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Canada: Women's Programs Religiously Axed

By       Message Bahija Reghai     Permalink
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Prime Minister Stephen Harper has told Canadians that he will champion "a new G8 identity focused on ending child mortality and other health woes in poorer countries" because there "is a pressing need for global action on maternal and child health."

Indeed there is. However, does this statement indicate a temporary shift or a real change in Harper's policies, up to now perceived to be anti women and children, considering the programs that were cancelled and defunded since he came to power? If the interest is genuine, why limit the "championing" to the G8 when Canada is also hosting the G20, a forum that may be as good if not better, considering its larger and more diverse membership?

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While still in opposition, Harper had committed to supporting women's rights, continuing Canada's commitments to Canadian women, and bringing in government accountability and transparency, but did he deliver once in power?

In spite of a surplus of $13.2 billion and a debt at its lowest level in 30 years, the new Conservative government was quick to axe a number of programs and initiatives, turning back the clock on women's advancements at the behest of Harper's religious social conservative base, mainly the old Reform-Alliance stock.

Canada Family Action Coalition, Concerned Christians Canada Inc., Aglow International Canada, Canada Christian College, Focus on the Family (Maurice Vellacott, Rob Anders and former President & CEO of Promise Keepers Canada, David Sweet, are supporters), REAL Women Canada and other like-minded organizations were and still are vocal in wanting to impose their religious beliefs and values on all Canadians, as do some social Conservative Parliamentarians. Most of these groups are on the fringe of the Evangelical movement.

Another issue that binds some of these groups together is their uncompromising commitment to Israel, and therefore their interest in foreign policy based on their literal interpretation of Scripture. Zion's Christian soldiers, or Christian Zionists, believe that the physical ingathering of Jews in Biblical Israel is a precondition for the End Days to unfold and for Judgment Day to happen. This commitment to their own religious beliefs rather than the best interests of Israelis - includes political lobbying against a just peace. They reject any solution that includes a sovereign Palestinian state on any part of Biblical Israel.

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Any organization that seeks to treat Israel as any other UN member state is therefore seen as an enemy and treated as such, not only by Christian Zionists but by some elements of the Canadian government, as seen in the defunding of Kairos and the mistreatment of Rights and Democracy, both organizations work on projects to improve women's lives in various parts of the world, including in Afghanistan, the Congo and Latin America.

While anyone has the right to live by religious or other beliefs, that freedom does not and should not extend to imposing them on others. This is however what happened when the government heeded REAL Women Canada's message and cut funding to the Status of Women Canada (SWC), an agency that promotes gender equality.

By withdrawing funds and issuing new financing guidelines barring the use of federal grants for advocacy activities, the government severely hampered SWC's capacity to continue helping to promote women's rights effectively. SWC's funding of cutting-edge policy studies by academic and community researchers on issues of concern to women in Canada was eliminated, and the National Association of Women and the Law, one of Canada's foremost women's organizations, had to close down in September 2007.

Although Canada has one of the largest wage gaps out of the world's most developed countries - only Spain, Portugal, Japan and Korea have larger wage gaps - Harper's government decided not to pursue the introduction of a pay equity law.

Along with others speaking against women's rights, REAL Women's Gwen Landolt attacked the Court Challenges Program (CCP) and said that "is a boondoggle for special-interest groups with a certain ideological perspective. Only one side of the argument gets the money." In Parliament, former Conservative Justice Minister Vic Toews famous for insulting internationally respected Madame Justice Arbour questioned the accountability of the CCP when, in fact, the CCP provided quarterly reports on its activities to the government and published an annual report with statistics on the number and types of cases that it has funded.

The CCP was considered by many, in Canada and abroad, as a cornerstone of our justice system. It funded constitutional challenges for equality rights in Canada for diverse women's and other groups, including aboriginal, persons with disabilities, and LEAF (The Women's Legal Education and Action Fund) - yet this valuable program was summarily axed.

And so was the Law Commission of Canada which, as an independent federal law reform agency, advised Parliament on how to improve and modernize Canada's laws, examined both the legal and social implications of reform, and brought politically difficult topics into the open for debate.

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Cuts also targeted national literacy programs, student summer jobs, affordable housing, Young Professionals International (YPI), arts and culture, all very successful endeavours. The YPI, now defunct, allowed young Canadian university graduates to acquire international experience and skills to better serve Canada in an increasingly globalized economy. Canadian arts and culture reflect who we are, contribute to our economy, and enhance Canada's reputation abroad, as did the YPI.

Additionally, the recent decision to redirect our contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) towards "food security" and "justice reform" takes away funding for schools and health care, and is therefore harmful to children and women, the very people that Harper says he intends to champion at the G8.

Before they came to power, the Conservatives lobbied to raise the age of consent from 14 to 16, and promised to get "tough on crime," which seemed to include lowering the age of responsibility for children: former Justice Minister Vic Toews proposed to bring children as young as 10 before the criminal justice system in spite of mental health problems they might have. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said last fall the government intended to introduce legislation that would impose mandatory adult jail terms on youths who commit violent crimes. However, following the 2008 Supreme Court's decision, the government decided to "fine tune - not overhaul" the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

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Bahija Reghai is a Canadian Human Rights activist and a former president of the National COuncil on Canada-Arab Relations (NCCAR).

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