OTTAWA –Justin Trudeau’s self-proclaimed feminist bona fides were on full display Wednesday as the prime minister known for his gender-balanced cabinet and support for equal rights showed his government’s support for International Women’s Day.
To mark the occasion, Trudeau announced $650 million over three years for sexual and reproductive health projects around the world and fielded pointed questions from a House of Commons filled with young female delegates from the country’s 338 ridings.
And he gave an impassioned defence of a woman’s right to choose an abortion – a message of particular resonance in the wake of his recent meeting with a U.S. president many around the world have branded as a misogynist.
“For far too many women and girls, unsafe abortions and lack of choices in reproductive health mean that they either are … at risk of death or else simply cannot contribute and cannot achieve their potential,” Trudeau said.
The funding – twice Canada’s current investment on reproductive health – will go towards promoting sexuality education, improving services and investing in family planning and contraceptives, he added.
Women and girls around the world routinely have their reproductive rights violated, including by being subjected to gender- and sex-based violence, as well as “harmful practices” such as female genital mutilation.
They also run a higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, he added.
“Like men, women should be able to choose; to choose when they want to start a family, how big their family should be and who they want to start that family with,” Trudeau said
“My friends, our ambitions can’t be bounded by our borders. Women and girls around the world are counting on countries like Canada to help lead the way.”
Indeed, it was through a joint Canada-U.S. initiative to promote and foster women in business, reportedly the idea of Trudeau chief of staff Katie Telford, that observers say enabled the federal Liberal government to connect with a White House that few were convinced would listen.
That initiative, which saw Trudeau himself sitting elbow-to-elbow with Trump’s daughter Ivanka, allowed a president who’s famously unpopular with women to borrow a little of the prime minister’s credibility.
It even earned both Canada and the prime minister an unprecedented mention during the president’s recent address to Congress.
The new funding won’t push Canada past the UN’s foreign aid spending target of 0.7 per cent of GDP, a goal that can’t be reached quickly, said International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau. Current spending sits at less than 0.3 per cent.
Nor was news of reproductive health funding welcome among some Conservative MPs.
“We’re shipping money overseas, and this isn’t actually what people overseas are asking for,” said Brad Trost, an outspoken opponent of abortion and one of 14 Tories who are seeking the party’s full-time leadership.
Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said international funding for abortion has in the past proven very divisive, and is even illegal in many countries Canada helps, which is why the previous Conservative government provided no money for abortion services.
“In government, we focused on things that we knew would bring not just our caucus together, but the country together, and the maternal and newborn child health (initiative) that saved the lives of mothers and babies.”
Trudeau also spoke Wednesday to a Commons filled with young women as part of Daughters of the Vote, a program aimed at encouraging female involvement in leadership, government and politics.
The prime minister acknowledged his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, whose Instagram post the previous day – celebrate boys and men who treat girls and women with respect, she urged Canadians – prompted a social media backlash from critics who thought it an inappropriate message for International Women’s Day.
“She has shaped the person I am and the service I give with everything I do,” Trudeau said.
Both men and women have a role to play on equity issues, and men who do not identify as feminists should be challenged, Trudeau said.
“If we recognize there is an imbalance in the world, that men have more power than women and that’s wrong, well we have to convince men to use that undeserved power to fix that power balance,” Trudeau said.
“We need to be strong about it. We need to be convinced about it.”
Before the day was over, however, Liberal inboxes were pinging with a reminder of the realities of workaday politics: a fundraising email signed by Gregoire Trudeau, pleading for donations to help the party to elect more female MPs.
Trudeau also touched on Islamophobia after a young woman student said she encountered it daily while going about her business in Toronto.
The prime minister said hatred has to be met head-on.
“Do we have a problem with Islamophobia in this country? Yes we do,” he said.
“Do we have a problem with anti-Semitism in this country? Yes we do. Do we have a problem in this country with discrimination and hatred? Yes we do and we need to talk about this and we need to challenge each other to be better on this.”