OTTAWA - Allowing groups advocating for women and girls to once again receive federal project funding is a way to encourage diverse voices, says Status of Women Minister Patricia Hajdu — but at least one controversial opinion will remain off-limits.
"I think that's a very clear indication of our government's willingness to hear from sometimes opposing voices — people that push us towards more progressive policy, people that are not afraid to criticize the government or criticize our approaches," Hajdu said Monday in an interview to mark the beginning of Women's History Month.
But Hajdu's enthusiasm for funding opposing voices only goes so far, as became clear when she was asked whether the Liberal government would fund groups who advocate against abortion.
"The work still has to happen within values and evidence and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, so what we want at Status of Women is to empower women and to ensure the protection of women's right to choose," she said.
"So, it would have to still fall within the realm of feminism."
The funding as of July 1 essentially reversed a controversial policy the previous Conservative government brought in nearly a decade ago, when it decided Status of Women Canada would no longer fund projects that involved advocacy work, lobbying governments or general research — a decision critics have argued had a chilling effect on the work of feminist organizations.
"I think that is a very important part of public policy — hearing from people that don't necessarily share your perspective or want change to happen more quickly or have innovative ideas that governments are not considering," Hajdu said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also gave Hajdu the mandate to make sure the government applies a gender-based analysis — a tool that helps government study how policy, legislation and program decisions might impact women and men in different ways — to proposals before they get to the cabinet table.
Some advocates have also pushed to include gender-based analysis in the environmental assessment process for natural resource development projects, arguing that women are disproportionately affected by the increased cost of living and the mostly male transient workforce associated with resource extraction.
Hajdu would not disclose whether the Liberal cabinet weighed the impact on women and girls before approving the Pacific NorthWest LNG project or a decision by the federal Fisheries and Oceans Department to grant permits to allow the B.C. Hydro Site C dam and hydroelectric generating station.
"Gender-based analysis is an evolving process," said Hajdu, who within the next few weeks will formally respond to a Status of Women committee report that urged the government to make the tool mandatory across all departments and agencies.
She said she cannot discuss what happened around the cabinet table, but added: "My job, though, broadly, is to speak on behalf of women and I can guarantee you that I always do that."
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency did not include a gender-based analysis in its report on the liquefied natural gas project, but Caitlin Workman, a spokeswoman for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, confirmed the topic did come up in discussions.
Jane Stinson, the director of the FemNorthNet project at the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, said making gender-based analysis a necessary part of the environmental assessment agency's reports would not only ensure it happens, but that everyone knows what it revealed.
"It also then provides guidelines to the proponent, it alerts the community as to what are the issues that people should be anticipating, planning for and attempting to mitigate," said Stinson.
Hajdu also spoke about how important it was to include indigenous women and girls — including the late Shannen Koostachin, the young activist who demanded a new school in her home community of Attawapiskat, Ont. — in the list of female Canadian trailblazers Status of Women Canada is highlighting this month.
"I think the challenge with the way that history has been presented in Canada for a very long time is that it hasn't been balanced."
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