Women's Movements in Canada: 1985–present
Women’s movements (or, feminist movements) during the period 1985–present — sometimes referred to as third- or fourth-wave feminism — engaged in multiple campaigns, from employment equity and daycare, to anti-racism and ending poverty and violence against women.
Women’s movements (or, feminist movements) during the period 1985–present — sometimes referred to as third- or fourth-wave feminism — engaged in multiple campaigns, from employment equity and daycare, to anti-racism and ending poverty and violence against women. Challenges were many, including recognition of women’s diversity and the rise of neo-liberalism, which threatened state support for social justice initiatives. By the end of this period, signs suggested, with no guarantees, that feminism might again be resurgent.
Groups and Causes
As they struggled for greater fairness in Canadian society, feminists embraced a widening challenge to inequality. In special groups and coalitions, they increasingly tackled not only gender inequality but inequality associated with class, race, sexualities and ability. Women’s diversity in matters such as ethnicity, race, employment status, sexuality and (dis)ability was mobilized both independently and as part of broad coalitions. Such was the case with DAWN Canada (Disabled Women’s Network Canada), founded in 1985, which campaigned for recognition, respect and services. DAWN also crusaded in association with both the disability rights movement and feminist coalitions. Lesbian (and some trans-women) formed a significant part of many feminist groups, encouraging support for same-sex marriage and rights protection. Immigrant, Indigenous and racialized women became an increasingly significant presence in all campaigns for justice and equal rights. Even as general rates of unionization fell in these years — generated by losses among men — women, often led by feminists, were a growing force (especially in public sector unions) and proved invaluable supporters of feminist causes.
At the local level, feminists defended services such as legal aid, adult education and transition houses (temporary housing and support for women who have experienced or are at risk of experiencing violence), all of which regularly faced reduced funding or closure. They also insisted that the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies (1989–93) recognize differences among women — notably with respect to race/indigeneity, but also disability — when evaluating technologies. Activists in the Canadian Association for the Repeal of the Abortion Law (1974), and later the AbortionRights Coalition of Canada (2005), maintained pressure to give women control of their own bodies (see Abortion).
Older women turned to Raging Grannies groups (mature social justice activists) in campaigns for peace, the environment and women’s rights. In their protests they perform as stereotypical grandmothers to assert the wisdom of elders, a perspective comparable to First Nations’ respect for seniors. Their first action was in 1987 in Victoria, BC, where they challenged American nuclear-powered vessels in the harbour.
The great range of Canadian women’s movements in this period challenged both the maintenance of a common feminist politics and male domination in Canada’s diverse communities. Ultimately, even as feminists were sometimes divided about priorities, no community remained untouched by claims for equality.
The 1980s were generally upbeat about prospects for greater fairness, but by the 1990s and into the 21st century, feminist groups increasingly condemned governments’ inaction or withdrawal of support for equality. Women’s movements were more and more on the defensive. When the federal government’s Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women was eliminated in 1995 — after 22 years of operation — the Coalition of Provincial and Territorial Advisory Councils on the Status of Women emerged to monitor threats to equality. Still, it could not compensate for the loss of federal policy-related research and support for activism.
Founded 17 April 1985 by feminist lawyers and their allies, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) highlighted the growing gap between rich and poor in Canada and the importance of legal safeguards. Each year since 2009, West Coast LEAF published a CEDAW (UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) Report Card, grading the BC government in particular on its adherence to the UN Convention. Its poor grades point to equity failures ranging from childcare to employment and poverty. In unions, feminists promoted equality agendas — from pay equity and anti-harassment initiatives, to parental leave. Feminists were also key members of organizations such as Voices-Voix, which emerged in May 2010 in response to the human rights and democratic failures of the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Voices-Voix continued to monitor democracy and equality after the election of a Liberal government in 2015.
Diverse protest groups of women and men often included prominent feminists, such as Naomi Klein (LEAP manifesto) and Elizabeth May (Green Party and environmental groups), who defended a made-in-Canada socialism and protection for the environment. The silent dissent of Senate page Brigette DePape, who used the occasion of the 2011 Speech from the Throne to brandish a placard reading “STOP HARPER!” encouraged individual resistance — especially among youth. Feminists also joined the 2011–12 Occupy Movement against global economic inequality, the 2012 Québec student movement against tuition increases and the Idle No More protests against the treatment of Indigenous peoples.
