No free feminist lunch, Mr. Prime Minister

Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond, 1914-1965. A civil rights icon in Canada, she inspired people to fight racial discrimination.


Source: Women on Canadian Bank Notes,

Prime Minister Trudeau declared himself a feminist on the global stage this week. I applaud him. He appointed a gender equal cabinet. An important symbolic gesture. Because it was 2015.

Now it’s time to deliver more than a gesture.

Now it’s time to pay for lunch.

The federal department mandated to promote equality for women and their full participation in the economic, social and democratic life of Canada is Status of Women Canada.

And to deliver on that mandate? The department’s budget is 0.3% of total federal program spending. That is one-third of one percent of all the money that the federal government currently spends on policies and programs for Canadians. That’s not lunch; that’s not even a good tip. Oh, and the department lost its mandate to fund research and advocacy in 2006. Because facts, who needs them? And don’t talk about it please.

Basically, Status of Women Canada is doing everything other departments are doing, only backwards in high heels.

Achieving gender equality is no small task. It will take time. It is complex. Action is required across a diversity of economic and social fronts. But here’s something our feminist prime minister could do right now: put his money where his mouth is.

Just 1% of program spending would triple Status of Women’s capacity. Working to end violence against women. Ensuring women can participate in our economy fully. Supporting other government departments so that they understand how their policies might impact men and women differently. Fund research. Fund advocacy. So that we know what works for women in Canada and the folks who know get a chance to share that knowledge with decision makers in their communities.

I’m glad you’re a feminist, Mr. Prime Minister. I hope your Finance Minister is too. I don’t think 1% is too much to ask, for half the population.

We’ve been making your lunch for a long time. We’re ready to sit down at the table and have a bite.


  1. Budgets should be based on the validity of specific programmes, not on symbolic gestures. Increasing of Women Canada’s budget to 1% without specifying the purposes for which those additional funds are to be used would be a breach of fiduciary trust on the part of the government.

    If SWC needs additional funding for projects that are more important to the Canadian public than other potential spending areas, then it should receive it – whether that means getting 0.3% of the budget, 1% 5%, or more.

    It should not, however, receive so much as an extra dime unless it can show that that increase will serve the public (as should be true of ALL government departments).

    1. There are a number of specific, costed, and empirically validated policies and programs outlined more thoroughly in both last year’s Alternative Federal Budget and in the forthcoming 2016 Alternative Federal Budget. I have flagged three broad areas of work in this post: violence against women, research, policy advocacy.
      Let me begin with funding for research–since, as you point out, federal spending should be shaped by the best evidence on what programs and policies are effective in remedying the social or economic problem which it has chosen to address.
      To provide a specific example: the government does not currently collect data on rates of violence against women at the provincial and municipal level. Yet the federal government depends upon these other levels of government to collaborate with them in delivering services and programs that meet the needs of survivors. Further, policies and programs vary considerably from province to province. Without this data it is impossible to assess which programs and policies currently in place have had the greatest positive impact. In the 1990s Canada developed what is now considered the global standard for collecting data on violence against women. For more on the evidence base see: Conducting adequate surveys on violence against women would yield actionable data. The 1993 Survey cost $2 million to conduct. Further funding would be required to ensure that there are adequate human resources to execute such a project and translate the results into programming responses.
      National data demonstrates consistently significant levels of sexual assault and domestic violence. This is clearly an issue of public safety and well within the government’s mandate. The evidence base for good programming and policies for prevention and response is very strong. The Lancet published a comprehensive review of outcomes of VAW programming in 2015. The Sexual Violence Research Initiative provides the best global review of literature in this area: Canada’s own Western University is also a hub of research on this issue:
      On the issue of funding for policy advocacy, there is strong evidence that when the organizations that deliver services and work directly with affected communities are able to present their assessments of what programs and policies work and what challenges remain, government policy is more effective. The most widely cited research on this front is a thirty year, cross national study: “The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence Against Women in Global Perspective, 1975-2005” Mala Htun, S. Laurel Weldon. American Political Science Review. Vol 106, Issue 3. August, 2012.
      On the issue of addressing gaps in wages and employment, there is a wide body of research on economic benefits and also the means to closing those gaps. This is the focus of much of my own work.
      I would also like to address the underlying assumption that some sort of Platonic ideal or pure mathematical formula for budget allocations exists. It does not. Budgets are an expression of values, executed within the parameters of the existing fiscal reality. The current federal government has made clear that one of its values is gender equality–that is, providing a more equal level of well-being for men and women in Canada. The choice about how much of its revenues to allocate to realizing that goal is discretionary. Just as the choice about how much revenue to allocate to other programs is. Some programs shaped by legislation (health spending, for example) but many are not. Thus, the decision on funding will always be an expression of values rather than the output of a mathematical formula derived from the composite of all possible evidence. No such formula exists. Nor could it. The evidence can tell us what a program or policy can deliver. However, as there are surfeit of programs and policies with strong positive outcomes, the decision about which to fund and to what extent will always be a judgement call and an expression of values. The point of this post is that the government’s current expression of support for a more equal Canada must be backed by the financial resources that will lead to actual change on the ground. 1% of total federal program spending would make a modest start in that direction.

  2. Alright, seems sensible. But wait, am I basing this decision on a well reasoned argument. No I’m not. I’m basing it on the name of the organization which tickles my politics. Lets back up.

    What would Status of Women program do with the money? what do they think that will accomplish? and why do they think that? (cite public policy literature, yes full academic citations)

    Lastly, which programs do they want to take the money from?, and what do we lose in those programs results?

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