Melanee Thomas speaks quickly and authoritatively. An associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary who focuses on gender-based inequity in politics, Thomas does not mince words when it comes to her field of research.
But when asked how gender issues are discussed during this year’s federal election compared to the previous one, she takes a long pause.
“I’m trying remember back to 2015, whether or not we actually talked about women in meaningful kinds of ways,” she told HuffPost Canada.
What’s top of mind for women in Monday’s federal election is important, not least because they make up just over half of the country’s population, but because they represent different kinds of backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, and gender identities.
But Thomas doesn’t feel like any of the parties are making a significant effort to make life better for Canadian women. “If I was going to be looking at how gender is being activated in this particular campaign, what’s striking to me is that it isn’t,” she said.
Watch: May calls out male party leaders at debate. Story continues below.
Toby King, a 24-year-old child care worker from Toronto who’s currently living in Israel but who voted from abroad, agrees with Thomas’s assessment. “I didn’t get much of a sense that the parties were particularly speaking to women’s issues,” she told HuffPost Canada.
In her line of work, she sees the high cost of child care as a gendered issue, given that women are more likely to be caretakers, both to children and other family members.
“One of the reasons that there’s children in poverty is because single mothers can’t afford child care,” she said. “If you work, most of your salary will go to child care, and it’s a cycle of poverty for a lot of women.”
‘Masculinized way of looking at cost of living’
Affordability — in housing, transit, and particularly child care — are issues that matter more to women than tax credits, according to Thomas.
Yet one of the most consistent talking points in almost any election is taxes. Research shows that while men regularly rank taxes as one of their top three issues, women rarely do. Men also benefit more from Canadian tax breaks than women.
“When we’re talking about affordability in this campaign, we’re getting boutique tax credits, and that is it,” Thomas said. “That is, I would argue, a masculinized way of looking at cost of living.”
She said she’s “annoyed” that leaders are framing financial issues around taxes, as opposed to money out of pocket. “If we were going to be looking at affordability through a gendered lens, we would be talking about this stuff.”
Is abortion an issue?
Conversations about abortion have come up this election cycle as Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer faced questions from other parties, particularly Liberals, about his views. Scheer has said that while he is personally “pro-life,” he will not re-open the debate and will vote against measures that seek to do so.
There are significant policy conversations that we should be happening on abortion access and time restrictions, Thomas said, rather than having fruitless debates about whether or not to re-criminalize the medical procedure.
“I get the impression that he’s quite annoyed and often insulted that people ask him about this,” Thomas said.
“Andrew Scheer did this to himself,” she continued. “He played on social conservatism, and he deliberately played to anti-choice groups to win the Conservative Party of Canada leadership.”
Scheer got a boost from social conservatives to win his party’s leadership race in 2017. During that campaign, he promised to allow his MPs to bring forward private members’ bills that opposed abortion rights, although he said he would not endorse them. His leadership win was applauded by several anti-abortion groups.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet have all affirmed their support for abortion rights.
While some Green Party candidates have expressed views against abortion, party leader Elizabeth May has said if they form government, Greens would “never allow a single inch of retreat from the hard-earned rights of women in this country — not one inch.”
The announced closure this month of New Brunswick’s only freestanding abortion clinic is one example of what can happen without conversations about access.
Clinic 554’s medical director, Dr. Adrian Edgar, said upon news of the closure, “I am sad, that during this federal election, our leaders have focused on whether or not they’ll ‘reopen the debate’ on abortion, rather than the real crisis at hand: access.”
When race intersects with gender
In 2015, the public conversation about the niqab was largely seen as xenophobic and racist, but the way those forces intersect with sexism should have been considered too, Thomas said.
Similarly, conversations about Bill 21, the Quebec secularism law that prevents people working in public service from wearing religious symbols, should be examined for the ways race and gender intersect to affect the largely racialized women who are religious minorities in the province. Muslim women are disproportionately affected by the bill.
“I do think that they are targeting women, and in particular a marginalized and vulnerable sector of the population,” said Kulbinder Saran Caldwell, a producer and mother of two who lives in Toronto.
Watch: ‘It’s pretty obvious I’m against Bill 21,’ says NDP Leader Jagmeet Story continues below.
As a Sikh woman, Caldwell wears a kara, a bangle that’s symbolic of the relationship to God. Someone would have to examine it closely to distinguish it from a regular bracelet — but under the law, she couldn’t wear it if she worked in public service in Quebec.
She and her husband have decided they won’t travel to the province any time soon: “We just don’t feel safe.”
Equal treatment for Indigenous women
Indigenous women are even less likely to get equal treatment during policy discussions. The report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls this summer called Canada’s treatment of Indigenous girls and women a “genocide.”
Trudeau initially avoided using the term, saying the violence is “not a relic of Canada’s past” but part of its present, and that the justice system has failed Indigenous girls and women. He did later refer to “genocide” while at a policy conference in Vancouver aimed at strengthening the health, rights and wellbeing of girls and women.
Scheer has rejected the term: “I believe that the tragedy that has happened to this vulnerable section of our society is its own thing. I don’t believe it falls into the category, to the definition of genocide.”
To Thomas, Scheer’s repudiation of the term signals a reluctance to talk openly about both racism and sexism in Canada.
“We talk about racism, and not included in that discussion is about how racist it is for there to be a public inquiry that says, there is a genocide that’s happening, and one of the major political parties in Canada, the leader openly says no,” she said.
As someone who studies gender in politics, Thomas said she is asked all the time about why the number of female candidates matters.
“When people see themselves as their representatives, it really fundamentally changes how they see their politics. You get a lot more buy-in,” she said. “This is why I think people are super resistant to seeing more women and racialized folks in politics.”