Members of the Gender Equality Advisory Council speak with Justin Trudeau on April 26 in Ottawa. (Global Affairs Canada)
Members of the Gender Equality Advisory Council speak with Justin Trudeau on April 26 in Ottawa. (Global Affairs Canada)

As Canada prepares to host the annual Group of Seven (G7) leaders’ summit on June 8-9 in Charlevoix, Quebec, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is making gender equality a top priority, writing in a statement last week that it “must play a key role in creating lasting solutions to the challenges we face as a world — whether building economies that work for everyone, preparing for jobs of the future, fighting climate change, or advancing peace and security.” 

At January’s World Economic Forum in Davos, to aid him in making these solutions a reality, Trudeau announced the creation of the first-ever G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council, jointly chaired by Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Isabelle Hudon, Canada’s ambassador to France and Monaco. The council is made up of Canadian and international heavyweights, including managing director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, executive director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Since then, the council has participated in ministerial meetings and been working on recommendations around “concrete actions for the G7 to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment across all areas of the G7’s work.” The recommendations will be published just ahead of the leaders’ summit in June, where Trudeau will seek consensus to implement them. 

Trudeau says he doesn’t envision this gender push ending with the Charlevoix summit, and that he has had “commitments and enthusiastic support” from next year’s G7 president, France’s Emmanuel Macron, around continuing the work of the council in some form.

With only a little over four months in all to put their proposal together, and with demanding day jobs of their own, council members have been working at a frenetic pace. Japanese lawyer Yoko Hayashi, a former chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and Christine Whitecross, Canada’s first female lieutenant-general and the head of the NATO Defense College in Rome, were on hand during last week’s G7 foreign affairs and security ministers’ ministerial meeting in Toronto, and told OpenCanada there has been a flurry of emails, document exchanges and requests for comment since the council’s creation. 

Hayashi noted, laughing, that for virtual council meetings, due to the time change between Japan and Canada, “if we start at noon I have to wake up at 2 a.m.,” but that “it’s all worth it.” Whitecross agrees, saying she is “absolutely humbled” by the “tremendously talented” people on the council. “I mean, if we can’t solve this, or at least get us on the road…” 

A Positive Outlook

Last Thursday, the council held its first in-person meeting at the Fairmont Château Laurier in Ottawa. Members had the opportunity to discuss with the prime minister the major ideas they would like to see put on the summit agenda. Afterward, Trudeau moderated a panel that included Gates, Mlambo-Ngcuka and other members of the council. In front of a crowd of approximately 200 feminist leaders and activists, each laid out their reasons for accepting the prime minister’s invitation.

Mlambo-Ngcuka said the opportunity to influence G7 leaders’ discussion at the summit is a “dream come true.”

“If we’re able to shape the outcome of their discourse in such a way that what comes out of there will make today better than yesterday, and tomorrow better than today, and forever,” she said, “that will be a turning point in the history, not [only for] G7 citizens but the people — especially the women — of the world.” 

Leymah Gbowee, a Nobel laureate and Liberian peace activist, delighted the crowd with her frankness and sass. She said she has had her fair share of experiences with politicians who “speak all the right language, but at the end of the day, [it’s] to hell with you.”

Addressing Trudeau directly, she said: “I met with you a few months ago, we sat in that room, you didn’t have to take me seriously. We talked about frontline, grassroots activists and the need for you to diversify funds that will go directly to them.”

A few weeks later Trudeau “made the announcement of $150 million for grassroots women,” she said, referring to the pledge the Canadian government made when announcing its Feminist International Assistance Policy.

“When you asked me to join this, I said, this is someone who is not afraid of all the trouble I would be,” Gbowee continued. “I’m not even from a G7 country. You didn’t have to invite me, but it means you respect the voice, the work — not just of me but a lot of the frontline activists, because I see myself as a representative of those women.”

Echoing Gbowee’s words, Roberta Jamieson, president of Indspire, an Indigenous-led charity for Indigenous education, and an officer of the Order of Canada, said she thought Trudeau “knew who he was calling” when he invited a “strong Mohawk woman to sit on the council.”

“Again, today, you’ve encouraged us to be bold, and I have to say I was thrilled to hear that, because I would find it difficult not to be,” she said. “Why’d I say yes? Because you’re willing to use the G7 presidency to advance issues that are important to the world. You’re not afraid to look inside as well as outside your country.

“I’m probably more optimistic today than I ever have been in my life, because you are not afraid to…acknowledge that in a first-world country like Canada, we have women and girls living in third-world conditions.”

Measuring Success

The council’s recommendations will be published just before the Charlevoix summit, which members acknowledge won’t give the prime minister much lead time. But once they are delivered, it will be up to Trudeau to convince his G7 counterparts to buy into an “ambitious” agenda. 

How will the members of the council measure success? 

“Success can be written in a couple of ways,” Whitecross told OpenCanada. “Just the fact that dialogue is happening…there’s a bit more rigour behind it now.” She said national action plans need to be “demonstrative” and that countries should be required to show whether or not their policies have had success.

Whitecross, who led the Canadian Armed Forces Strategic Response Team in confronting sexual misconduct in the military, has seen the benefits of policies and processes being re-evaluated for their effect on gender, and said that’s “an effort really worth putting a lot of resources behind.”

