Canada’s Feminist Foreign Policy: Part 1
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Canada’s minister of international development, Marie-Claude Bibeau, launches Canada’s new Feminist International Assistance Policy during an event in Ottawa in June 2017. Canada is set to announce a feminist foreign policy soon. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Unlike Sweden and Mexico, Canada has never explicitly announced the adoption of a feminist foreign policy. However, since taking office in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration has demonstrated a commitment to a feminist foreign policy agenda. From its feminist international assistance policy to making gender equality a priority for its recent G7 presidency, Canada has certainly adhered to a feminist approach in its international relations.
Trudeau’s feminist government
Justin Trudeau is a self-proclaimed feminist and at a UN summit in 2016, he stated that he will keep declaring himself a feminist “until it is met with a shrug” (The Guardian, 2016). After he was elected, Trudeau went viral for appointing a young and diverse cabinet “that looks like Canada” (Murphy, 2015) comprising of an equal number of women and men, for the first time in Canadian history. When he was asked to explain his historical decision and explain his commitment to gender equality, he simply answered “because it’s 2015”, affirming that this should be the norm in the 21st century. The Liberal Party had campaigned on a platform that emphasized feminism and indigenous rights, promising to look forward in progress. Holding on to this election promise, an example of a welcome change was that in the most recent federal election (October 2019), the data collection process of candidates’ credentials moved away from the gender binary and relied on what the candidate identified as (Montpetit, 2020).
Additionally, under Trudeau’s government, the Status of Women Canada, an agency under the Department of Canadian Heritage, was transformed into its own federal department by the name of Women and Gender Equality (WAGE) Canada. The department’s broad goals include: “increasing women’s economic security and prosperity; encouraging women’s leadership and democratic participation; and ending gender-based violence” (Status of Women Canada, n.d.). This department also oversees the implementation of Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA+), an “analytical process used to assess how diverse groups of women, men and non-binary people may experience policies, programs and initiatives” (Gender Based Analysis, 2018), throughout all governmental bodies.
The WAGE department is an ambitious and laudable initiative in the fight for gender equality within Canadian political office. With a commitment to address gaps and problems at the structural and systemic level by consulting grassroots and civil society experts, this department should lead by example not only in terms of gender-mainstreaming, but also advancing gender equality within and outside Canada. By following an intersectional approach to tackling the wage gap, gender-based violence (GBV) and women and non-binary representation in parliament, the departmental plan is off to a solid and promising start, if implemented correctly (Monsef, n.d.).
Economy and Trade
In terms of trade, Canada broke new ground by committing to mainstream gender considerations in its international free trade agreements (FTAs). According to an official government site, “The Government of Canada is currently applying a two-pronged approach to trade and gender by: working to include a standalone chapter on trade and gender and by mainstreaming gender by including other gender-related provisions throughout FTAs” (Government of Canada, n.d.). This is a landmark policy goal, first seen in a trade deal with Chile, in that it is the first country in the G20 to not only reference gender in terms of trade but also envisage a world wherein all genders benefit equally from trade, without facing discrimination.
Canada’s acknowledgement of the link between international trade and gender inequality due to a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions, with women being disproportionately affected, is a positive and much-needed step in the right direction. Thus, in this way, Canada is paving the way to make sure that free trade agreements do not perpetuate economic barriers or discriminate based on gender. This will cause ripple effects as the economic empowerment of women and girls can translate into the economic growth of their communities and countries. As an influential middle power country on the world stage, Canada has tremendous scope for leading the way in promoting global standards for trade policy that inculcates gender equality.
Arms Deals and Nuclear Weapons
By promoting women’s rights on the one hand but hedging through on weapons exports to dictatorships on the other, Canada’s feminist foreign policy has come under fire for being insincere. Trudeau’s government has chosen to overlook the fact that Canada has a $15bn arms deal with Saudi Arabia, asserting that it would not renege on its deal unless there was evidence of the weapons harming civilians (Franklin, n.d.)8. To add fuel to the fire, Canadian weapons manufacturing firms were also part of a weapons deal struck between Nigerian military and the USA. It is completely antithetical to Canada’s feminist leadership to continue to engage in weapons trade, to countries like Saudi Arabia with a poor record on women’s rights, no less.
As Elin Liss rightly said, “a feminist foreign policy should be anti-militaristic and put human security at the centre” (Liss, 2018). Canada’s feminist foreign policy, in this respect, appears compartmentalized as it fails to “recognize the gendered impacts of weapon proliferation, where unequal power structures, both in the home and in society, become even stronger when men are armed” (Liss, 2018). Lucrative arms deals cannot exist in isolation from a feminist foreign policy as the former will only stand to prop up repressive and violent regimes around the world that harm women – leading to internecine effects. Feminist foreign policy cannot be tokenistic and conveniently evoked at global conferences and then disregarded when it comes to the lives of innocent civilians.
