Canada’s gaps in implementing women’s rights: The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s 2016 review of Canada

Lara Koerner Yeo (3L)

We do not live in a Canadian society where women, men, and those who otherwise self-identify, are equal. In November 2016, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recognized this reality in its Concluding Observations of Canada. The document outlines Canada’s piecemeal improvement on implementing women’s rights, as well as the gaps in compliance. The gaps are big and indicative of ongoing government failures to recognize and protect women’s rights in Canada. The Committee recommended that Canada respond to key women’s rights issues, including the gender pay gap, women’s political participation, access to justice, and violence against women.

In October 2016, I traveled to Geneva to participate in the CEDAW review of Canada as a civil society representative on behalf of the International Human Rights Program and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action. The purpose of the review was to examine Canadian governments’ compliance—and gaps in compliance—with its international women’s rights obligations set out in the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. To this end, CEDAW members met with civil society representatives, as well as with delegates from Canadian federal and provincial governments.   

Canada’s backtracking on women’s rights

Over the last decade, Canada has resoundingly retreated from advancing women’s rights. While this is a long-term trend, it is in no small way attributable to a series of federal governments under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s leadership. Since 1995, Canada has fallen from 1st to 25th place in the UN Gender Inequality Index. The lack of government action to structurally dismantle women’s discrimination in employment and the low number of women parliamentarians are only some of the factors that informed Canada’s fall in the Index. On average, women make 80 cents for every man’s dollar and are more likely to work in minimum wage jobs and hold multiple, part-time jobs with no benefits. Canada has substantially fewer female than male candidates in political elections, with no quota system to ensure that parties put forward a proportionate number of female candidates; we rank 50th out of 190 countries in an Inter-Parliamentary Union index measuring states’ proportion of national-level female politicians. In response to these issues, CEDAW’s Concluding Observations call for a narrowing of the wage gap by improving federal, provincial, and territorial law, and addressing the structural obstacles to women’s political participation by adopting proactive measures.

The governments’ sustained cuts to civil legal aid funding over the past two decades have also crippled access to justice for many women across Canada. This phenomenon is gendered: men are the principal users and beneficiaries of legal aid for criminal law matters, while women are the principal users and beneficiaries of civil legal aid, mostly for family law matters. Between 1993-2012, the approved application rate for civil legal aid fell by 65.7%, and although the 2016 federal government budget allocated $88-million for criminal legal aid, no new funding was designated for civil legal aid. Civil legal aid funding is now almost nonexistent in some jurisdictions. Further, the eligibility requirements to secure legal aid are well below low income cut offs (e.g. a four-person family income must be approximately $28,500 to be eligible for legal aid, while the poverty line for an urban four-person family in Canada is about $38,000). This means that qualifying applicants are likely in extreme poverty.  The Committee has called on Canada to review eligibility criteria to ensure marginalized women have access to legal aid, and to increase and specifically earmark legal aid funding for civil matters.  

Women also continue to be disproportionately subjected to intimate partner violence and sexual assault in Canada. Women are murdered by a current or previous spouse, dating or otherwise intimate partner, at a rate four times higher than men, and 92% of sexual assault victims are women. While rates of reported sexual assaults to the police are on the decline due to women’s lack of reporting and trust in the criminal justice system, the actual rates of sexual assault have remained stable since 2004. The statistics are more abysmal for women with disabilities, and Indigenous and racialized women, who are doubly discriminated against on the basis of sex, race and/or able-bodiedness. Among many recommendations, the Committee encouraged Canada to quickly adopt a national action plan to combat the violence.  

The Concluding Observations are a credible women’s rights roadmap for Canada

CEDAW’s Concluding Observations should be taken seriously and lead to action. This is the most current and comprehensive review of Canada’s compliance with its international women’s rights obligations, informed by submissions from state, civil society, and third party human rights actors.

CEDAW is an expert body composed of recognized international women’s rights experts from varying countries of origin. They bring to bear their own impartial expertise and deep knowledge of the Convention, as well as the insidious governmental barriers to women’s substantive equality. CEDAW also knows Canada. A CEDAW task force released a report in March 2015, following an inquiry into the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. CEDAW members have since followed-up with ministerial meetings and a national symposium with civil society stakeholders. CEDAW members’ knowledge of women’s rights issues in Canada is real, relevant, and useful to us as we work domestically.

As is standard, women’s and human rights representatives from Canada participated in the review process. These included organizations such as Aboriginal Legal Services and Amnesty International Canada, as well as the University of Toronto’s own IHRP. The recommendations contained in the Concluding Observations draw heavily from those proposed in civil society submissions and during the review meetings. This should be no surprise. Women’s rights advocates on the ground at home have a real, first-hand sense of how the government is advancing—and failing to advance—women’s equality. The joint Human Rights Watch-IHRP CEDAW submission that I helped draft focused on violence against Indigenous women and girls, and access to safe water on First Nations reserves. The contents of the submission were derived from the primary research Human Rights Watch conducted in affected communities and with affected individuals in Canada. This research involved the advocates who are doing the grassroots work, as well as people who are themselves directly impacted by these issues.

The Concluding Observations are part of Canada’s growing international women’s rights record. They exist alongside past CEDAW Concluding Observations and allow one to trace Canada’s women’s rights record over time. A scan backwards in time from the 2016 document to the 2008 and 2003 documents will show that there are intractable equality issues that we still haven’t sorted out: issues like the gender pay gap, access to justice and violence are but a few.

We now have the 2016 CEDAW Concluding Observations document and need to set our agenda for how we will ensure that the Government of Canada implements it. We can and must take this document seriously, recognizing it for what it is—the most current and comprehensive roadmap towards women’s substantive equality in Canada that we have.

Lara Koerner Yeo is an IHRP practicum student and a Steering Committee member of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action’s (FAFIA). She was an active civil society participant in CEDAW’s 2016 review of Canada and is working on the Step Up for Women’s Equality campaign to implement the CEDAW Concluding Observations. Check out #stepup4womencda and #stepup4womenbc on Twitter!