Women Are Rattling Justin Trudeau's Feminist Government — But Not Because They're Perfect Principled Saints
Add Women. Change Politics. Then stand back and watch the show.
At least that’s the message you get following this last month in Canadian politics.
The star performer in this show is Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney general turned Trudeau dissenter. She resigned from cabinet after allegations surfaced that Prime Minister’s Office had pressured her to intervene in a court case against Quebec-based construction giant SNC-Lavalin.
Then, on March 4, Jane Philpott resigned from the Liberal cabinet over the SNC-Lavalin allegations, saying, “There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them.” Just before that another MP, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, a Black woman, announced she would not be returning to politics, citing the toll on her family. She recently told the Globe and Mail she was met with hostility when she informed Justin Trudeau she would be resigning. (The Prime Minister’s Office says there was no such hostility.)
Wilson-Raybould’s testimony in the House of Commons last month was particularly striking, not least for the claims and evidence she present. Here was a woman with little to lose, telling her truth, against an establishment that seemingly didn’t want to hear it.
These women are rattling Justin Trudeau’s notably feminist government. With their willingness to resign on principle and their candor on the way out, it’d be great to simply think that women are perfect principled political saints.
But in a world where Theresa May is leading the U.K. into Brexit and, well, everything Ivanka Trump is doing, it’s gonna be a hard pass from me on that idea. Women don’t have a monopoly on or special predilection towards principle.
Women can and do work in ways that are different to the status quo. In 2015, Conservative women supported calls by women in the NDP to end the tampon tax. Ostensibly political rivals, it was a notable moment of gender solidarity between parties. And there is some evidence that women in positions of power, like within the cabinet, have a positive influence on ensuring woman-friendly government policy. That influence, however, is contingent on power and access to power rather than on any special powers for integrity.
Arezoo Najibzadeh, executive director of the Young Women’s Leadership Network, a nonprofit that aims to create safe spaces for women in politics, also resists this idea, saying, “We're doing ourselves a disservice by applying this basically essentialist maternal lens onto women's leadership by expecting women to be ‘more civil’ or ‘more principled’ when they enter a leadership role.”
In the desire to sanctify women as the most principled politicians, we diminish the actual actions and rhetoric of women politicians.
If women appear to be more forthright and conscientious, it’s partially because we are approaching a critical mass of women in politics. More women are participating as candidates and, finally, finding an populace that is willing to elect them. Approaching that critical mass allows women to be more outspoken and less conservative. It’s easier to be a tall poppy in a field of tall poppies.
And it’s not just moneyed white women taking space in the House.
For racialized and Indigenous women, their skills, qualifications, and values are effectively erased in favour of noting their roles as “historic firsts.” In this light, a capable lawyer and Indigenous leader like Wilson-Raybould is defined by history — the first and only Indigenous woman to serve as Justice Minister. That is how she ends up being asked to become the Indigenous Services minister after being removed as attorney general, while her replacement at the Justice ministry is described as a “McGill Law professor with graduate degrees from Yale and Oxford.” It is Wilson-Raybould who insisted, with her testimony’s closing statement, on her proper context: “I come from a long line of matriarchs and I am a truth teller in accordance with the laws and traditions of our Big House.” Her sense of justice then comes not just from Western legal principles but also from the legal principles of the We Wai Kai First Nation.
Caesar-Chavannes’ experience — of candor met with hostility — has marked her tenure since she made a speech about rocking braids that went viral. She has often spoken about racial discrimination. As a Black woman, Caesar-Chavannes obviously stood in contrast to the traditional machine of politics-as-usual. And in announcing that she won't run for re-election, she has chosen to speak out rather than issue pat statements of “leaving to spend more time with my family.” Many women have stood up to say that they have had nothing but positive experiences work with and for Justin Trudeau. But those experiences do not negate the experiences of Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott, or Celina Caesar-Chavannes. ("Good for you, but that’s not how it happened for me" is a valid response, as is silence.)
Women’s principled stances cannot be reduced to the politics of purity without simultaneously erasing their work, reflection, and lifetimes of experience.
The election of Justin Trudeau fielded a deep pool of women. They have brought with their principles and values to Ottawa. If you just stand back and watch the fireworks, you’ll miss all the work they’re doing.