For young women in Canada today, Stephen Harper has been prime minister for about a third or more of our lives. His federal governments are those we know best -- Conservative omnibus legislation, stifling of parliamentary debate, and the centralization of power in the PMO, are features of government that are now normal and everyday.
We've suffered the shattering debasement of the women's equality agenda -- an agenda that, at its most robust, we were too young to know, and now, at its weakest in decades, we can only look back on and say, "wait, that existed...that was happening..."
Within seconds of searching "Harper", "women" and "equality" online, unsurprising headlines surface: "Stephen Harper's War On Women"; "Chipping Away at Gender Equality: Harper's 5-year Round Up"; "Harper's Attack on Women's Rights and Equality."
These articles are not anomalous. There are many, and they speak to the Harper era's treatment of women's equality issues. They are also mostly written by women -- women looking out for women.
As we turn to the polls, more women are likely to cast a ballot and more young women than young men are likely to vote. Women need to decide what issues matter to them and what platforms speak to their needs. They also need to remember what a women's equality agenda is - that it did and can exist in Canada.
For those women who care about advancing women's equality, the answer is simple: the women's equality vote is the non-Conservative, anti-Harper vote. This answer is informed by the many losses women have suffered under Harper governments ‑- losses young women in Canada may not remember. For those who want a reminder:
The 2006 cancellation of child care agreements negotiated with the provinces. These agreements were a first step toward establishing a Canada-wide system of affordable, quality child care services.
The closure of 12 of the 16 Status of Women Canada (SWC) offices by spring 2007; the elimination of the SWC Independent Research Fund; and a new mandate for SWC Women's Program funding that does not support women's equality advocacy work. The funding is now oriented towards market solutions and women's entrepreneurship, as opposed to increased civil society capacity for women's policy perspectives. The women's equality organizations that survived the cuts were gutted.
The cancellation of the Court Challenges Program in 2006; a program that supported litigation challenging discriminatory laws and practices, including systemic gender discrimination.
The enforcement of austerity measures, tax policy and other fiscal policy, such as income splitting, that together disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Canadians and make the federal government pay billions in tax cuts that deplete the social safety net.
The complete stagnation of progressive pay equity legislation. Canada's gender pay gap today is twice the global average. The recommendations of the 2004 Pay Equity Task Force remain unimplemented and the only piece of legislation a Harper government has introduced regarding pay equity -- the Public Service Equitable Compensation Act in 2009 -- makes it more difficult for women in the public service to advance pay equity complaints and obtain pay equity.
The lauding of a maternal health program as part of Canada's foreign development and international aid agenda that fails to recognize the centrality of women's sexual and reproductive rights, including the right to access safe contraception and abortion as a part of family planning.
The further refining of retrogressive immigration policy that welcomes women to Canada through temporary foreign worker programs where they are made vulnerable to violence and indentured to an employer.
The failure to establish both a national action plan to respond to the high rates of male on female violence, as well as a national public inquiry into the crisis of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Harper denies that the racist and sexist violence is a sociological phenomenon. This is just plain wrong.
And, most recently, another attack against niqab-wearing Muslim Canadian women, such as Zunera Ishaq, and their ability to exercise their freedoms of religion, expression and association by wearing a niqab when they choose, wherever they choose, without being subject to government interference and discrimination. In this debate, Harper has played a game of divisive identity politics that preys on the fear and mistrust of difference.
There is a central Harper government claim that underlies: women are equal to men. This is simply a formal equality claim (women can vote, work, stand for public office) that does not acknowledge systemic gender barriers. It denies the experiences of most girls and women in Canada. Let's not forget that women, and particularly Aboriginal women, racialized women and women with disabilities, when compared to men are more likely to earn less, be unemployed and live in poverty and in situations where they are subject to violence. The sad reality is that in many ways women are not yet equal to men in Canada.
We need a government that will champion women's equality by recognizing it as something that needs championing, not as something that already exists. There are young women who refuse to buy the "women are equal" Conservative tag line. We know what our foremothers fought for, we know what we've lost in our lifetime under Harper's leadership, and it's time to reclaim the losses. As young women, we need to vote for our future -- a future where all women can be equal.
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