Will Canadian Women Turn Their Backs on Their Feminist Prime Minister?
TORONTO — Being a feminist is not an easy job.
Just ask Justin Trudeau. A day after his non-apology for the political crisis engulfing his government, with accusations that he bullied his female justice minister on a criminal case, the Canadian prime minister planned to meet with young women in Toronto to celebrate International Women’s Day.
But women around the country are grumbling.
“You can’t just add women and stir,” said Lise Gotell, professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “Strong feminist leadership is principled, the antithesis of back-room party politics.”
The prime minister is arguably not just Canada’s most feminist leader, but also one of the world’s must public proponents of gender equality.
He appointed the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet and passed its first gender-equality budget. He increased international aid directed specifically at women, introduced policies to protect women from violence and sexual harassment at work and at home, and unlocked funding for grass-roots feminist organizations across the country.
Until recently, it proved a winning strategy. The women’s vote carried Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party to power in 2015, and while male support has waned, Canadian women have largely stuck with him.
But the glow is fading fast.
As the prime minister admitted on Thursday, it’s been “a tough few weeks.”
The trouble started when Jody Wilson-Raybould abruptly resigned from the cabinet after a news report accused Mr. Trudeau’s team of pressuring her to negotiate a settlement in a corruption case against a large Canadian company, rather than pursuing a criminal penalty.
Compared with political scandals around the world, the accusations seemed tame.
But with just seven months until the next national election, they struck at the core of Mr. Trudeau’s image as a feminist politician committed to doing politics in a new, clean way.
The loss of Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who had been reassigned to head veterans affairs shortly before she resigned, was particularly bruising. She is not just a woman, but also an Indigenous leader who embodied Mr. Trudeau’s often-stated commitment to correcting the country’s colonial wrongs against its Indigenous population.
“He’s all puff, no solid,” said Priscilla Settee, a professor of both Indigenous studies and women and gender studies at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
“He is not used to a strong, Indigenous woman being defiant to his power,” she added. “As an Indigenous woman, I know that behavior.”
Last week, in testimony before a parliamentary committee, Ms. Wilson-Raybould broke her silence and explained her reasons for resigning — that she felt hounded by the prime minister and his aides to change her decision on the case in an inappropriate way, which she felt would bend the law.
She reminded the country that its government had a history of ignoring the law when it came to Indigenous people, and intimated she wouldn’t be part of that.
“I am a truth teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House,” she said, referring to her Kwakwaka’wakw nation’s center of governance and cultural activities.
Less than a week later, a second female minister quit Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet. The minister, Jane Philpott, who is also a medical doctor, said in her resignation letter that it was a matter of “acting on one’s principles.”
On Thursday, Mr. Trudeau finally told his side. In a rare morning news conference, he repeated that he had done nothing wrong and that at its basis, the problem reflected a breakdown of trust and communication he intended to learn from. He offered no apology.
In his remarks, Mr. Trudeau described his leadership as one of collaboration, listening and learning together — a classic feminist approach to power.
“There’s one theory that the most effective leaders are adversarial, and tough almost to a fault,” he said. “That’s not what I believe.”
He made a point of saying he’d be celebrating International Women’s Day with “incredible young leaders.”
“I plan to listen and learn from their lived experiences as we talk about how we can work together to deliver true gender equality in this country and around the world,” he said.
For many, it was not enough to erase the image of a group of mostly men ganging up on a woman in order to get her to bend her morals.
Add to that the whispers after Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s resignation that painted her as difficult, self-centered and untrustworthy — and the characterization by the country’s male finance minister that Dr. Philpott’s was an act of friendship.
“Philpott is an incredibly accomplished and strong cabinet minister and her decision to step down is being reduced to simply being the actions of a supportive friend, falling into sexist tropes,” said Shannon Sampert, a columnist for The Winnipeg Free Press and an associate professor in political science at the University of Winnipeg.
She added: “Some feminist prime minister. Too much mansplaining.”
Until a month ago, few feminists openly questioned Mr. Trudeau’s sincerity to the cause.
The Canadian branch of the international development agency Oxfam gave his government a positive rating in its third annual “feminist scorecard,” saying that its efforts “have undoubtedly started to pay off,” and that it had offered “many wins for feminists to celebrate.”
While the weekly poll by the Canadian firm Nanos Research showed the party’s popularity had fluctuated among female voters, it still was strong at 44 percent in early January. Since then, it has dropped so much, it could cost Mr. Trudeau next fall’s election, the company’s founder, Nik Nanos, said.
“Unless women voters go back to supporting him significantly, a majority is out of reach for him,” Mr. Nanos said.
Compounding Mr. Trudeau’s problems is the vocal frustration of Indigenous leaders across the country, many of whom are openly criticizing Mr. Trudeau’s leadership.
“This makes me question everything the federal government has done to now,” said Judy Wilson, secretary-treasurer of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, which represents more than 100 Indigenous groups on Canada’s west coast.
“He called it an erosion of trust,” she said. “I disagree with that. I think it’s an erosion of laws and an erosion of transparency and accountability.”
The question will be whether Mr. Trudeau can regain his reputation by the election next fall, and whether voters think he’s a worse choice than his competition.
Many feminists in Canada bitterly recall the last government under Stephen Harper, a Conservative, which scrapped a national child-care plan, shut down federal Status of Women offices across the country and proposed protecting girls with a national hotline to report “barbaric cultural practices.”
Mr. Trudeau is “messing up, which is better than not doing it at all,” said Judith Taylor, an associate professor of sociology, gender and women’s studies at the University of Toronto. “Men who don’t care about equality and justice don’t have to deal with this. He is making a diversified workplace and he’s making mistakes, as we all do.”
She wished, however, that he had apologized “so we could all grow with him.”