Trump and the treatment of women: Why is Canada’s feminist prime minister silent?

The global economic cost of violence against women is US$ 1.5 trillion. Canada should take it just as seriously as NAFTA, yet, in the US, Trudeau remains mostly silent on the issue.

By: /
October 27, 2017
Trudeau at Fortune gala
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Senior White House Advisor Ivanka Trump sit together at the 2017 Fortune magazine’s “Most Powerful Women” summit in Washington, U.S., October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

On the eve of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to the United States and Mexico earlier in October, news headlines were once again filled with another wave of sexual harassment and assault stories, this time revealing abuse in the entertainment industry.

During the North American tour, Trudeau discussed these stories directly in his address to the Mexican Parliament, urging the country to tackle violence against women at home and around the world. He also met with women’s rights groups, including those advocating for reproductive choice. Interestingly, his visit to US legislators focused solely on NAFTA and trade, and his Fortune event on women’s issues was the traditional high-level gala-style panel in a room of well-connected, wealthy figures from corporate and media industries.

So why the difference in approach? It’s known that Mexico has a horrific record on violence against women. But so does America, and the Mexican head of state is not the one who has been accused by at least 14 different women of assault, nor has he boasted on tape about sexually assaulting women.

As a feminist Prime Minister, what is Trudeau’s role in ending the international crisis of violence against women? How does a feminist foreign policy address that issue writ large, and more specifically, how does it guide Canada in dealing with sexual assailants in power around the world?

Let’s start with realistic expectations. Trudeau cannot storm out of meetings with accused sexual assailants such as current US President Donald Trump. Trudeau is not Hugh Grant and this is not Love Actually. The Prime Minister cannot suddenly decide to valiantly defend one woman's honour in a grandstanding, awkward international press conference. Countries maintain diplomatic relations and the question is larger than just the US. In recent memory, leaders of Israel, South Africa and the International Monetary Fund have been accused or convicted of sexual assault. If we expand the accused to high-level officials, we could include nearly every country on the planet. No country is free from gender-based violence, and the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly goal five on gender equity, are universal for a reason.

"Where does a commitment to ending violence against women fit in Canada's unfailingly polite approach in the US?"

It is a conceptual shift to consider partners like the US in the frame as we would, say, India or Kenya, but in terms of the misogyny that underlies sexual assault epidemics, they are not so different. Indeed, Canada is also far from immune, with women reporting 553,000 sexual assaults in 2014. Regardless of country or region, 80-90 percent women consistently report experiencing sexual harassment. The rates are uniform across the globe. The US is far from exceptional in its record.

But let’s use the US as a topical example. It is clear that Trudeau has already decided on his overall approach to the US — minimal contact with the president, the ‘donut’ tactic that relies on a diffuse network of influencers around him. An inscrutably polite, professional Canadian approach that keeps its eyes on the long-term goals and studiously avoids being dragged into the daily kerfuffles that have plagued Trump’s presidency.

This approach may work for trade negotiations, but how does it hold up when set against a feminist foreign policy and a feminist prime minister? Where does a commitment to ending violence against women fit in this unfailingly polite approach?

Canada has made some stands on ‘feminist’ issues opposed by the US, most notably, supporting and funding the She Decides campaign. She Decides is a movement to fill the gap in global funding caused by the US decision to re-instigate and expand the Global Gag rule. The rule prevents the US from funding any organization that provides, supports or refers to abortion in its work, even with its own money. Canada has been vocal in its opposition to the rule, and has provided funding to the She Decides campaign, while still avoiding criticism of the US.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s attempts to create a gender chapter of NAFTA are commendable, and outreach to Ivanka Trump on issues of women’s economic inclusion was a smart strategy, albeit one that has not borne fruit. But this isn’t an article on the US and Canada’s feminist foreign policy in general. How specifically has and should Canada deal with violence against women (VAW) in particular?

Prioritizing the elimination of violence against women

Here the record is much murkier. For if VAW is a priority for the Canadian government, it needs to be treated as one. Indeed, it would be a deliberate move for Trudeau to address sexual assault while meeting US legislators. Such a move would make waves and headlines. But he did so in Mexico. He pushed abortion rights directly with the Irish Taoiseach. He has raised human rights with the Chinese. This is diplomacy. Leaders raise, or don’t, touchy issues. And we’re entitled to draw conclusions from the issues they raise and those on which they stay silent. And on VAW, Canada has been noticeably silent.

It’s not clear that minimizing contact with the US president relates to his record on harassment and assault. It’s much more to do with the fact Trump is an international embarrassment and few world leaders benefit from being seen close to him. Taking a stand on a leader’s personal behaviour is awkward. Allyship can be uncomfortable. It means making waves, and there are consequences. But we’re also entitled to draw conclusions when the elephant in the room is noticeably not addressed.

Fundamentally, this is about the balance between principle and pragmatism. It’s about whether we consider ending VAW a key foreign policy objective. If we do, going along to get along, or prioritizing NAFTA at the expense of all else, simply won’t cut it. We need to treat sexual violence as we would any other priority. No, it’s not North Korea, but in terms of its impact on women’s lives, it is a global public health epidemic. Nearly 40 percent of women globally experience intimate partner violence, and some national studies indicate rates as high as 70 percent. Around the world, sexual harassment rates are consistently in the 75 to 95 percent range.

Perhaps the first step is treating the US as just another country with an epidemic of violence against women, complicated by an autocratic leader with a history of harassment and assault. No special treatment, and subject to the same Canadian global strategy on sexual violence, falling under the umbrella of the feminist foreign policy.

"We’re entitled to draw conclusions from the issues leaders raise and those on which they stay silent."

If Canada were to get serious about VAW, particularly in its dealings with perpetrators, we would use the same range of tools available to us for any other major foreign policy priority. Contrast Canada’s response to a sexual assailant in power with its response to the Bombardier-Boeing dispute, and before eye-rolling starts, the global economic cost of VAW is US$ 1.5 trillion. We should take it just as seriously, if not more so, than an aeroplane manufacturer fight. Canada has been assertive and pointed in its unwavering support for Bombardier. It recruited the British government to the fight. It has been unafraid of making waves with the US, because Bombardier is a major political priority.

On VAW, at the very mild end, our response might include Sophie Gregoire Trudeau hosting a roundtable on harassment and violence during her next visit to the US. It could mean including sexual violence in the theme of Canada’s upcoming leadership of the G7. Awkward and pointed moves which matter in diplomacy, but are hardly earth-shattering.

At the more aggressive end, Canada could encourage the US to join and fund global initiatives on ending VAW. Canada could tackle the issue head-on in a bilateral with the US President (just as we did on behalf of Bombardier). It would, I suspect, be laughable to suggest Canada take further steps, such as refusing to send female staff or diplomats to meetings with an admitted sexual assailant. Women journalists and political staff have a legal right to a safe workplace, free from harassment or assault, and yet, this would obviously be dismissed as ridiculous. It’s not the done thing. It’s over-the-top. I mean, you could sink NAFTA — think of all the jobs.

And therein lies the problem. Because Canada would and has raised controversial issues directly with the US president before. Because Canada has come out fighting on touchy subjects it considers priorities. Canada isn’t even afraid of bombastic language or symbolic retaliatory actions. Just not when it comes to violence against women. We need to ask why. Why do we consider it normal to apply a range of diplomatic strategies to issues like trade, but scoff when it comes to applying that same range to violence against women?