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House of Commons Hansard #67 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was equality.

Topics

Status of WomenPrivate Members' Business

1:35 p.m.

Bloc

Carole Lavallée Bloc Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert, QC

Mr. Speaker, I was listening very carefully to the hon. Conservative member for Simcoe North and I must say that there is a big difference between what he says and what he does, as Status of Women Canada would certainly agree.

I would like to commend my colleague from Laval, who explained the Bloc Québécois position so well during the first hour of debate on this motion by the hon. member for London West, whom I would also like to congratulate for her motion on promoting the status of women, a motion that is totally non-partisan. I would like to congratulate both hon. members.

In the days following International Women's Day, I must say that it worries me deeply to sit in this Parliament under a Conservative government. I was elected almost four years ago and I have never had to make so many speeches to promote the status of women. This is unusual. I feel like the rug is being pulled out from under us.

It seems to me that this Conservative government is attacking the promotion of the status of women. Some attacks are obvious. The most obvious, of course, are the cuts made to Status of Women Canada, so that the organization would stop promoting the status of women. There have been many other attacks. The most recent is Bill C-484, introduced by a Conservative member, a legislative measure that greatly concerns me. The bill has to do with unborn victims of crime. Under the pretense of protecting fetuses and protecting women, it would give a legal status to the fetus. This could mean sending women to prison for having an abortion. It would turn back the clock on women's rights by decades.

I am surprised that, as I speak here today in 2008, I am forced to defend women's equality, to defend women's bodies and to tell men they must stop trying to legislate on women's bodies. They cannot simultaneously be a legal entity and have another legal entity inside them. That is schizophrenia. I say this jokingly, but I am really very worried.

As the labour critic, I would simply like to draw the House's attention to some of the elements in the Bloc Québécois platform that improve the living conditions of women working under federal jurisdiction. In Quebec, the status of women is not under threat as it is in this Parliament and working women have privileges not enjoyed by women working under federal jurisdiction. Among others, the anti-strikebreaker legislation significantly reduces the number of person days lost due to labour disputes. There is also the protective reassignment of pregnant women. If we truly wish to protect women and their unborn children, we must support this measure. It allows a woman working in a factory or workplace that is unhealthy for her or her fetus to leave her employment early and to be paid under the protective reassignment program, without affecting her maternity leave. That is what is currently happening at the federal level. That is what this Conservative government is forcing on all women working in the public service, in ports, airports or telecommunications.

In addition, women earn less than men. I have the statistics and I have provided them many times. I believe everyone is aware of this.

As I said earlier, the anti-strikebreaker legislation and protective reassignment are very important measures in support of working women.

I do not wish to take up too much time but I do wish to reiterate my concerns about this Conservative government that is causing the status of women to be eroded.

Status of WomenPrivate Members' Business

1:40 p.m.

NDP

Libby Davies NDP Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in the House today to support the motion presented by the member for London West. I know that she is very committed to women's equality and has fought for that. Therefore, I am pleased, on behalf of the New Democratic Party, to support her motion.

I am assuming that the motion will get support from all members of the House. As we know, because of the outcry that has happened across the country and because the Conservative government took out the mandate of equality from Status of Women Canada, it has now had to rethink its position.

Based on the massive opposition from women's organizations across the country, the minister responsible for the Status of Women has finally agreed that equality will go back into the mandate of the Status of Women.

Therefore, that is a victory and it is a victory for all of the women's organizations and members of the House who pushed back on the government and said that it was completely unacceptable that equality be taken out of the Status of Women mandate.

Having said that, I want to focus on what this issue of equality for Status of Women in Canada means. As we just celebrated International Women's Day, I think it is important to note that while we have won equality in a legal sense, equality in a real sense, day to day in terms of programs and services and the wage gap, and equality in terms of access to the law are still things that are being fought for.

