A Conversation With The Minister For The Status Of Women

This article was originally published in The Manitoban – September 2016.

Patricia Hajdu discusses the MMIW inquiry, sexual violence, pay equity, reproductive rights and more with the Manitoban

Prior being elected to Parliament in the Liberal return to power in the fall of 2015, Hajdu worked as executive director of a Thunder Bay homeless shelter. Before that, she raised two sons as a single mother while attending university.

Last week, Hajdu was in Winnipeg to attend a roundtable discussion on gender-based violence as part of a cross-Canada tour on the issue. Hajdu played a major role in organizing an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) and has been travelling country-wide to speak at and attend roundtables, town halls, and conferences covering everything from the inquiry – which began its mandate Sept. 1 – to physical and sexual violence against women and international women’s issues.

While in Winnipeg, Hajdu spoke with the Manitoban about the MMIW inquiry and a broad range of issues facing women both within Canada and internationally, including campus sexual assault and pay equity.

Missing and murdered indigenous women inquiry

Manitoban: As minister for the status of women, you were directly involved in organizing the MMIW inquiry and other files that concern structural racism that contributed to Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women. What steps did you take while working on the inquiry to challenge violence against indigenous women and systemic racism?

Patricia Hajdu: The government’s role in the [MMIW inquiry] is pretty much complete. We were responsible for choosing commissioners and making sure that the inquiry was designed and planned. We also made sure that the inquiry was funded and launched. Now the inquiry becomes an independent process and the commissioners take over and decide exactly how they will move forward.

The inquiry will be looking at our systems and structures that have failed indigenous people and put indigenous women and girls at an increased risk for violence leading up to disappearance and death. It is so important that the commission remains independent because it is going to look at the systemic racism that exists in many of our structures and systems at all levels, whether we are talking municipal politics, provincial or federal.

M: With that in mind, how did you and your colleagues ensure that the inquiry would be conducted with the respect for indigenous families and communities that has been absent in the past?

PH: We listened closely to the families who said that it was important that an indigenous person lead the commission, that the person is female, and that the person has some capacity to compel testimony. We are confident in the people that we put in place, who represent a wide variety of indigenous cultures and backgrounds. We also have one person [on the commission] that is two-spirited, as we heard quite a lot about people that were at a high risk because of their sexual identity or gender orientation.

Campus safety

M: Sexual assault on university campuses throughout Canada has been a serious issue for decades – statistics show that one in five women will experience some sort of sexual violence while in university, but only in recent years has combating it come to the forefront of many universities’ priorities. Do you think the federal government should be doing more to combat rape culture at universities and make college campuses safer for female students?

PH: Absolutely. I think we have a role in elevating the issue. For far too long, rape culture – not just at universities but throughout our country as well – has gone without notice and without commentary. People know that it exists, especially women, of course, but we have not had a robust conversation about it. Part of my job is to elevate that conversation. Certainly, on campuses, we have heard over and over from survivors, experts, advocates, front-line workers, and from student groups that on campuses, rape culture is a significant concern.

Campuses and universities are addressing this in different ways across the country. We believe that we have a role as well. We are not sure yet what that role is because we are still in the consultation stages, but we have been very interested in some of the work that is being done to the south of us, in the United States. [The U.S.] has a very strong federal role in terms of addressing campus violence and so we will be exploring some of their legislation that is stronger than ours, quite frankly, around this issue on campuses and seeing what we can include in our strategy.

M: So would you say that past policies on this issue here in Canada have been non-effective and that the federal government needs to have a stronger role in combating this issue?

PH: Absolutely. What we are hearing across the country is that women do not feel safe in many public spaces and that hampers their ability to get an education, earn a living for their family, and live in a state of peace that will allow them to further whatever their goals are. That, quite frankly, is not just a violation of their human rights, but also inhibits our capacity as a country to grow. When we do not have women fully participating in our society, culture, and economy due to fear that is stemming from unsafe and uncertain circumstances, it is bad for all of us. Changing this is a very high priority for the federal government.

