It was a unique event in Canadian electioneering—and a focal point of last year’s federal campaign. Staged by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (nac)—Canada’s most powerful independent women’s lobby group—the Aug. 15, 1984, debate brought the three federal party leaders together in a huge, steamy conference room of Toronto’s Royal York Hotel to debate women’s issues for the first time under the TV lights. Now, one year after Brian Mulroney’s landslide election as Prime Minister, his pledges have come under intense scrutiny—and the results do not strike many concerned observers as impressive.
The three leaders had agreed to the unprecedented debate because at the time polls showed a sizable gender gap in the way Canadian women voters viewed the parties, with the Tories as much as 14 percentage points less popular with women than with men. John Turner’s Liberals and Ed Broadbent’s New Democrats were eager to increase their strength, while Mulroney’s strategists urged him to address the party’s
negative rating among women. Making use of policies shaped by the newly formed PC Women’s Advisory Committee, the Tory leader did so avidly. But since then, the Mulroney government has fully fulfilled only one specific promise: the amendment of the Indian Act, to restore status rights to Indian women who married non-Indians or nonstatus natives. During the debate Mulroney promised an “emergency bill” on the problem, which had plagued Liberal governments since 1973—but it only received royal assent on the last day that Parliament sat, on June 28.
The government has only partially met its other commitments. The plight of Canada’s single and widowed elderly women—two out of three live below the poverty line—was the first issue the three leaders discussed during the debate. They agreed that a major part of the problem was the fact that women working in the home are not eligible to build or collect any pensions in their own right. Mulroney stated that the question of pensions for homemakers deserved “urgent attention.” But Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s May budget did not address that issue at all. It upgraded private pension plans by requiring them to offer women the same benefits as men. At present, many plans pay women lower benefits because actuarial tables show that, on average, worn-
en will live to collect longer. Wilson also introduced a requirement that employers with private plans offer prorated benefits to part-time workers. But women’s groups were quick to point out that despite those improvements, most women remain almost as unprotected as before: the majority of working women —and, indeed, men—are not even covered by private plans.
In the heat of the NAC debate, Mulroney also stated that “providing moral leadership” on the question of violence against women should be “top of the order paper for the entire country.” One
Canadian woman in 10 who lives with a man is beaten at some point by her partner; the Tory leader pledged to match provincial funds for crisis centres for victims of family violence or sexual assault. Action has since been delayed by federal-provincial negotiations, according to a spokesman in the office of Secretary of State Walter McLean, who is responsible for women’s issues.
In the August debate Mulroney also promised legislation to aid single-parent families in an effort to “stop anyone from avoiding their legal and moral responsibility.” The motivation was that
70 per cent of ex-spouses default on their child maintenance payments. Nine months later the Tories introduced a Family Orders Enforcement Assistance bill to keep track of the defaulters. But said Sylvia Gold, president of the governmental advisory group, the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women: “The proposed legislation only offers increased access to information on defaulting spouses. It should provide enforcement of those orders.” Despite the fact that divorce law is federal, Jocelyne Côté-O’Hara, spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office, maintains that enforcement should be a provincial responsibility, because family law is under provincial jurisdiction.
The wage gap between male and female workers was yet another key issue during the debate. Women in the work force earn, on average, 64 cents for every dollar earned by their male colleagues; women’s groups have long lobbied for affirmative action programs to put women into jobs traditionally held by men, at the same rates of pay. On June 27 the Mulroney government introduced the Employment Equity Program. Applicable to federally regulated businesses with more than 100 employees, the measure would impose a $50,000 fine on employers who do not file a report in accordance with the program showing that they have encouraged the hiring and promotion of women and other disadvantaged groups. But women’s groups are critical because the bill does not spell out what constitutes “encouragement.” Indeed, Liberal women’s issues critic Sheila Finestone told Maclean's, “There are no rules for collecting information, no standards and no enforcement procedures.” Neither the Liberals nor the New Democrats have yet responded to the bill officially.
In the year since the debate, opposition parties have often reminded the Tories of their pledges. The Liberals claim that, at best, the new government’s programs merely echo initiatives of the Liberals when they were in power, while the NDP continues to press for adoption of its party platform planks on women, which often parallel NAC’S. But CôtéO’Hara insisted, “We are putting the mechanisms in place and should meet all our objectives by the end of our first mandate.”
Many women remain skeptical. Said long-time activist and former federal Tory candidate Laura Sabia: “The debate made the politicians aware of the hurt and militancy of the people who arranged it. But politicians always promise everything and deliver nothing.” Still, in the aftermath of the first women’s debate, women’s groups are redoubling their efforts to ensure that this time the politicians will deliver.
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