For example, when we look at the wage gap that still exists in this country, the Canadian Labour Congress has produced excellent information that is really quite shocking. It shows us that women working full time all year still make only 70¢ for every $1 men earn. For racialized women it is even worse. It is 64¢. For aboriginal women it is 46¢. In fact, the gender pay gap in Canada is even bigger than the wage gap in the United States and that may surprise some people.

What was most shocking to me to learn from this information is that by age 51 women's average income in this country is only 41% of the average income for 51-year-old men. That is truly appalling to know that, after years of striving for women's equality, we are still so far behind.

We have further evidence of the struggle and what needs to be done by looking at the last federal budget. In fact, at the parliamentary committee on the Status of Women just a couple of days, March 13, Kathleen Lahey, who is a professor at the Faculty of Law at Queen's University, pointed out in her presentation that the only reference to women in the budget had to do with the fact that $20 million was allotted to the Status of Women to develop an action plan for women.

However, when we examine this, we find out that the $20 million that has been allocated in the Conservative budget is actually $4 million less than Status of Women Canada received in the year 2002-03.

Therefore, we are not even keeping pace with the cutbacks that have happened over a number of years in terms of this department fulfilling its responsibilities for the equality of women in Canada.

If we take that number of $20 million and apportion it out for the number of females in Canada, Professor Lahey pointed out that it amounted to $1.21 per woman and child in Canada. That is what women's equality is worth to the government in the budget. That is something that we find quite outrageous and one of the reasons that we voted against the budget.

Another benchmark to see whether or not we are actually meeting the goal of equality for women is to again look at the budget to see what is happening with some of the tax cuts. Again from the professor's analysis, corporate income tax rates have been established and the Conservative government, with the support of the Liberals, has rolled back corporate taxes. This means a loss of about $60 billion in public revenues. Professor Lahey points out that low income individuals, most of whom are women, now pay higher income tax rates than even large corporations.

So much for this gender analysis in the budget because when we strip it all away and look at the numbers, we can see the impacts of cuts and that the tax load is disproportionately being carried by women and in particular low income women.

The corporate income tax cuts “shift the overall tax burden onto low-income individuals at the same time they drain revenues needed to redress growing gender disparities”. That is from Professor Lahey's brief.

I believe that in passing this motion today we should see it as a step forward, but we should recognize that we have a huge struggle here in terms of attaining equality for all women in Canada. I am very proud to say that in the NDP we have a very strong action plan, “Fairness for Women”, which covers everything from political representation to violence against women, pay equity, programs and services, support for women, and child care.

These are the basics that we need to see happen. When we look at a federal budget, we see that there are some very basic choices made by any government when it brings in a budget. Clearly, in the last budget that we saw, those choices were made in favour of people who already have very significant resources. It was a budget that clearly said the government does not care about women in this country and is leaving them behind.

Like my colleague from the Bloc, I have to say that along with other women in this House I was truly dismayed that the private member's bill, Bill C-484, passed through this House a few days ago. We see this as an absolute attack on women's equality and on reproductive rights. It was a bill brought in by a Conservative backbencher. It is clearly a back door way of trying to unravel the decades of struggle for women's equality in this country, for reproductive rights and for choice on abortion. I know that from the emails and messages that I got from across the country, people could not believe that today we are still in this battle to uphold those rights.

Today we are debating this motion to insert the word “equality” in the mandate of the status of women department, and of course that is essential. It is symbolic. It is the whole essence of what that work is all about, but while we do that, and while I have no doubt that this motion will pass today, please let us be committed and understand the reality that women in this country, particularly low income women, immigrant women, racialized women, aboriginal women, and women with disabilities, are struggling for their lives. They are struggling for dignity. They are struggling to have the basic necessities of life, whether it is housing, education, a living income, access to programs and the legal system, and so on.

On behalf of the NDP, we are very pleased to support this motion. I want to congratulate the member for bringing it forward. It is an important motion. We want this Parliament to speak with one clear voice and say that women's equality must be part of the status of women program and mandate. It could not be otherwise. We could not let this go unchallenged. I am thankful to the member for bringing it forward.

