When Justin Trudeau and his ministry was sworn in on 4 November 2015, considerable attention was paid to the gender equality of his first cabinet: fifteen men and fifteen women, the first gender-equal cabinet in Canada’s history. Trudeau’s pithy response when asked why he had taken this step — “because it’s 2015” — drew equal attention, not only in Canada but around the globe.
And in power, the Trudeau government sought to transform that concern for gender-equality in cabinet membership into broader policy initiatives, particularly in foreign policy. Most notably, the government introduced a Feminist International Assistance Policy that sought to make key feminist concerns more central to Canadian foreign policy. The government promised to focus on the empowerment of women and girls, to address sexual and gender-based violence, and support a variety of initiatives to press gender equality. It also promised to make gender more central to its policies for economic growth, pushing for “full and equal participation of women as economic actors.” The Trudeau government also promised that in its climate change policies, Canada would put a particular stress on “women’s resilience to climate change.” The policy statement also promised Canadian support for inclusive governance that would feature women’s decision-making and legal empowerment. Finally, the Trudeau government promised that gender would play a more central role in the area of peace and security:
Canada’s international assistance will support peace and stability, as well as development in fragile states and those affected by violent conflict—with particular support for women as peacebuilders. International assistance programming will also help advance women’s rights in states recovering from conflicts, including access to essential services for women and girls and gender equality training for peace operations.
Even before the announcement of this policy, the Trudeau government had embraced a number of initiatives. In January 2016, for example, Canada chaired the International Cooperation Gender Coordination Group in Colombia. In November, Ottawa contributed $1.5 million to the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund, with the intention of enhancing women’s participation in peace and security.
Prime Minister Trudeau himself sought to carry the feminist message in his own personal foreign policy initiatives. Thus, for example, when he visited Beijing in December 2017 in order to launch a free trade initiative with the People’s Republic of China, Prime Minister Trudeau tried to impress the Chinese side on the importance of incorporating elements of his progressive agenda, which not only included gender concerns but also indigenous concerns. He brought a similar commitment to the negotiations with the United States and Mexico on a new North American trade agreement.
As the president and host of the 2018 G7 summit, the Trudeau government made gender equality a priority, and managed to secure commitments from the G7 nations for $3.8 billion in education for women and girls in crisis situations and a strong set of statements on gender equality in the final communique.
This was followed in September 2018 by a symbolically important summit co-organized by Chrystia Freeland, Trudeau’s foreign minister. With Federica Mogherini, the high representative for the European Union, Freeland co-hosted the first-ever gathering of women foreign ministers in Montréal, and followed that up by the appointment of Canada’s first ambassador for women, peace and security. Freeland argued that the new ambassador would be what she called “a high-level champion” for feminist-based assistance programs and more female participation in peacekeeping.
To be sure, the Trudeau government’s feminist efforts have not been universally welcomed. The Chinese government, for example, was not at all impressed with Canada’s efforts to introduce progressive issues into the free trade negotiations. Trudeau was seen off by the Chinese, and sent home empty-handed. Likewise, and perhaps not surprisingly given President Donald J. Trump’s overt misogyny, the U.S. administration was no more enthusiastic about Trudeau’s progressive agenda than the Chinese.
Even those who were more sympathetic to the Trudeau government’s efforts were inclined to be critical. For example, an Oxfam Canada report in October 2018 welcomed the government’s “bold commitment to gender equality,” but called on Ottawa to adopt a “coherent feminist foreign policy.”
In Canada, one of the harshest critics of the government’s feminist foreign policy was Maxime Bernier, who had quit the Conservative Party to create his own personal party, the People’s Party of Canada. Bernier responded to Freeland’s initiatives in September 2018 by tweeting “More crazy identity politics from Liberals and millions wasted on international chitchat. Are peace and security gender issues now?”
Implicit in Bernier’s tweet is the idea that Trudeau’s feminist foreign policy has been little more than identity politics embraced for electoral reasons. But any assessment of Justin Trudeau’s feminist foreign policy needs to recognize that the Liberal government’s feminist inclinations — from the prime minister’s first gender-equal cabinet to his persistent efforts to press a feminist agenda globally — do not appear to be driven by a political/electoral calculus. Not only does Trudeau himself appear to sincerely believe the kind of feminist rhetoric we can find in his 2014 memoir Common Ground, but it is also likely that with strong feminists like Chrystia Freeland, Catherine McKenna, Jody Wilson-Raybould, Marie-Claude Bibeau, and Mélanie Joly, among others, around the cabinet table — and with Katie Telford as Trudeau’s chief of staff — it seems highly unlikely that the Liberals embraced a feminist foreign policy as a grubby vote-grabbing exercise.
On the contrary: the Trudeau government’s feminist foreign policy may not have been an untrammelled success, but it appears to be deeply organic.