Minister of Families Children and Social Development on the Implementation of the National Early Learning and Childcare Framework and the National Housing Strategy” and “Work with the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour to introduce proactive pay equity legislature by 2018 for federally-regulated workers”.

In a spirit that the previous Harper administration had not encouraged, Minister Monsef returned to collaboration with provincial and territorial ministers responsible for the status of women.

SWC responded to heightened exposure of sexual violence with a new ‘Gender-Based Violence Program’, a continuation of the June 2017 ‘It’s Time: Canada’s Strategy to prevent and Address Gender-based Violence,’ which focuses on “Indigenous women, the LGBTQ2 community, gender-non-binary people, non-status/refugee/immigrant women, seniors, women living in an official language minority community, women living in northern, rural and remote communities and women living with a disability”.

For all such signs of progress, early critics pointed to the gap between promises and results (See “Two Years of Liberal Government: A Voices-Voice Report Card,” (Oct. 18, 2017), the “Pre-Budget 2018 Consultation Submission from the Canadian Centre for Policy Analysis,” Oxfam’s “Feminist Scorecard 2017” and West Coast Leaf’s “2017 CEDAW Report Card”.

The disappointments associated with the struggling National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, launched in December 2016, sent the same message of unrequited dreams when it came to especially disadvantaged women. The 2017 emergence of the “Me too” movement and continuing exposure of sexual abuse of women in all walks of life, including politics, further illuminated systemic oppression.

After the first two years of the Liberal mandate, Canadians faced clear reminders of how much more needed to be done to advance equality.

Unprecedented Focus on Gender: the Federal Budget 2018
Heightened awareness of injustice, electoral ambitions, a desire to outflank the NDP, and faith that greater fairness could increase economic output and social stability—a situation somewhat analogous to the conditions that inspired the Liberal party to introduce Old Age Pensions in 1927 and a National Medicare Act in 1966-- produced in February 2018, for the first time in Canadian history, a budget that included gender equality as its major theme.

The SWC’s gender-based plus analysis informed a series of promises that included closing the gender wage gap in federal employment, funding for Statistics Canada to create a new Centre for Gender, Diversity, and Inclusion Statistics, improved paternity leave, funding for a national framework for addressing gender-based violence in post-secondary institutions, more funding for a gender-based violence strategy, investment in childcare, incentives for women’s involvement in non-traditional work, and a bigger overseas aid budget in support of women and girls.

In line with such commitments, SWC emerged with prospects of full department status independent of Canadian Heritage. This transition was rumored to include a name change that incorporates contemporary feminism’s emphasis on intersectionality. Minister Monsef identified “people” too long “in the shadows” as new targets of “equal opportunity”. This enhanced mandate carried with it a substantial boost to the grants program and funding for an anti-violence strategy aimed at men and boys.

Good news is welcome but optimism remains cautious. Despite professions of intersectional analysis (and thus attention to how race, class, and other markers of difference shape opportunity), the budget still sidesteps women’s diversity. In particular, knowledgeable commentators note that its failure to commit fully to affordable and regulated childcare and to address “how factors such as age, race, income and sexual orientation are also barriers to women’s equality and well-being” mean that many women still go missing when it comes to opportunity.

Relevant Dates

  • October 2005: federal Conservative government cuts funding of Status of Women Canada and changes its mandate
  • October 19, 2015: self-proclaimed feminist, Justin Trudeau, wins the general elections signaling sea change for SWC
  • November 2015: Patty Hajdu gets appointed Minister of Status of Women Canada
  • January 2017: Maryam Monsef succeeds Patty Hadju as Minister of Status of Women Canada
  • February 27, 2018: The federal budget includes gender equality as its major theme

Role or Position

In 1976, the Government of Canada established Status of Women Canada to “co-ordinate policy with respect to the status of women and administer related programs” (Order in Council 1976-779). It rapidly became the ‘canary in the coal mine’ test of official federal commitment to gender equality. By the 1990s, and especially under the administration of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives (2006-2015), it faced recurring attack and diminution of influence. The return of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, with the significant presence of feminist cabinet ministers, augured a sea change. This shift was enabled by the resurgence of feminist, Indigenous, and other protest movements. The 2018 federal budget’s promise to promote the agency to a full ministry was accompanied by significant commitments to enhanced gender equality. SWC seems to have assumed a significant role in encouraging gender analysis of public policy, but its endorsement of an intersectional, ‘gender plus’ approach appears to have had less effect.

Implications and Consequences

  • SWC is in far better shape than it was in October 2015. Its role in promoting equality and a gender plus analysis within federal departments, tackling violence, and supporting advocacy-based service and research has been significantly recognized and enhanced. For the first time, the government in power has publicly committed to an agenda that envisions a central role for SWC.
  • The 2017 mandate of the Minister for the Status of Women includes far more specific commitments to equality. This should permit better tracking of the government record.
  • The 2018 federal budget promised unprecedented growth for SWC including the transition to a department and heightened responsibilities. It suggests official recognition that the scope of gender inequality goes far beyond the capacity of a small program focused on policy recommendations and funding services and research.
  • The Liberal 2018 budget goes some way to meet 2015 election pledges to gender justice, but promises require a concomitant commitment to addressing the special disadvantages of Indigenous and other marginalized communities that are highlighted in any serious intersectional analysis. The government has yet to demonstrate its acceptance of the SWC’s ‘gender plus’ analysis.

Date published: 7 March 2018