Global concerns

M: What can Canada do to become a global leader when it comes to combating gender-based inequality and violence in regions of the world where women are oppressed and living in fear for their safety? Our previous government was less active on this issue, so what will this government’s role be, and your role as minister for the status of women, in promoting gender equality internationally?

PH: One of the things that I was very fortunate to be able to do early on in my mandate was to travel to New York to the United Nations and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW): an annual conference and group that works for gender equality all over the world. There, we received a lot of enthusiasm from our fellow countries that had noticed Canada’s absence in the last 10 years and were excited to see that we were taking this issue seriously, not just for our own country but globally as well. We also regained our seat on the UNCSW, which allows us to interact with the world in a way that we previously had not on this file of gender equality.

As well, in our foreign aid work, we have re-asserted the right for women to choose. Quite frankly, the previous government had defunded work that allowed for the full choice of reproductive rights for women. Programs that offered abortion as one of the options for women in developing countries were not eligible for funding through the previous government. We have re-established that funding and asserted that all women have the right to choose, regardless of what country they live in.

Pay equity

M: The gender wage gap has been a serious issue for years internationally as well as in Canada. What more will you do as minister to promote the principles of equal pay for equal work?

PH: The government is very committed to pay equity. Part of my mandate is to reduce the gender wage gap that is quite significant. It’s about a 27 per cent gap between men and women. So Status of Women Canada has been working very closely to look at mechanisms that we can use [to change this] and we will be responding to the special committee on pay equity that was struck last year in the House of Commons. As a result, we will have strategies in place that will address pay equity within federally regulated companies.

However, we also need to work on areas that we do not have direct control over. Even if pay equity were to be fully established throughout all industries, there would still be an unexplainable gap, somewhere in the range of 15 per cent. That is, quite frankly, a horrifying statistic. What that means is that the systemic biases and prejudices that we carry as a society around what qualifies women’s work and men’s work and who can actually succeed and who we sponsor to positions of leadership, still exist. So the work that status of women does on women in leadership is a critically important component in reaching pay equity across all sectors.

I met yesterday in Thunder Bay with a group of women that were discussing innovation and there were a number of women there from the mining industry. Among that group, there was a professor from the mining industry and she told me that the numbers [of men and women] are almost equal in the geology and mining sector at Lakehead University. However, when they leave school, women drop out of that field at astronomical rates to the point where we see only about five per cent female participation in that sector professionally.

To me, those are not just equal pay issues; those are issues surrounding a work environment that is not hospitable to women. This can be due to limited childcare access, as a lot of it is remote work, or long-held biases and hostile environments for women to work in. We have to change those things if we want to achieve true pay equity in this country.

M: On the political leadership level, when it comes to equal representation federally, provincial, and municipally, women are far less represented. As minister, do you feel that you need to work to get more women involved in politics, not just business?

PH: Some of the things that we have done that we haven’t really spoken about as loudly are going to bring dramatic changes for women in this country. One of those things is our commitment to diversity and gender equality in orders-of-council appointments. Those are appointments across Canada on tribunals and administrative boards, as well as things like port authorities and boards like CBC and others. When we look at the legacy of that decision, we may not see any immediate impacts in the next two or three years, but there will be long-term impacts when we start to see the true Canada reflected on those decision-making bodies.

As well, Status of Women Canada has a funding arm that provides grants to organizations that are working on all kinds of gender equality issues and one of them is focused on increasing women’s participation in political life. That also includes at the municipal level, which is important, as we see even less women at municipal levels of politics. [Status of Women Canada] also supports things like Equal Voice and those types of organizations that work to increase awareness for the need for women at the federal level of politics. We undertake, in partnership with a number of organizations across the country, a lot of work to try and improve women’s capacity to seek and gain office.

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