Canada Failing its Women, U.N. Says Report Singles Out High Poverty Rate Cuts to Social Services Blamed

Valerie Lawton, Toronto Star, March 6, 2003

OTTAWA-Canada isn't doing enough to ensure women's equality on many fronts, including parental leave, childcare and pay equity, argues a highly critical United Nations report on how this country is living up to its international commitments.

Women's groups say the new report from the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women backs up what they've been arguing for years - that cuts to social programs are hurting women.

"This is the most critical report that Canada has ever received from this committee," said Shelagh Day of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action. "The committee's concluding comments are an indictment of recent social policy decisions in this country." 

The committee monitors how countries around the world are living up to their obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  

Canadian officials travelled to New York in January to make their pitch about federal efforts to tackle discrimination against women. Day and other activists also went along, and painted a far less rosy picture.  

"We think that the situation of women in Canada is getting worse and it's very hard to get the government's attention," said Day.  

"One of the ways for us to do it is to bring the problems to the attention of the United Nations. In this case, we hope that we have the government's attention now and that they'll do something serious."  

Jean Augustine, the federal government's junior cabinet minister responsible for the status of women, was in New York yesterday and didn't respond to an interview request.  

The U.N. committee makes more than 20 recommendations covering a wide range of areas where Canada is failing to meet its obligations under the anti-discrimination treaty.  

One of the issues the report highlights is the poverty rate for Canadian women. The committee calls on the federal government to bolster its efforts to combat the problem.  

"The committee is concerned about the high percentage of women living in poverty, in particular, elderly women living alone, female lone parents, aboriginal women, older women, women of colour, immigrant women and women with disabilities, for whom poverty persists or even deepens," the report says.  

It blames budget cuts since 1995 that have scaled back social services. 

"The committee is also concerned that the state party's measures are mostly directed towards children and not towards these groups of women."  

The U.N. group also calls on the Canadian government to:

  • Ensure enough legal aid is available to women for cases involving civil and family law and poverty issues.
  • Accelerate efforts to eliminating "persistent systematic discrimination faced by aboriginal women in all aspects of their lives."
  • Boost funding for shelters for battered women.
  • Increase the number of women in politics by introducing "temporary special measures with numerical goals and timetables to increase the representation of women in decision-making positions at all levels."
  • Speed up efforts to ensure pay equity for Canadian women.
  • Expand affordable childcare across the country.
  • Reconsider eligibility rules for employment insurance to deal with the fact fewer women than men are eligible for benefits and look at raising the "low benefit level" for parental leave.

In particular, it expresses concern about a 1995 federal decision to drop the strings that used to be attached to transfer payments to the provinces for social programs.  

"The committee is concerned that ... the transfer of federal funds to the provincial and territorial levels is no longer tied to certain conditions which previously ensured nationwide consistent standards in the areas of health and social welfare," the report says.