On the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, I woke up feeling disoriented and relieved, like I had just been shaken out of a bad dream. Then it all came rushing back: A racist reality star had in fact been elected the 45th President of the United States of America and it was not a nightmare anyone could wake up from. I rolled into my job, late, with bloodshot eyes and zero motivation. (Sorry I can’t get back to your e-mail Susan, the world is on fire!) My friend and co-worker Denise, a Uruguayan-Canadian who has Latinx family living in the U.S. and in Mexico, greeted me with a hug and we stayed in that embrace for a long time, crying together and venting our frustrations — two heartbroken women of colour worried about our families and our future and uncertain what Donald Trump's presidency could mean for both.
Later, a loved one would tell me, “Hey, at least we’re in Canada. It’s not going to make a big difference.” We know now that the opposite is true: Trump’s first term in the Oval Office has definitely “made a big difference” north of the border (see: the trade wars, our strained relationship with China). This bumbling, bigoted, misogynistic, and overtly anti-immigrant president has also awakened something in women — in the U.S. and beyond. For Canadian woman, neither the Women’s March in Washington, held the day after Trump’s inauguration, and the #MeToo movement, which followed his “grab ’em by the pussy” comment, felt like an American phenomenon. Trump was an attack on us all and a political awakening for many.
According to a Refinery29 survey of more than 1,000 Canadian women, 92% are registered to vote in the federal election, with 89% between the ages of 18-35 saying they will “definitely” or “likely” vote. (Typically, this demographic is the least likely to turn out to elections — only 56% did in 2015.) The majority of our survey respondents also noted that they are more politically engaged than they were four years ago. And while we can’t attribute all of this to Trump — women consistently show up as the largest voting group and came out in record levels in Canada in 2015 — political activism is on a steady upward trajectory since his election.
When Trump came into power, Canada was on its typical “we’re better than America” high horse, having newly elected Justin Trudeau, a self-proclaimed feminist prime minister, who had just sworn in the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet. But, as an orange-hued, hate-fuelled political hurricane ripped through the States, the “Trump effect” didn’t stay confined to U.S. borders. “Trump was like this huge road-runner anvil dumped in the middle of everybody’s path,” says Sarah Goldfeder, a former U.S. diplomat turned political commentator with Earnscliffe Strategy Group. As we near the Canadian federal election, she adds, “there is a sense of being an observer of history and voters fearing we will fall into the same traps as the U.S. electorate did.” How exactly will this all play out on Oct. 21? And what has pushed certain women voters to step up and organize in ways they never have before?
Not only are the federal parties running against each other, they’re running in opposition to Trump-era ideologies. Well, the NDP, Green and Liberal parties are at least, with New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh publicly calling for Trump’s impeachment and both Trudeau and Green Party leader Elizabeth May knocking Conservative Andrew Scheer for sharing values with the U.S. president. Scheer denied the claim at the first national leaders’ debate, but if you look at his foreign policy, his past statements on LGBTQ marriage and his refusal to participate in Pride events, plus his personal anti-abortion stance, the connection is not a stretch.
We’ve already witnessed the Trump effect at the provincial level. Since 2015, five provinces have changed from Liberal or NDP to Conservative — six out of ten Canadian provinces have Conservative governments, five of them majorities. “And these are not Progressive-Conservative governments,” says Kate Bezanson, an associate professor at Brock University who specializes in political economy, sociology and gender. “They have a strong resonance to the kind of right-wing populism we see in the U.S.” Think “big Republican” Doug Ford in Ontario and Jason Kenney in Alberta.
Which is why some Canadian women are taking action. Like Amanda Kinsley Malo, an elementary school teacher from Sudbury, ON. She was running grassroots campaigns for the Liberal party when Trump was elected. His inauguration pushed her to start PoliticsNOW, an organization that empowers women to run in municipal elections. Malo says she’s seen similar groups popping up all over the country since then, such as Women Win TO and Young Women’s Leadership Network. “It’s not that I wasn’t politically engaged before,” she tells me. “But after 2016, I saw how [Trump] energized women. What was going on with our neighbours to the South showed us just how fragile our rights are and, if we wanted to keep them, we needed to stand up and fight.”
The “fragile rights” Malo is referring to include women’s reproductive health. Republican lawmakers in the U.S. introduced 250 bills restricting access to abortion care this year alone, which has reignited the debate in Canada, even though abortion has been a reproductive right here since 1988. The U.S. abortion stories have dominated the Canadian news cycle and federal election news here, and emboldened anti-abortion activists, including MPs and MPPs.
Canadians are also facing the reality that we live in a country that isn’t the champion of multiculturalism it advertises itself to be. There’s been a rise in white supremacist groups and a surge in hate crimes in recent years, which can be linked to what’s happening in the U.S. “Once Trump came into office, it gave permission to other political leaders to perform racism in the same way,” policy analyst and Toronto-based political consultant Brittany Andrew-Amofah says. See: Trump’s “Muslim ban” passed within his first 100 days in office; that time he said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly white supremacist riots in Charlottesville and, most recently, when he told four American congresswomen of colour to “go back” to their countries. The U.S. president’s affinity for Twitter has only made things worse. “It has allowed racist, misogynist, white nationalist voices to find a stage and an audience here in Canada,” says Bezanson. It used to be a kiss-of-death to explicitly run on a platform of hate. Now, it’s a strategy. Look at People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier — he denies climate change evidence, doesn’t believe systemic racism exists, and he unequivocally supports Bill 21, the Quebec law that bans religious symbolism in the public sector.
In Refinery29’s survey, 75% of women said a candidate who expressed anti-immigrant, xenophobic, or racist views would be a “deal breaker.” For me, these views would have been a deal breaker in 2015, and in every election I’ve been eligible to vote in. But for some women (the majority of those surveyed were under 35 and 66% were of white/European descent), ignorance was a lot easier before Trump. If you were privileged enough to ignore politics before 2016, it’s no longer an option. “What you’re seeing among millennial women or people who may have participated less in the political process before Trump is a recognition that if you want to have a hand on the wheel of your country’s history, you need to be involved,” says Goldefeder. Bottom line, she says: “If it matters, go vote.”