OTTAWA — Rachael Harder took it as a personal insult.
“Women and girls from across this country had a prime minister stand up and say, ‘As the prime minister of Canada, it is up to me to dictate whether or not you hold the right beliefs,” said the Conservative MP for Lethbridge, Alta.
“What prevents him from saying that to any one of the women in this room?”
She was speaking to a crowd of Ottawa-area Conservatives gathered at a pub overlooking the Rideau River one weeknight last month, refering to the time last fall when Liberal MPs on the House of Commons status of women committee decided to block her nomination as chair over her views on abortion.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau backed the move, saying the committee should be led by someone who would unequivocally defend the rights of women.
“There is a prime minister that claims to be a feminist prime minister,” Harder, the Conservative critic for the status of women, said in an interview.
“Yet, he has shown very little to no respect for personal choice or individual liberties among women.”
Trudeau has made the push for gender equality a top priority for his Liberal government.
The gender-balanced budget. The feminist international assistance policy. The proposed gender chapter in the North American Free Trade Agreement. The G7 gender equality advisory council, featuring none other than Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
And, of course, the because-it’s-2015 response when a reporter asked Trudeau why he chose to name an equal number of men and women to cabinet.
The Liberal government has firmly branded itself as a feminist one. So, where does that leave a Conservative woman who considers herself a feminist?
Sabrina Sotiriu, 31, who came to hear Harder speak that night, said it leaves her frustrated. And, reluctantly, a little impressed.
“I hate it,” she said with a laugh, “but I think it’s very successful.”
Sotiriu, a Conservative staffer on Parliament Hill, said the Liberals have done a good job of defining feminism on their own terms, so that if critics disagree with the Liberal approach to gender issues, or the economy, they’ll be dismissed as an anti-feminist.
“You know, you have to be progressive and progressivism has to do with feminism and if you’re not progressive, you’re not feminist,” she said.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau suggested as much when he appeared before the House of Commons finance committee to discuss the budget, which had undergone, for the first time in Canadian history, a gender-based analysis.
“Isn’t this just a way to get a woman’s vote?” Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, the deputy leader of her party, needled him at the meeting.
Morneau said he took offence — and then he went on the offensive.
“My view is that we will be more successful collectively if we’re actually able to successfully promote women into leadership roles,” he said.
“We will drag along the neanderthals who don’t agree with that, and that will be our continuing approach.”
Rachel Curran, who served as policy director to Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, said that as a long-time feminist, the commitment to championing the rights of women was one of the things she liked about Trudeau when he first came to power.
Now, she thinks the Liberals are using feminism as a political weapon.
“They are turning gender issues into this sort of wedge issue or identity-politics issue, which pits women who maybe hold a certain set of beliefs, or approach women’s issues or feminism in a certain way, against what the government sees as the true or correct or right version of feminism,” she said.
The controversy over the Canada Summer Jobs program is seen as one such example.
The Liberal government is now requiring organizations seeking federal grants for hiring summer students to attest to their respect for sexual and reproductive health rights — including abortion — as well as other human rights.
Many faith-based organizations said they were being forced into choosing between their values and grants that helped them run programs having nothing to do with abortion.
There are also ideological differences in approaches to gender issues that are more broadly about how Conservatives and Liberals view the world, which, according to Harder, boils down to this: equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome.
To illustrate her point, she brings up a figure included in the 2018 federal budget: women represent four per cent of apprentices in skilled trades. The budget committed $19.9 million over five years for a pilot grant program aimed at narrowing the gap.
“Should we be making sure that all barriers are taken down and women have the opportunity to enter these fields? Yes, absolutely. But should we be somehow social engineering a society where there is 50 per cent women and 50 per cent men in every single sector?” Harder said as she accused the Liberals, inaccurately, of imposing quotas for the skilled trades.
“That doesn’t respect a woman’s choice. That doesn’t respect her freedom. That doesn’t respect her interests and her objectives for her own life.”
She also has no time for the idea that, even if the conservative vision of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ is true, there may be some — including women — who could use a hand getting out of the sea.
“That is the most patriarchal thing that I have ever heard,” she scoffed.
Raitt, meanwhile, does actually believe in setting targets in some cases.
She recalls that when she was transport minister in the Harper government, and responsible for naming some 400 people to the boards of Crown Corporations, she made it clear she would be looking to improve the statistics.
“Little by little, we started seeing progress,” said Raitt. “But I didn’t come out and announce, ‘Boom! Everything is going to be 50-50.”
That, in her view, is the whole problem with the Trudeau approach to feminism.
“Capital T, capital F: ‘The Feminist’ government,” she said.
Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, May 6, 2018 1:47PM EDT