‘Women’s rights’ language a cover for anti-trans and anti-woman attacks in Canada
Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre, center, rides a horse with his wife Anaida Poilievre during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, July 7, 2023. Poilievre and other Conservative leaders are talking about 'women's rights' recently, but it's a cover for attacks on women and trans persons. | Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press via AP

TORONTO—As if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s milquetoast version of “feminism” were not enough, Conservative Party politicians all over Canada are now starting to use the language of women’s rights. Whereas Trudeau’s feminism is opportunistic and aimed at garnering progressive votes, the Conservatives’ adoption is far more cynical, as they are using it solely to create division and hammer away at trans rights.

New Brunswick Conservatives kicked off the current spate of bigotry in the summer, with their requirement that schools must “out” trans or non-binary students to parents—a tactic copied from Republican governments in several U.S. states. This was quickly aped by the right-wing Saskatchewan Party government.

Emboldened by his counterparts, Ontario’s Conservative Premier Doug Ford in early September tried to deflect public opinion from a land conservation scandal linked to Toronto’s Greenbelt by criticizing school boards and teachers who keep information confidential about students’ sexuality and gender identity, including from parents.

Not to be outdone, the federal Conservatives recently adopted policies that would severely limit gender-affirming care for young people and create “women-only” spaces which refuse access to trans and gender-diverse people.

Throughout this kind of right-wing attack, Conservatives are increasingly using the language of “women’s rights” as justification. Their point of departure, of course, is that trans women are not women—in fact, that trans people’s existence should be denied altogether.

To support this reactionary view, they repeatedly invoke the trope of “bathroom violence,” the narrative that women (by which they mean cisgender women) are at risk in all-gender bathrooms because of “predatory” trans people. Despite the fact that this claim has been decisively disproven by research, it persists and continues to confuse even people on the political left.

The Tories are clearly tuned in to this and are happy to use a reactionary version of women’s rights as a weapon against trans people and LGBTQ people in general.

But the Conservatives are also using their “women’s rights” narrative to hide the fact that their party has been leading the charge in attacking women’s rights and equality.

Across the country, the Tories and their allies in the Saskatchewan Party and the CAQ (Quebec) have fiercely attacked public sector workers. This disproportionately affects women, who comprise a majority of workers in the sector. However, this impact becomes especially lopsided in the Tories’ two favored targets: public education and healthcare (where up to 80% of workers identify as women).

Conservative “restraint” policies that forcibly reduce the wages and compensation of public sector workers immediately weaken women’s economic and social security. But in the context of a systemic gender pay gap—equivalent to about 87% of hourly wages and 73% of annual earnings—these reductions have huge compound effects which severely compromise women workers’ incomes into retirement. Across Canada, 21% of elderly women live in poverty.

In addition to strong action to achieve and maintain pay equity, working women generally need access to affordable childcare. Yet, despite much public fanfare when it was announced in April 2021, two-and-a-half years later the Trudeau federal government’s “$10-per-day” childcare plan is quickly becoming a sad joke.

Much of the blame for this rests with right-wing premiers who have delayed negotiating provincial childcare deals with Ottawa and insisted on heavy involvement of for-profit operators. In Ontario, for example, the Tories have actively discouraged private childcare providers from signing onto the $10-per-day plan by removing profit caps and requiring less oversight of for-profit operators.

Conservatives are also undermining women’s hard-earned abortion rights. To again use the example of Ontario, while Doug Ford has been careful to state publicly that his government is “not changing anything” in terms of abortion access, he allows Tory caucus member Sam Oosterhoff to speak at anti-choice rallies and pledge to “make abortion unthinkable,” and his government’s healthcare cuts directly limit the availability of abortion services throughout the province.

Currently, Ontario has only 38 abortion providers throughout the province, with only four of those in rural areas. This includes 22 hospitals, several of which reduced abortion services in response to funding cuts. Furthermore, the Ford government has ignored applications from abortion providers to approve safe access zones at their facilities, opening up women and workers to intimidation, harassment, and violence from anti-choice protesters.

In Quebec, the Legault government is perversely maneuvering to limit abortion access by introducing legislation to “protect the right to abortion.” Here again, although Legault is using progressive-sounding language, the effect of the legislation will be to open the door for anti-choice forces to lobby for restrictions and limitations on abortion access.

The Tories’ casual disregard for women is doubly reflected in their response to intimate partner violence. On the one hand, they resolutely refuse to fund programs that will provide adequate emergency shelters and supports. On the other, they ignore the systemic gravity of IPV, as the Ford government did when it refused to recognize IPV as an epidemic, an action that was called for by the inquest into the 2015 murders of three women by their partners.

These issues are critical to the class struggle. Throughout its history, capitalism has relied on institutionalizing the sexual division of labor in order to constantly reproduce itself. Key to this is maintaining the patriarchy’s categorical distinctions between “men” and “women”; any serious challenge to those strict roles and classifications is severely suppressed.

To its credit, the bulk of the Canadian labor movement has for many years fought long and hard to win concrete advances for women—pay equity, maternity leave, measures against harassment and violence, abortion rights, and more—and is generally one of the stronger advocates for trans and gender-diverse people.

Now, in the face of a coordinated conservative campaign to co-opt the language of women’s rights in order to attack both trans people and women, labor and its allies need to redouble their efforts. This includes rebuilding a structured cross-country organization of equity-seeking movements, capable of mobilizing millions of working people in the fight to defend and protect trans rights and for women’s and gender equality.

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Dave McKee
Dave McKee

Dave McKee is the editor of People's Voice, Canada's leading English-language socialist publication.