The Liberals’ Feminist Foreign Policy is not Compatible with “Business as Usual”

This article was originally published on March 7, 2019 on Rabble Canada.


The Trudeau government’s emphasis on a feminist foreign policy was first articulatedin a speech by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland in June 2016.  A year later, the Trudeau government announced its Feminist International Assistance Policy, intended to allocate 15% of Canada’s $2.6 billion development assistance to support gender equality, women and girls by 2022.

As International Women’s Day 2019 rolls around, pundits continue to debate the effectiveness of Trudeau’s vision for international development, whether it has sufficient funding, and whether it is properly conceived.  But such considerations may be moot if the government continues a “business as usual” approach in other sectors.

For example, the Trudeau government has been loathto press Canada’s mining industry to higher standards, despite promisesto do so prior to the 2015 elections. Yet studies of the oil, gas and mining industries make clearthat there is a severe gender bias in the benefits and risks associated with the resource extraction industry around the world.

From Zambia, to Peru, to the Dominican Republic, the negative social impacts of the Canada’s overseas mining interests disproportionatelyaffect women.  So while the jobs and economic benefits of these Canadian operations overseas accrue disproportionately to men, the women in disrupted communities contend withthe resulting impact of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual violence and family breakdown.

A similar trend exists in the international garment industry.  The collapseof the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 killed over 1,100 workers, most of them women working in a factory manufacturing clothes for Zara, Walmart and Joe Fresh.  While that incident temporarily shineda spotlight on the terrible working conditions for Bangladesh’s garment workers, women in the international garment industry – many working for Canadians companies – continue todisproportionately face challenges includingunsafe working conditions, low wages, and sexual abuse.

Over a year ago, the Trudeau government announcedplans to create a Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, which would investigate accusations of wrongdoing by Canadian mining, energy, and textile companies overseas.  To date, apparently no progresshas been made in establishing this office.  But even if it had been launched, it would hardly compensate for years of lack of government oversight on Canadian businesses operating abroad.

Worse, the Trudeau government has done little to address “business as usual” in the war industry.  While the Trudeau government recently budgeted$62 billion in new defence spending for Canada, it failed to add any new funding to its new Feminist International Assistance Policy.  Again and again, studies showthat women suffer disproportionately from armed conflict, both during and after war.  Conflict createshigher levels of violence against women with the breakdown of the rule of law and social structures, the availability of small arms, and the normalization of gender-based violence. 

Of course, Trudeau’s failure to cancel its $15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most egregious example of “business as usual.”  Saudi Arabia is accusedof war crimes in a 4-year-old war in Yemen which it orchestrated and continues to lead.  Three million Yemenis have beenforced from their homes and 22 million require life-saving humanitarian assistance. Yet the Trudeau government maintains its arms trade with Saudi Arabia even while there is evidencethat Canadian arms have been brought into the Yemeni theatre. 

Canada continues to provide diplomatic coverto Israel too, despite that country’s over 50-year-old military occupation of the Palestinian territories.  Beyond the day-to-day burdenthat all Palestinian women under Israeli occupation must bear, the Trudeau government’s silence in the high-profile cases of two particular women is particularly unconscionable.  Israel has repeatedlyjailed Palestinian lawyer, feminist and human rights activist Khalida Jarrar.  Jarrar, who spent much of the last year in Israeli jail, was never charged with a crime but simply held under an “administrative detention” order that was repeatedly renewed.  It bears noting that prior to her most recent arrest, Jarrar was leading the Palestinian initiative to take Israel to the International Criminal Court.  Canada was also mum in the case of 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian child who was sentenced to 8 months in jail merely for slapping an Israel soldier.

So it does little for the Trudeau government to tout a foreign policy that purports to promote the rights of women, while protecting industries and countries which oppress women wholesale.  The challenge is not the lack of funds to implement a feminist humanitarian aid program, but the lack of political will to manage the mining, garment and war industries in a principled way.

As long as the Trudeau government continues to agree to “business as usual” in these massive industries, the world’s women and their underfunded Canadian aid package stand hardly a chance.

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