In another disappointing note on Canada’s feminist foreign policy, the country remains steadfast in wanting to invest in and support nuclear power – the world’s most cataclysmic weapons. While foreign minister Chrystia Freeland insisted that Canada is committed to global disarmament and non-proliferation, Canada’s recent track record suggests otherwise (Smith, 2017). In 2017, Canada abstained from joining nuclear disarmament talks and was not a part of the draft treaty which included 122 other countries (Smith, 2017).
As Canada still regards NATO as the bastion of international peace and security and continues to support its nuclear allies in the development of nuclear weapons, feminist spaces are questioning whether a feminist foreign policy is compatible with this stance as these weapons disproportionately affect women (Fihn, 2018). Indeed, this entire ordeal seems like a 180 degree turn from Canada’s crowning achievement, the Ottawa Convention, which eventually led to the banning of minefields. Although it was not termed feminist diplomacy nor intended to be, the former is powerful case of strong middle power diplomacy.
Trudeau’s anti-ban stance casts a shadow in another form given Canada’s own history of nuclear testing on indigenous sites and, paradoxically, Trudeau’s purported support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Broadhead and Howard, 2019).
As the G7 president in 2018, Canada focused on a human security approach to diplomacy and brought together the world’s most powerful countries around the themes of gender equality, climate change, the need to uphold peace and security, clean energy and economic growth that benefits everyone. It marked the first occasion that Canada had the chance to demonstrate its feminist foreign policy on the world stage as well as show its diplomatic acumen in encouraging other countries to follow suite. Although all the G7 countries certainly have the resources to commit to procedures such as gender-budgeting, implementing the WPS agenda nationally and defending women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health, many of these components of a feminist policy are not standard practice (Ho, 2018). In fact, after US President Donald Trump reinstated and expanded the Global Gag Rule which cuts US funding to foreign associations that support abortion, it was who Canada stepped in to fill the leadership void and vowed $650 million for sexual and reproductive health rights worldwide (Zilio, 2017).
As per the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (Worniuk, 2019), this was a momentous G7 meeting in that it was the first public engagement which was not only explicitly labelled ‘feminist’, but also used feminist analyses. While it is easy to dismiss the various rhetoric around supporting feminist movements, intersectional framing of policy and affirming accountability towards women’s rights as jingoism and an attempt at branding, having such a huge platform to discuss feminist organizing is a huge break-through into institutional spaces. As CFFP put it aptly, “Hearing feminist voices on the global stage paves the way for feminist voices in local settings – and vice versa” (Worniuk, 2019).
Indeed, Canada went on to champion the G7 Women, Peace and Security Partnerships Initiative as well as the first ever meeting of female foreign ministers (Thompson and Asquith, 2018), which centered around gender-based violence, democracy promotion and strengthening international security and peace. The latter also aimed to set a precedent for growing amity between women ministers and hoped to inspire more women to join their country’s diplomatic ranks.
1. The Guardian, (2016, March 17), Justin Trudeau: When I call myself a feminist, Twitter explodes, The Guardian (Read)
2. J. Murphy, (2015, November 4), Trudeau gives Canada first cabinet with equal number of men and women (Read)
3. D. Montpetit, (2020, January 23), Women in the Parliament of Canada, Hill Notes (Read)
4. Status of Women Canada, Government of Canada, (Read)
5. Gender Based Analysis + (2018, December 4), Status of Women Canada (Read)
6. M. Monsef, Department for Women and Gender Equality 2019–20 Departmental Plan (Read)
7. Trade and gender in free trade agreements: The Canadian approach, Government of Canada (Read)
8. R. Zakaria, (2017, November 3), Canada’s hypocritical ‘feminist’ foreign policy, Al Jazeera (Read)
10. M.D. Smith, (2017, October 26), ‘Astonishing’: Justin Trudeau criticized for not congratulating Nobel Peace Prize winners, keeping Canada out of nuclear treaty, National Post (Read)
11. B. Fihn, (2018, September 28), Canada’s feminist foreign policy cannot include nuclear weapons, The Globe and Mail (Read)
12. L.A. Broadhead and S. Howard, (2019, October 14), The Nuclear Ban Treaty and the cloud over Trudeau’s ‘feminist’ foreign policy, International Journal, DOI: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0020702019876368
14. M. Zilio, (2017, December 14), Canada’s G7 presidency to focus on gender equality, economic issues, The Globe and Mail. (Read)
15. B. Woroniuk, (2019, February 18), Canada’s feminist vision for the G7 and beyond, Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (Read)
16. L. Thompson and C. Asquith, (2018, September 20), One Small Step for Feminist Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy (Read)