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Trudeau and tactics

John Bell

February 13, 2016

In January Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to the stage at the World Economic Forum to state that he was a “feminist.” “We shouldn’t be afraid of the word feminist, men and women should use it to describe themselves anytime they want,” Trudeau said.

So what to think?

The first thing that came to my mind was: “Bullshit!” I’ve heard too much Liberal happy talk, witnessed too many Liberal cuts and betrayals. And then I gave myself a shake. Because I realized that the first thing that pops into my mind should not necessarily be the first thing to pop out of my mouth.

There as millions of people who have not experienced those betrayals, or have forgotten them, or are just hoping this time will be different. If all I have to say is “Bullshit!” there is no hope of starting a conversation with them, one which might eventually encompass topics like why women’s oppression is a requirement of capitalism, not an accidental byproduct.

So what to say?

The first thing to say is: “Great.” Think about the young women who might be talking about feminism for the first time with their friends. What a sigh of relief it must be for activists and organizations that have been under a decade-long attack on their past gains. And I savour the thought of the stab of pain that Stephen Harper and his minions must have experienced when they heard it.

The second thing is: “Wow. He’s sincere.” He was being himself, the poster-boy for the kinder, gentler government Canadian voters overwhelmingly chose. If we ignore this, or make the mistake of thinking he’s just another cynical politician, we are again more interested in scoring smarty-pants points than is opening people’s eyes.

I am well aware that problems abound with his statements. Not least is the venue: the annual WEF in Davos, Switzerland, is a conference/playdate for the 1%, where the ultra-rich and their political representatives gather to posture, preen and talk about the big picture. The real business takes place behind closed doors, but events like the one Trudeau spoke at are the ones that make headlines.

On the panel Trudeau was flanked by Melinda Gates, wife of the world’s richest man, and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. To say this trio hardly reflects the lived reality of the world’s women is an understatement.

Further, as far as I can discover, Trudeau did not go beyond labels and ideology–there was no announcement of any practical step to improve the circumstances of women in Canada or anywhere else.

So yes, there is a gap between rhetoric and reality here that can rightly be called hypocrisy. But for some leftists of my acquaintance, the first thing to pop into their brains and out of their mouths is: “Trudeau is just the same as Harper.” This is wrong factually and tactically.

Harper vs Trudeau

Remember when Stephen Harper came to Davos (2012) and spoke about women’s issues. Far from using the platform to promote feminism, Harper put the blame for awful conditions facing women in the so-called third world on the too high living standards of western workers: “Is it the case that in the developed world too many of us have in fact become complacent about our prosperity? Taking our wealth as a given, assuming it is somehow the natural order of things, leaving us instead to focus primarily on our services and entitlements?”

When he returned to the Davos stage in 2014 it was to brag about his assault on health care, education and pensions, and how he was transforming Canada. All pretense of generosity was gone. It was a right-wing sales pitch to international investors. He smiled as he announced cuts to science and research because that funding didn’t result in rising profits. He reiterated his intention to privatize services and gut pensions.

Unlike Trudeau, there was no gap between talk and action, no hypocrisy, no deception. Here was the hateful, anti-democratic Reform Party essence that passed as the heart of the Tory party. This was the party of Tory Senator Nancy Ruth who, in 2010, told women’s groups concerned about family planning and abortion rights to “Shut the fuck up.” No feminists there.

If we make the mistake of thinking that Trudeau is the same as Harper, we miss the tactical opportunity that the actual difference offers us.

So, congratulations to the abortion rights advocates to seized on Trudeau’s “feminist” statement to call him out in support of abortion services. 28 years after abortion was decriminalized, women in Prince Edward Island still have no access to services. Real feminists started a petition and social media campaign (#JustinTrudeau #feminist) urging him and his friend and ally, Liberal premier Wade MacLauchlan, to fund abortion services.

I wasn’t born yesterday, and neither were the people conducting the PEI abortion rights campaign. I know that at the end of the day, the Trudeau government will be little better for women than the Harper gang.

I know that in practical terms, the most important statement Trudeau made from Davos was not the feminist claim, but the appointment of Michael Wernick, Stephen Harper’s Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, as Clerk of the Privy Council. He becomes the most powerful unelected figure in the government. Not only was Wernick the true author of Harper’s anti-aboriginal campaign for eight years, but as a member of Carleton University’s Board of Governors he condemned peaceful student protestors as “Brownshirts”. He is the face of the vile, neo-liberal economic reality behind Trudeau’s optimistic rhetorical mask.

With Harper there was no mask—he was proud of his ugly face. So our approach to Trudeau, to exposing the face behind the mask must be different. So lets say thanks for the Liberal feminism, and for the repeal of anti-union Bills C-377 and C-525. Now give us universal day care, full access to all health services including abortion, and protect workers’ pensions from corporate predators like US Steel.

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