Mr. Speaker, October is almost here, and October means not only Hallowe'en but Women's History Month. Unfortunately, as we will show, October 2006 will be a sombre month for women in Canada and Quebec.
Since 1992, Canada has celebrated Women's History Month annually in October. The highlight of the month comes on October 18, Persons Day, which commemorates the historic “persons” case in 1929, a decisive victory in Canadian women's struggle for equality.
This year is also marked by an important anniversary, the 25th anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. How can the government of this Prime Minister act in this way on the eve of this historic anniversary? It makes no sense.
Do I have to remind this House that social and human progress has been made largely through the efforts of women's movements? Women's struggle has always been humankind's struggle. Women have demanded rights not just for themselves, but also for children and for men the world over. I will give you a few examples of this.
Access to education: I do not think that education here in Canada is just for girls; it is for everyone. There is also women's right to vote, the right to own property, freedom of choice, the adoption of pay equity legislation in Ontario and Quebec, the institution of public day care and the introduction of an outstanding accessibility program in Quebec. Women in Quebec even helped set up a department of the environment under Bourassa. There again, the environment is for everyone. Those are but a few examples.
For over a century, women's struggles have led to major advances. Women have helped change social, economic and cultural conditions and, as a result, have enabled women to become full citizens, but they have also made an extraordinary contribution to all humankind.
In Quebec, we also recall milestone events, such as the bread and roses march that took place on May 26, 1995. At the time, women demanded a number of things from the Quebec government, including a tuition fee freeze—which Quebeckers now pretty much take for granted and do not want to see changed—more money for scholarships, a minimum wage above the poverty line and at least 1,500 subsidized housing units per year. They sought these things not just for women, but for everyone. I feel I need to clarify this, because people sometimes think that women's movements fight only for women's rights. That is not true; they fight for everyone's rights.
Throughout history, women have demonstrated the true meaning of the words solidarity, equality and justice. These are more than just words; they are concrete actions.
Women's groups in Quebec also helped found the World March of Women, a worldwide network of 6,000 feminist organizations in 163 countries and territories fighting poverty and violence, especially as they affect women and children.
Women have gradually been taking on what has become a crucial role in Canada and Quebec's political, economic and social landscape. But the fight is not over yet. I can assure you, Mr. Speaker, that we are far from achieving equality. There is still much work to do.
Life for women in Canada is far from perfect and the situation remains worrying. In a report commissioned by the federal government dated December 2005, entitled Equality for Women: Beyond the Illusion, the Expert Panel on Accountability Mechanisms for Gender Equality sounded the alarm on the situation for women in Canada.
The report stated that women are underrepresented in the federal, provincial and municipal governments. This is not news; just look around this House. Less than 25% of the members are women. Girls are more vulnerable to sexual assault against minors; some 80% of victims are girls; 51.6% of single mothers are poor; 35% of single women live in poverty. Visible minority women are more often victims of job discrimination. New immigrants, 24 to 40, with a degree who work full time earn $14,000 less than people born in Canada and Quebec. We know that full-time salaried women in all categories earn 71% of what their male colleagues earn.
These figures speak volumes about the work that still needs to be done, at a time when this government is cutting funding for Status of Women Canada. During the election campaign, on January 18, 2006, the Prime Minister signed a letter in which he said:
Yes, I'm ready to support women's human rights and I agree that Canada has more to do to meet its international obligations to women's equality.
If elected, I will take concrete and immediate measures, as recommended by the United Nations, to ensure that Canada fully upholds its commitments to women in Canada.
You can see where I am going with this. Signing this declaration and making such cuts does not make sense. It defies logic. On September 18, 2006, the Minister of Labour and the Minister of Justice of Canada denied the request of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women to have the government introduce legislation on pay equity. This request was based on a lengthy report by the Pay Equity Task Force tabled in May 2004 after three years of work. This report found that the current legislative provision—section 11 of the Canadian Human Rights Act—was insufficient and that what was needed was federal legislation on pay equity, such as is currently on the books in Quebec and Ontario.
On Monday, September 25, with a surplus of over $13 billion, the Conservative government announced cuts of $5 million over two years to the $24 million budget for Status of Women Canada, representing just over 20% of its annual budget, excluding funds allocated to specific programs.
What has Status of Women Canada done to deserve these cuts?
Status of Women Canada focuses on three areas: improving women's well-being and economic autonomy, eliminating violence against women and children, and advancing women's human rights. We support their mandate. It is a huge undertaking.