“It’s not just HR policies, it’s not just how do we treat each other, it’s how do we do things, what are our expectations. Unless you really look at that with a gender lens and get rid of biasness and things that can hold groups of people back — and not just gender but any member of the vulnerable populations — it’s very difficult to get government or departments to move forward on this.

“I think the bottom line for me is a fundamental understanding that this is the right thing to do. We need to believe it,” she said. “And I think that for me that would be success.” 

Hayashi said she is certain that language on gender equality and women’s empowerment will be included in any final documents put out by the G7, but that “the problem is the implementation and the monitoring and the [willingness] for the next G7 to carry on these good ideas.” She would like to see more resources and funding for the promotion of women’s and human rights both within governments and for civil society organizations working on these issues. 

On Thursday, when asked by the prime minister what success would look like to her, Jamieson said: “I don’t think there are any issues at the G7, or at the UN, that aren’t women’s issues. So success for me would be to mainline from here on forward, following your lead, [an] intersectional lens, cross cutting across all agenda items.”

She added that input from Indigenous people is key, as they “have solutions as well as being the marginalized, the downtrodden, the victims. We have answers, and we’d love to provide them.”

Holding Trudeau to His Word

While the tone from council members last week was markedly optimistic, others in the civil society space are worried lofty words and goals will fail to translate into concrete commitments by Trudeau and the other G7 leaders, particularly given a lack of support from US President Donald Trump.

With the upcoming summit in mind, the ONE campaign, a global organization focused on ending poverty, released a video last week calling on Trudeau to “propose a bold plan that empowers millions of women to increase their independence now.” 

“You’ve made gender equality and women’s empowerment a theme,” reads text displayed in the video, alongside clips of Trudeau highlighting his feminist credentials, “but so far those are just words.”

As The Canadian Press reported, the heads of major aid agencies want to see a “plan with money attached.” A group of 30 non-governmental organizations has asked the prime minister to push for a G7 commitment of $1.3 billion over three years to education millions of the world’s poorest girls.

Trudeau told the audience on Thursday that Canada is preparing to make “new commitments around this goal” in the coming weeks, saying “one of the tangible things that we know is coming through this G7 is going to be a concerted effort on development that is focused on education.”

Last week, a stone’s throw away from the Fairmont Château Laurier where the council was meeting, more than 60 women from countries around the world gathered to hammer out their own recommendations at the first-ever Women7 (W7) summit. 

In a communiqué released Friday, the W7 called on G7 leaders to adopt a feminist approach centred on “the diversity of lived experiences and expertise, especially those most impacted by G7 decisions, policies and programmes.” The approach, the communiqué says, should guarantee resources for feminist movements, integrate intersectionality and be grounded in accountability.

Those gathered in Ottawa for the W7 also had the opportunity to present their ideas directly to Trudeau. On Friday, a panel of speakers with diverse backgrounds elaborated on the challenges faced by the W7 and their hopes for the summit on issues ranging from gender-based violence to women being affected by climate change to a lack of disaggregated data. 

The question for Oriana López Uribe of Balance, a feminist organization in Mexico, is one weighing on the mind of many activists: “How do we get the message across when we know the problem is the G7 [itself]? You’re oppressing the rest of the countries and [that’s] so wrong.” 

The panellists admitted to being skeptical about how much influence their recommendations — due to be released in full next month — will influence G7 leaders, but all saw the value in coming together with feminists of various backgrounds and finding “consensus so quickly.” 

López Uribe added that to come to Ottawa and have the prime minister listen to “all our 90-second pitches” is “something that is in itself valuable, in terms of having direct access to one of the heads of the G7.” 

“Maybe something stuck there and maybe he will push for something,” she said of Trudeau. “He may not be able to change the whole economic model but…maybe [G7 leaders] will get creative instead of just doing the same things.”

Asked about the “tremendous amount of backlash” Trudeau has received from — as the prime minister put it — those who are “maybe not as far along on their gender equality journey,” Francyne Joe, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said the prime minister is in a role that is “not easy.”

“If our prime minister is having difficulties, as I mentioned to Minister [of Status of Women Maryam] Monsef yesterday, we stand behind you. We stand next to you,” Joe said. “It’s never too late to do the right thing. Arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, we can do this.”

Trudeau himself was quick to admit last week that the political context is “sometimes difficult” when it comes to promoting gender equality on the world stage. The prime minister said he is aware that when the Liberal government brought forward a gender-balanced cabinet in 2015 and a gender-based budget in 2018, there was “a lot of pushback,” and is thinking about how to create space for “more men to be comfortable saying that they are allies and feminist and being part of the solution.”

But Trudeau’s message to the council and others pushing for progress on gender equality is not to worry about “how tough it is on [him] to create consensus around the G7 table.”

“That’s our challenge as G7 leaders,” he said. “Make sure that you’re looking for the bold, concrete ideas that are actually going to move us forward.” 

This piece was first published on OpenCanada.org.

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The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • Catherine Tsalikis

    Catherine Tsalikis is the senior editor for OpenCanada.org. Previously, she worked as a producer for the CBC’s Fifth Estate and CTV News Channel. She also worked as a politics producer for London’s Sky News, and as an editorial assistant for The World Today magazine, published by Chatham House.

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