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April 14, 2011

Women don't count under Harper's watch

A quick question: can you name the federal cabinet minister responsible for the status of women?

If you’re like most folks, even those among us who keep a close eye on public affairs, chances are you aren’t able to identify this minister. That’s hardly surprising because under the regime of Stephen Harper the prominence given to issues that directly affect Canadian women has sunk to levels not seen since the 1950s.

As we prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 8, it is profoundly disturbing to review the deliberate steps the Harper government has taken since 2006 to claw back many of the legislative, policy and funding achievements women thought they had secured over the previous 40 years. The list is lengthy with no sign of change under our current Prime Minister.

Topping the list was Harper’s cancellation – enacted within months of taking office in 2006 – of a national child-care program, the product of years of negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces as women’s groups forced the two sides together. As recently as three weeks ago, Harper’s Minister of Human Resources, Diane Finley, dismissed a national plan by stating parents would be "forced to have other people raise their children." What planet was she speaking from?

In place of a well-regulated, quality national system, the Harper government offered taxable $100 monthly payments to parents with children under age six.

We’ve become the laughing stock of the world. In a United Nations survey of 25 developed nations we rank absolutely last in terms of providing child-care services.

For women, it only gets worse under the Harper Conservatives.

Since 2006 the government has closed 12 of 16 regional offices of the Status of Women Canada across the country. It has eliminated funding for the Status of Women Independent Research Fund.

The government has refused to push the pay equity envelope any further than the law currently requires. Without any legislative committee hearings or consultation with women’s groups, Harper simply rejected the idea, put forward by a federal task force, of a "proactive pay-equity system."

In fact, on the issue of pay equity it took a giant step backward when it introduced the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act, which to many human rights and women’s advocates, actually reintroduces sexual discrimination into pay practices.

As writer Murray Dobbin has pointed out in The Tyee, the law (which was mischievously buried in the fine print of the 2009 budget) introduced additional criteria that would allow public sector employers to consider "market demand" in determining compensation – in effect ensuring higher pay for men even if the work is of equal value.

Sadly, the Harper government views women’s issues through the prism of old TV sitcoms like Father Knows Best and the illusory world of the Cleaver family in Leave it to Beaver. Few women occupy positions of prominence in Cabinet and the handful who develop some profile like Helene Geugeris, are publicly humiliated before being booted from Cabinet.

Matters will only get worse for women should Harper gain the majority he so desperately craves following the next federal election.

This is not where Canadian women expected to find themselves on the eve of the centenary of International Women’s Day. For a nation so rich in human, social and financial resources, it is bewildering that we find ourselves with a national government that pays such scant attention to the issues that matter to more than half the population. Indeed, the status of women has improved over the decades but that progress has abruptly stalled under the watch of Stephen Harper.

Finally, for those who might still be wondering, Canada’s Minister Responsible for the Status of Women is Rona Ambrose. Next question: can anyone cite one achievement during her 10 months in office? I thought so.

In Solidarity

Patty Rout is the First Vice-President / Treasurer of OPSEU

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