By Vidya Kauri
Less than a week before International Women’s Day, the Prime Minister’s Office raised questions about language in the Canadian national anthem after an unidentified woman complained that it was sexist.
In response the Harper administration asked Parliament to “examine the original gender-neutral English wording” in the anthem.
They proposed that the line ‘True patriot love in all thy sons command’ be changed to ‘True patriot love thou dost in us command.’
What a wonderful symbolic gesture to make with International Women’s Day just around the corner! However, something smells very fishy given Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s track record with respect to women’s issues.
From the first day that Harper took office, he has done significant damage to the progress women in this country have made over the last thirty years.
In my opinion he broke his campaign promise “to ensure that Canada fully upholds its commitments to women in Canada” almost immediately after taking office by removing the phrase ‘pursuit of equality’ from the mandate of Status of Women Canada (SWC).
Harper went beyond merely fuddling words on paper though. Despite walking into a $13 billion budget surplus when his minority government won the election in 2006, Harper proceeded to cut $5 million from SWC’s budget. As a result, 12 of the SWC’s 16 offices had to close because there was no core budget or money for administrative costs.
Harper went even further to decree that the SWC could no longer fund any organization that lobbied for women’s equality.
As a result of these changes, the National Association of Women and the Law was forced to shut down. Funding was abolished for the Court Challenges Program which provided legal support for various groups who felt their Charter rights were being denied. The Women’s Future Fund also had to close.
Harper’s sweeping changes to programs that advocate women’s rights did not end here. Unfortunately, he was only gaining momentum. Childcare was next on his agenda and he unilaterally killed the national childcare program. He also introduced legislation that would remove the right of female government workers to lodge complaints related to pay equity with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The Conservative government proposed that pay equity should be an issue that unions would have to negotiate at the bargaining table.
In effect, Stephen Harper weakened the power of organizations that advocate women’s rights, limited the coordination of their activities and made it extremely difficult for women to obtain support and challenge a patriarchal system.
So, when Parliament resumed last week, it was completely out of character for Harper to express any genuine concern for gender-inclusivity in the national anthem. After all, he is hardly a beacon of women’s rights. Was Harper turning over a new leaf or was this just another political gimmick?
Given his lackluster support for women’s issues, it is no surprise, then, that Harper made a quick retreat within 48 hours of his suggestion to make the national anthem more gender inclusive.
It is a shame that Harper gave up so quickly on the one good idea he’s had in three years right before International Women’s Day. While we continue celebrate the achievements and progress women have made, let us not forget that we must keep fighting to protect those rights we have won so far.