Lesbian and Trans-Women
Growing acceptance of lesbian (and to a lesser degree, trans-women) in feminist movements also marked this period. Their presence (and often leadership) helped make feminists leading supporters of new protections and rights for LGBT Canadians in matters ranging from employment, education and immigration, to marriage and adoption. The emergence of openly lesbian (and feminist) politicians such as NDPer Libby Davies in British Columbia and Liberal Kathleen Wynne in Ontario reflected feminism’s influence on shifting public attitudes. (See Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights in Canada.)
Racialized and Immigrant Women
These years saw a significant shift to non-British or European sources of immigration to Canada. This shift gave additional prominence to long-standing racialized communities. Facing multiple barriers to national inclusion, they, like Indigenous women, regularly questioned mainstream feminism and challenged many mainstream activists for colonial and racist views. Feminist organizations such as the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada (established 1986) and the older Indian Mahila Association, in British Columbia, still joined other feminists in demands for fairness and equality.
Indigenous women were more than ever central to Canada’s mobilization of women for justice. Some — like Mohawk activist, lawyer and academic, Patricia Monture-Angus — emphasized that loyalty to Indigenous sovereignty and history trumped feminism. Violence, health, poverty and child welfare remained a mainstay of efforts by activists such as lawyer Sharon MacIvor in the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, and Cindy Blackstock, university professor and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. In 1997, a plebiscite proposed that the new, majority Inuit, territory of Nunavut adopt gender equality in its legislature. Martha Flaherty, the president of Pauktuutit, a national organization representing Inuit women, Rita Arey, president of the Northwest Territories Status of Women Council, and Mary Simon, Canada’s first ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs, all supported gender parity. Though voted down, the proposal recognized the shortfall in women’s electoral representation.
The 2012 Idle No More movement, a grassroots protest of First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and their allies against the federal government, was founded by four women, three of whom were Indigenous and the fourth a White ally. Indigenous authors such as Lee Maracle and Jeannette Armstrong made similar claims for equality and justice in fiction and critical writing, while Abenaki film director Alanis Obomsawin presented a powerful vision in documentaries such as My Name is Kahentiiosta (1995) and We Can’t make the Same Mistake Twice (2016). (See also Indigenous Women’s Issues.)
Violence Against Women
Violence against women and children remained close to the heart of activism in many feminist communities. The “Montréal Massacre” — the murder of 14 women at the École Polytechnique — on 6 December 1989, and continuing disclosures of missing and murdered Indigenous women across the country, provided brutal reminders of inequality and violent misogyny (see also Highway of Tears). The federal government’s 1991 inauguration of 6 December as a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women was matched by the Women’s Memorial March that same year, an event organized by local Indigenous activists and allied feminists every Valentine’s Day. The Women’s Memorial March invokes the memory of murdered and missing women.
Feminist scholarship continued to raise consciousness about inequality in all its forms, and feminist scholars remained significant resources for Canada’s women’s movements. Perspectives in scholarship diversified and grew to include approaches sometimes termed third- and fourth-wave feminism, or even post-feminist. Sometimes heavily invested in popular culture — and often rejecting a feminist identity associated primarily with mainstream, White and middle-class women — contemporary scholarship questioned identity binaries and boundaries, notably between female and male, but also among women. Scholarship also relished the challenge of fluid identities and cultural experimentation, and championed post-colonial, queer, transgender and transsexual identities.
Key to much scholarship was acceptance of “intersectionality,” a central concept. Defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, this highlights the ways race, gender, class, ability and more overlap (or intersect) and should be understood together.This is to say that not all women experience oppression in the same way. If all women experience sexism, some encounter racism or homophobia or ableism at the same time, and these may be equally or more disempowering. This insight became a mainstay of many players in the women’s movements, as with the BC Society of Transition Houses, founded in 1978, which in the next decade adopted “an intersectional feminist framework.”
