“Because it’s 2015.”
It was a glib answer given to a reporter’s question that grabbed headlines around the world. In naming his very first cabinet, Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kept one of his many campaign promises – that of a gender-balanced cabinet – that group of 30 Members of Parliament who are entrusted to run the various departments of government. It was indeed gender-balanced, with 15 men and 15 women.
Feminists took it as an affirmation of everything right about feminism, and a signal that Canada – or at least this government – has emerged from the dark ages, neutered the patriarchy, embraced their inner lesbian and stormed the beachhead for modern feminism. (You couldn’t fool all of the feminists, though, some took to their cherished newspaper columns the next day to deride it as a meaningless gesture, indicative of everything that is wrong in the world, and continued to give their life purpose by resuming their perpetual verbal assault on Patriarchy Inc.)
Those who take issue with modern feminism took it as a confirmation of the worst of the “because vagina” non-argument of modern feminism. That is the argument that the right body parts and hormones are the most important – and perhaps only – delineator worth considering.
The problem for both sides is that Justin Trudeau’s comments were much more than simply, “Because it’s 2015”. When it became clear that the press was not satisfied with a 2-second soundbite of an answer, and after an appropriate pause for applause he offered up more words. The members of his cabinet were not there because of a simple and arbitrary quota, not because of the neutering of any patriarchy, real or otherwise, nor were they there just because they had the right fishing tackle.
Here are his comments:
Reporter: Your cabinet, you said, looks a lot like Canada. I understand one of the priorities for you was to have a cabinet that was gender-balanced. Why was that so important to you?
JT: Because it’s 2015. (applause) Canadians elected extraordinary Members of Parliament from across the country, and I am glad to have been able to highlight a few of them in this cabinet here with me today. However, there are an awful lot of extraordinary Canadians who are not in this cabinet behind me, who are also going to be strong voices for their community and their country. Because one of the things that I am committed to is ensuring that all Parliamentarians – all 307 of them who aren’t here with us today – are able to be strong voices for their communities, to push their issues, and to make sure that the diversity that makes this country so strong is the diversity of views that carry us forward.
One thing was made clear from the CBC coverage of the announcement of the cabinet: each cabinet member had been very carefully selected for their portfolio. Their life experience, their education or their advocacy spoke extensively of their suitability, perspective and preparedness for each position.
For example, our new Minister of Defence is Harjit Sajjan, a battle-hardened and decorated veteran of four deployments, including three in Afghanistan. In addition, he served with distinction in the Vancouver Police Department for 11 years. The previous government’s big choice for Minister of Defence was Peter MacKay, a cold fish of a lawyer with a reputation for being a bit of a playboy, whose big accomplishment as Defence Minister was getting into hot water for using a military helicopter to retrieve himself from a fishing vacation in Newfoundland. I dare say there is a large gulf in the suitability of the new Minister to the old.
But let’s look at a few of the women, since such a big deal seems to be made about their gender.
Jody Wilson-Raybould is Canada’s new Minister of Justice and Attorney General. An aboriginal woman and leader in the aboriginal community, a lawyer, and former regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations. She is the first First Nations woman to be named to the position, and her first orders of duty will be to write legislation that meets a Supreme Court ruling on the right to die, and making good on her boss’s campaign promise to legalize marijuana. She also faces the question of how to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling that certain laws regarding sex work were deemed unconstitutional. The ousted Conservative government was working on stricter, more dangerous laws. The Liberal approach is assumed to be much different, but there is a lot of heavy lifting ahead in this portfolio and Wilson-Raybould is up to the task.
Carolyn Bennett is the new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Bennett hits the ground running in this portfolio, being the former government’s Liberal critic of this department. (Each party has an official critic for each department who keeps the minister accountable and on their toes) As such, she has already received the hearty endorsement in this appointment of the Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde . Bennett will be tasked with implementing all 94 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
Dr. Jane Philpott, the new Minister of Health, comes well-experienced for the role. She is a family physician, the first MD (graduated cum laude, no less) to be named to the portfolio (yes, really!) former chief of family medicine at Markham Stouffville Hospital and a professor at the University of Toronto, has volunteered with Médecins sans Frontières and has trained medical practitioners in Niger, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Carla Qualtrough is Canada’s new Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities. They may seem like odd interests to pair up, but listen to these qualifications. Carla is a lawyer, having served on Canada’s Human Rights Tribunal and a former Paralympic Athlete. She combined these two passions in becoming the International Paralympic Committee’s legal officer and member of the IPC’s Legal and Ethics Committee. Athletically, she is a three-time bronze medallist in swimming events at the 1988 and 1992 Paralympic Games, and parlayed that into a four-year term as President of Canada’s Paralympic Committee. And on top of all that, she has been blind from birth.
Christia Freeland, the new Minister of International Trade is a well-known author and journalist, working for The Financial Times, The Washington Post, the Economist, in various roles as journalist and editor. She is also a Rhodes Scholar and previous to her re-election as an MP served as part of Trudeau’s team of economic advisors and the Liberal party’s Trade critic. She speaks Ukranian, English, French, Russian and Italian.
Get the point yet?
The point that Trudeau was trying to make is that today, gender need only be an issue in ensuring that the ministers responsible for government reflect the people they represent in as many ways as possible. 50 years ago, a female cabinet minister was a rarity, a curiosity, a novelty, something to stare at. In 2015 and beyond, we have eminently qualified and capable men AND women – an embarrassment of riches – that will ensure that Canadians are duly represented by a representative government – one that “looks like Canada”, properly appointed by their own merit and earned credentials. Can you appoint well-suited ministers AND reflect the demographics of Canada? I think the Prime Minister just showed us you can. These are remarkable people.
On a somewhat related note, as an atheist I was personally surprised and pleased to see that 16 of the 30 new cabinet members took the secular affirmation of office when accepting their appointments instead of swearing the traditional oath which includes the phrase “so help me God”. Canada is considerably more secular than the United States, but it is still reassuring to see things like this. That said, we could still do better than half. Canadians generally seem to understand that government is and should be secular. 23.9% of Canadians declared no religious affiliation in 2011. That means that the cabinet is skewed a little away from religion… but I’m pretty much okay with that. Honestly, the man is making me regret the fact that I didn’t vote for him.