However, let us be clear that we have many other struggles and issues to face to ensure that women's equality truly is living and breathing in this country.

Status of WomenPrivate Members' Business

1:50 p.m.

Liberal

Diane Marleau Liberal Sudbury, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to be speaking today to support the motion of my colleague from London West.

Since this motion was tabled, the government did hastily add the word “equality” back into the mandate of Status of Women Canada. However, we are not sure that is worth very much, because we really do not think the Conservatives get it.

The clock was turned back in 2006 when the Conservative government removed the word “equality”. The government removed it from the funding guidelines of the women's program. After taking a quick look at the status of women website, one can see that this year's International Women's Day theme was “Strong Women, Strong World”.

Status of Women Canada's website states, “This theme draws in part from one of the fundamental beliefs underlying the modern woman's movement, that a woman's place in society marks the level of civilization of that society”. How ironic is this given the government's actions that have hurt the advancement of women so much?

For example, there is the issue of denying funding to groups that advocate for women's equality. The Conservatives do not get it.

There was the dismantling of the court challenges program. Again, they do not get it.

There was the decimation of the policy and research unit in the status of women department, another big problem, and there was the closure of 12 of the 16 regional status of women offices across Canada.

Taken collectively, these actions deny women access to services and support that would help improve their lives and those of their families.

The Conservative government is in denial about the place of women in our society. It hides behind the fact that in law women are equal to men in all aspects. No one disputes this fact, but equality under the law does not translate into equality in everyday living.

The statistics are clear: women get paid less than men; women are more likely to be victims of violence; and women are undeniably under-represented at all levels of government, including local, provincial and federal.

They are the hardest-hit victims of poverty in our society, yet the Conservative government continues to ignore the status of women in Canada.

The government has a role to play in ensuring that women are full participants in all aspects of our society: economic, social, political and cultural. This is why the Liberal government in the 1970s established Status of Women Canada: to help women overcome the challenges and barriers they face in their lives.

However, in September 2006, the Conservative government cut $5 million from the Status of Women Canada in what was called at the time “an effective savings exercise”, claiming that these funds were an inefficient use of taxpayers' dollars. I remember at the time hearing the minister responsible actually wonder what was the use of this money, because, after all, it was only going to pay for phones and things like that. That shows a big lack of understanding.

As a result of these cuts, 61 of 131 staff positions were eliminated and 12 of the 16 regional offices that provided assistance to local women's organizations were closed. The policy research fund, a highly successful program that funded independent, high quality research about policy affecting women's equality, was disbanded.

What is a little sad to realize is that while the government has been cutting research and funding for advocacy for women and for women's groups, it certainly has not cut funding for advocacy and research for national defence. National defence directly funds all kinds of advocacy and all kinds of research in support of national defence. I am not saying that is wrong, but why cut the same programs that help women who really need the help? It has to be because the Conservatives do not get it.

At the same time as the cuts, the government announced new terms and conditions for the women's program, which is the main vehicle used to fund projects. These changes included removing the word “equality” as one of the goals of the women's program. We do know that they now have put the word back, but it is only a cosmetic thing, I believe. The government was denying funding to any women's organization that undertakes advocacy activities, restricting capacity building in organizations, except under very special and narrow circumstances, and opening up the women's program to the for profit organizations.

In March 2007, the government claimed this measure was never meant to be a cutback, that is, the cutting back of the $5 million, despite having said so earlier. It announced that the $5 million in savings would be transferred to the women's program, which was being divided into two components: the women's community fund and the women's partnership fund. The women's community fund will support projects at the local, regional and national levels, and the newly created women's partnership fund is, the government says, an enhancement to the existing grant program.

However, since the introduction of the new terms and conditions put in place by the Conservative government, the women's program no longer supports projects that seek to promote women's equality. In other words, there is money available, but not to equality seeking organizations that do advocacy work. But remember, the Conservatives are still funding for profit groups. It is a little sad to see that happening, because for profit groups generally do not need the money, but the other groups, which are always begging for anything, are not going to get any funding.