White, feminist writers and artists such as Nellie McClung, Idola Saint-Jean, Emily Carr and Dorothy Livesay had long contested male-centric culture. But that challenge diversified during this period. In 1989, Latin American women, many refugees from Chile’s dictatorship, created the bilingual magazine Aquelarre: A Magazine for Latin American Women/Revista de la Mujer Latinoamericana Aquelarre (tr. an illegal gathering of witches). Lasting from 1989 to 1995, Aquelarre was allied with Women in Focus, a Vancouver feminist arts and media group (established in 1974). The Winnipeg-based feminist magazine Herizons, was founded in 1979 and survives as an active contributor to cultural debates. MediaWatch, founded in 1981 under the auspices of the National Action Committee (NAC), remains influential as Media Action Média. Its goal is to eliminate sexism in the media.
Contemporary Canadian writers and performers, such as Dionne Brand, Larissa Lai, Lee Maracle, SKY Lee, M. NourbeSe Philip, Eden Robinson, Ivan E. Coyote, d’bi.young anitafrika and Rita Wong provided powerful messages against racism, classism, homophobia and sexism (see also Black Women in the Arts), while writers such as Margaret Atwood and Daphne Marlatt supplied critiques of unequal relations.
Social Media Activism
In the 21st century, feminists increasingly joined the global world of digital politics, which included such hashtags as #MMIW, first tweeted in July 2012 by Sheila North Wilson (while working for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women; #BeenRapedNeverReported, first tweeted in October 2014 in response to charges of sexual violence against Jian Ghomeshi (see Jian Ghomeshi Case); and #DalhousieHatesWomen, first tweeted in December 2014 in response to sexual harassment in that university’s dental school. Facebook and other sites provided significant opportunity for feminist resistance of all sorts, though also for “trolling” and online harassment by anti-feminists. (See also Antifeminism in Québec.)
The Fédération des Femmes du Québec (FFQ, 1966–present) led efforts to defend gender equality in Québec, where feminist ties to Liberal and Parti Québécois (PQ) governments offered some protection for social security and social justice. Québec’s introduction of a low-cost public daycare program in September 1997 typified that better prospect. The FFQ was especially attentive to class divisions: during the 1995 Bread and Roses March and the 2000 World March of Women, it highlighted links between poverty and sexism. Québec’s feminist activists remained divided between sovereigntists and federalists.
In 2010, the governing Liberal Party introduced Bill 94, which challenged the citizenship rights of niqab-wearing Muslim women. In the context of the “war against terror” and Western Islamophobia, feminists in Québec, and elsewhere, struggled to decide whether equality and inclusion required acceptance of veiling. The language of the bill itself spoke to other issues — that the uncovering of the face might be required if “security, communication or identification warrant it.” Critics viewed this language as suspiciously vague. (Similar questions would return in 2013, with the PQ’s proposed Québec Values Charter, and they would trouble Canadian politics more generally during the 2015 federal election.) The issue is complicated and divisive and may remain so for some time.
Until the mid-1990s, National Action Committee (NAC) was the FFQ equivalent in the rest of Canada. Offering a “big tent,” it focused on the economy, constitutional changes and race relations. In opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement (see Free Trade), with its prospects of job loss and corporate deregulation, NAC played an unprecedented role for a feminist coalition. Its opposition to the constitutional agreements put forth at Meech Lake (1987) and Charlottetown (1992) put NAC in conflict with Ottawa. Both were interpreted as threats to Ottawa’s ability to establish national standards in social services (including issues such as a national daycare policy) and environmental protection.
NAC split with the FFQ (which favoured Québec setting its own standards) over Meech Lake but supported it and the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) in opposition to Charlottetown, which all three believed threatened gender equality. NAC also tried to implement modern feminism’s anti-racist politics. Its anti-violence, contraception and abortion, immigration and refugee, and employment campaigns increasingly spotlighted minority group women, whom the NAC recruited to its executive. The adoption of brave and controversial policies put intense pressure on NAC, even as it lost its federal funding. It effectively disappeared in the early 2000s.
In contrast, NWAC survived with a focus on both sexism and racism. It was often in conflict with the Assembly of First Nations in prioritizing violence against women and child welfare, but skillfully employed allies such as NAC and the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) to demand hearings. In particular, NWAC ensured that missing and murdered Indigenous women remained a key concern for feminist politics. Its determined advocacy, supported by feminist politicians such as Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs (as of 2015), Dr. Carolyn Bennett and Kwakwaka’wakw lawyer and Minister of Justice for Canada (as of 2015), Jody Wilson-Raybould, helps explain the Liberal government’s creation of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women in August 2016.
