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Putting Gender Equality on the Table

Katrina Bland, G7 Research Group
October 9, 2017

Before 2016, a world without the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was unimaginable for most Canadians. Now, it is being renegotiated and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is pushing to make it a feminist free trade agreement. But will this gender-equality push put NAFTA at risk?

NAFTA has been a cornerstone of Canadian foreign and economic policy since it came into effect in 1994. Although it was not without controversy, NAFTA was negotiated when there was much optimism about the growth and prosperity free trade promised. Yet, almost a quarter of a century later, many feel that these benefits have not been fairly shared. For some, the solution is closed borders and the tearing up NAFTA. For Trudeau, however, the answer is still that free trade brings prosperity and that a more prosperous world is a more peaceful world — as long as everyone is included.

How can a trade agreement be feminist? Justin Trudeau believes gender equality is an economic issue. Trudeau has pointed out that he faces more criticism on his stance on gender equality in Canada than he does south of the border. In Canada, many believe that the proposed chapter on gender, along with the proposed chapter on Indigenous rights, are simply distractions from what they see as the more important issues at stake. This is the same pushback that gender mainstreaming has received for decades, and is a major cause of continued gender-based discrimination around the world. Some argue that gender-based discrimination does not exist in North America, but in reality it does. If everyone readily agreed that gender rights are important, NAFTA negotiators would not have to spend time discussing the inclusion of the chapter — it would already be included.

Conversely, other Canadians support the inclusion of a gender chapter in NAFTA and fear that U.S. president Donald Trump will not be persuaded, despite the importance of gender equality as a key economic issue. However, Trump's dubious reputation on gender issues may be less deserved as of late. As Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland has pointed out, Canada and the U.S. have cooperated a great deal on gender issues in the past year. Soon after Trump's inauguration, the creation of the Canada-U.S. Council for the Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders was announced. A few months later, at the G7 summit in Taormina in late May, G7 leaders came to a strong consensus on advancing gender equality and enhancing women's economic empowerment, even if their traditional consensus on free trade faltered.

Even if a gender chapter makes its way into a reformed NAFTA, some fear it will be weak and non-binding. Yet, while it is possible governments might ignore non-binding commitments, the existence of those commitments gives citizens something to hold their leaders accountable for through the democratic process. Moreover, including a chapter on gender rights recognizes that neither the U.S. nor Canada has attained gender parity and that there is a lot of work ahead.

Regardless of the results of the NAFTA negotiations, Trudeau has made himself a champion of gender issues, resulting in political success and public praise. Canadians have thus come to expect him to elevate gender issues to every high-level negotiating table. Trudeau's dedication to this issue in the NAFTA negotiations, possibly the most important and most contentious round of negotiations he will have to face as prime minister, makes it certain that gender equality will be a major focus at the G7 summit that he will host in Charlevoix, Quebec, on June 8-9, 2018.

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Katrina BlandKatrina Bland holds an Honours BA in international relations and political science from the University of Toronto. She is chair of summit studies for the 2018 Charlevois Summit, having served as lead analyst. She is also a compliance analyst for the G20 Research Group. Her research focuses on G7 and G20 gender and health issues, in addition to her other research interests in cross-cultural communication and international law.

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