The March 2007 federal budget gave Status of Women Canada $20 million over two years. But it is not clear how that money is to be distributed. Perhaps we should ask the government for an accounting.

The Conservative government refuses to admit that it has done irreparable damage to the status of women by preventing Canadian women from playing an equal role in all recommendations or initiatives affecting all aspects of our society.

Why is this happening? Because the Conservatives just do not get it. Maybe it is because there are not enough women as part of its caucus. I am sure the women understand that they are not strong enough to influence the thinking of the Conservative caucus.

Women work differently than men. They work collegially. They test ideas to ensure that they work, that they are sound and valid. Status of Women's offices, for example, were places where women could meet and work together to advance their cause. It is a shame that vehicle has been shut down for many women.

I would ask that the government follow the example set out by the Liberal women's caucus, which came out with two studies on a number of policies. We went across the country asking for advice and opinions. We did not formulate it by itself. We did it collegially, with women across the country.

I ask all members to please support the motion for true equality, not just with words but with real actions.

Status of WomenPrivate Members' Business

2 p.m.

Liberal

Sue Barnes Liberal London West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank every party in the House for participating in this debate. It is an important discussion that our country needed.

I was very affected as were all women and the men who were supportive of women, when back in 2006 the mandate of the Status of Women changed and the word “equality” was removed. The word was not put back because the Conservative Party felt different about equality.

I have already had my opportunity in the first hour of debate to give my full speech. However, when I tabled this motion, it was because the equality provision was not there. In fact, I attended the meeting of the Standing Committee on Status of Women, on February 5 , when the minister gave her opening remarks, of which I have a copy. Again, there was no discussion and certainly no press announcement of change, no announcement of this happy news.

On that date, the face page of the website of the Status of Women had changed. My first hour of debate was February 7. On the morning of February 7, I came to Parliament and turned on the computer to check whether anything had really changed. If anyone went to the women's program that day, the program mandate read:

The mandate of the WP is to facilitate women's participation in Canadian society by addressing their economic, social and cultural situation through Canadian organizations.

It continues, but there is no mention of the word “equality”.

I was to speak a few hours later. A couple of hours before I spoke, I went to the website and the program mandate miraculously said:

The newly revised mandate of the Women's Program is to advance the equality of women across Canada through the improvement of their economic and social conditions and their participation in democratic life.

There we have it. There was a change, but real change has to be followed through with real guidelines, real programs, real financing and advocacy for equality is an important part.

The government has put the word back in now, thankfully. I do not think it would have happened without this motion. I do not think it would have happened without the voices from women of every party and women's organizations on the ground fighting for this.

However, to make it real, to make it worthwhile, to make it something that actually changes the status quo, advocacy and research for equality is important. I hope the government does not demean this. It is important enough when there is lobbying from the military establishment. It gets dollars for that. It cannot say that is not important, and I do not disagree with that. However, I also think advocacy for equality is vital if we are to do more than just help people manage with the status quo.

If we want real change in our country, the women in these halls, in this chamber and out there on the ground, who work in not for profit organizations, need to know that a government will stand behind them, that it really wants equality of women to be the goal. The women's program is certainly not the only thing, but it is one thing that can help. If the government has put the word “equality” back in, it should follow through with the advocacy so women can have a better life in Canada.

I thank all who have spoken on this. I appreciate their work and support. However, it is not for me; it is support for the women of our country.

Status of WomenPrivate Members' Business

2:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

The time provided for debate has expired. Accordingly, the question is on the motion.

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Status of WomenPrivate Members' Business

2:05 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Status of WomenPrivate Members' Business

2:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

(Motion agreed to)

Status of WomenPrivate Members' Business

2:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

It being 2:07 p.m., the House stands adjourned until Monday, March 31 at 11 a.m. pursuant to Standing Orders 28(2) and 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 2:07 p.m.)