This government has made cuts after the Prime Minister promised in the election campaign to support women's human rights and to take immediate and concrete action.
What more can I say? I just do not understand it and I leave it to the members to come to their own conclusions. On Monday, September 25, this government also abolished the court challenges program.
Not only has this Prime Minister cut funds to programs that are already underfunded but, in addition, he is eliminating citizens' means of defending themselves. I would like to quote Mrs. Shelagh Day of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, who denounced this odious action, with just cause. She said, and I quote:
This program was the only means available to women to have their constitutional rights to equality recognized. The right to equality does not mean anything in Canada if women and other Canadians who are victims of discrimination cannot exercise them.
I would like to remind my Conservative party colleagues that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommended, in item 356 of its report, that Canada:
—find ways for making funds available—
And not that it take away funding.
—find ways for making funds available for equality test cases—
I would like to remind this House once again that the Prime Minister signed a declaration whereby he undertook to protect and support women's human rights and to take more—the word “more” is there—immediate and concrete action. The government has refused to implement legislation on pay equity, has cut funding to the Canadian Feminist Alliance and has abolished the court challenges program.
In regard to the specific steps taken by this government—yes, these are specific steps—people are entitled to wonder and now they can pass judgment on these kinds of specific steps. They can pass judgment not only on the steps but also on the value of the Prime Minister’s signature and, by extension, his word. Here we see that the right-wing ideology innate in this government takes precedence over its promises. That is too bad and very sad. As the old adage goes, a leopard cannot change its spots.
A number of women whom I have met today think that the Prime Minister was hiding his true intentions during the election campaign. In view of his January 18 statement, many women are telling me that they feel deceived.
During question period, we have heard the Prime Minister and his ministers offer all kinds of explanations, utterly preposterous ones in my view, in response to our reproaches. Nothing, however, absolutely nothing can change the facts and the truth about the incredible and unacceptable disparity between what the Prime Minister promised and the steps he has taken since the last election.
In view of the current budgetary situation, in view of the $13 billion surplus—we must remember—nothing could justify such cuts to Status of Women Canada or the actual abolition of the court challenges program. What the Prime Minister should have done instead, in order to show his good faith, is what the Standing Committee on the Status of Women asked: increase the budget of the women’s program. That would have been a very good step.
The people are never wrong, but they can be wronged. Once again, this has been proved in spades.
What will be the effects of these cuts? First, it will likely be hard for Status of Women Canada to operate, especially as it was already underfunded. This agency is important to the women’s movements. The government did not actually cut the women’s program; it cut Status of Women Canada. In case this government does not realize it, in order for a program to operate, it needs someone to manage it. So if the administration is slashed, how can the agency be managed? It is a non sequitur.
Any organization can be improved of course. But improved does not mean cut. To the contrary, improved means more funding and studies of how it operates in order to improve it.
I think that what is happening now to Status of Women will slow women’s progress toward real equality from the standpoint of physical safety, economic security, and democratic and political rights. Whether intentional or not, when there are cuts, groups cease to exist, in this case the groups that advocate on behalf of women.
I have been closely involved in international policy and am therefore able to say that after having tarnished 50 years of Canadian diplomacy on the international scene—I saw it when I was in Lebanon—the Prime Minister now apparently wants to destroy more than 40 years of Quebec and Canadian feminism.
As an aside, I would like to speak for a moment about the word “feminism”, an over-used word that it has become a catch-all. Some people have only negative things to say about feminism. What is feminism? Feminism is to believe in the equality of men and women and to seek that equality. Mr. Speaker, I am sure that you believe in gender equality, and you are therefore a feminist, like myself, and like everyone else in this House who also believes. To be a feminist is to believe in equality for everyone, including men and women. We should be proud of being feminists. I hope that the Prime Minister is also a feminist. If he believes in gender equality, then he is a feminist.
During question period two days ago, I asked the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women a question regarding these cuts, and she replied:
Mr. Speaker, I will reiterate that the women of Canada made their decision when they elected this new Conservative government and put it into power.
While it is true that Canadian women voted for the Conservative government, they did so based on false representations. That is how I see it. I think that women in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada voted for the Conservative Party because the Prime Minister, on January 28, 2006, signed a document affirming that he would defend the rights of women.
Since I only have a minute left, I will conclude by adding that the women's movement will not be defeated.We believe in peace, equal rights and access to justice for everyone. Long before any of us in this House was born, this country was being built by women who deserve our respect.