In 1999, the persisting value of feminist coalitions produced the FAFIA. Like NWAC, this alliance of feminist service providers, researchers and activists, used Canada’s signature to human rights obligations (as a member of the United Nations) to publicize equality shortfalls. It aimed to advance “women’s equality in Canada by working for the full implementation of the international human rights treaties and agreements that Canada has ratified” even as it highlighted issues from missing and murdered indigenous women, to the gender pay gap of rural and suburban mail carriers during the 2016 conflict at Canada Post.
This period was increasingly marked by many governments’ embrace of neo-liberalism and austerity, with a common disengagement from equality and social justice initiatives. Reactionary politics were sometimes summed up as an anti-feminist “backlash.” This took many forms, including assaults on advisory councils on the status of women, on prospects for good childcare, pay equity, legal aid, anti-violence programming, and on women’s centres and health initiatives. Cuts to the Court Challenges Program of Canada, with its promise to protect the equality guarantees in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, began in 1992. The program’s funding was cut by the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, then resurrected by a Liberal government, and finally eliminated by the Stephen Harper Conservatives in 2006. In 2016, the Court Challenges program appeared to be returning with funding by a new Liberal government.
In the early 21st century, Canadian women of all backgrounds were still waiting for what eminent political philosopher Nancy Fraser termed participatory parity with its requirement of respect and economic redistribution. On average, women wage-earners earned 73.5 cents for every dollar earned by a man, and Canada had the eighth highest gender wage gap of 34 industrialized countries. Canadian women still do more than their share of caring and domestic labour, and violence damages many lives. Poverty disproportionately injures single mothers and the female elderly. Dismal reports on Canada from the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women confirmed equality chasms.
In face of persisting inequality, women’s movements continued to champion an equitable and democratic Canada. Despite resistance, feminist insights regarding fundamental human rights and gender equality as a national value pervade much public and private life, inspire so-called femocrats (feminist civil servants) and sometimes inform policy-making. The decade-long existence (1991–2001) of the free-standing BC Ministry of Women’s Equality, headed by feminist NDP MLA Penny Priddy marked a high point of influence before the rise of right-wing governments in jurisdictions from Victoria to Ottawa in the same decade. Other significant gains included the slow increase in the number of elected female politicians towards 30 per cent (a benchmark of real change designated by the United Nations), the appointment of feminists such as Chinese Canadian journalist Adrienne Clarkson (1999–2005) and Haitian Canadian activist Michaëlle Jean (2005–2010) as governors general, and the election of Kathleen Wynn as Canada’s first openly-gay premier (2013). Similarly testifying to feminism’s influence was the growing acceptance of visible minority communities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Canadians and Indigenous and disability rights.
The creation in 2001 of the multi-partisan group Equal Voice, with its commitment to increasing women’s numbers in legislatures, also demonstrated feminism’s continuing support for fairer electoral politics.
Pro-democracy feminist social media groups such as Voices/Voix — whose very name invoked the earlier Voice of Women — contributed to the 2015 defeat of the government of Stephen Harper. The New Democratic, Liberal and Green parties were the chief beneficiaries of such politicization. In 2015, Alberta broke new ground in electing its first NDP government, headed by feminist Rachel Notley, who appointed the province’s first cabinet minister responsible for the status of women in 19 years. The new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was also a self-declared feminist as were NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.
Shortly after the 2015 election, the federal Liberal government, with its appointment of an unprecedented gender-equal cabinet, initiated an inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women, and promised to restore the Court Challenges Program. These moves raised hope for an end to some 30 years of attacks on women’s rights. The March 2016 decision of the Prince Edward Island government to provide abortion services, after a lapse of almost 35 years, sent the same message. In short, the end of this period of feminist agitation leaves much work to be done from daycare to wage equity and violence, but suggests that electoral politics has returned as a focus for hope.
Sylvia Bashevkin, ed., Opening Doors Wider: Women’s Political Engagement in Canada (2009)
Denyse Baillargeon, A Brief History of Women in Quebec (2014)