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Justin Trudeau, Self-Described Feminist, Wows the UN Crowd


Justin Trudeau and gender equality, the topic of his recent appearance at the UN's annual conference on women. MARK GARTEN
Gender equality was Topic A during an “armchair conversation” featuring Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, at the UN’s annual conference on women. MARK GARTEN

“Because it’s 2015,” Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada and self-proclaimed feminist, said simply, using the vernacular of his generation to reinforce his position on gender equality as he spoke at the United Nations recently during an “armchair conversation.”

Trudeau, who is 44, was addressing a large audience at an event presented as part of the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women meeting (#CSW60 #UN_CSW), with Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women as a fellow discussant, and Sade Baderinwa, a New York newscaster, moderating.

Trudeau answered questions regarding his commitment to gender parity with a resounding, “Duh.”

Earlier in the day, on March 16, Trudeau evoked a more political persona, captivating the UN by appearing before a crowd massed in the headquarters lobby that included media, where Canadians beamed at their charming, photogenic new leader (he was voted into office in October) and jostled with others to glimpse the young prime minister, a liberal. Some reporters wondered among themselves later, however, how long Trudeau could keep up his burst of popularity.

Speaking alternately in French and English, he announced Canada’s intention to pursue an elected seat on the Security Council for the 2021-2022 term, after a 20-year absence from the UN’s most powerful body. He also announced Canada’s potential increased engagement with UN peacekeeping, such as providing bilingual translation skills, which are much needed by peacekeeping missions in Francophone West Africa.

It was during the armchair conversation, however, where he expanded on feminism.

“I had the power to appoint 50/50 cabinet. So how do I use that power not only for gender parity but also reflect the diversity of Canada? How to use that power to push the agenda forward? It’s just really, really obvious, the fact that I’m standing up for women’s rights. Well, duh.

“I am going to keep saying loud and clearly that I am a feminist, until it is met with a shrug,” Trudeau went on, emphasizing the necessirty to raise entire generations as feminists — men and women — rather than just daughters. (He and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, 40, have three children.) Sons need to be taught to support their sisters, no matter how much they bother each other. “The mind-set of how we shift perceptions and engagement is something that, yes, we do still have to be working on.”

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Trudeau discussed his program for improving gender parity in politics and civil participation as well. “Before we got to 2015 [when he appointed the 50/50 gender split cabinet], we had to go through 2014, 2013 and 2012,” he said.

He and his administration worked on increasing women’s participation in a variety of ways, from repeatedly asking prominent qualified women to run for office to a digital campaign called Invite Her to Run. According to Trudeau, “many members of Parliament and female politicians” now in office are the direct result of communications sent via email and social media, asking Canadians who knew qualified women to urge those women to run.

Despite the campaign, Canada’s Parliament is only 26 percent female while 51 percent of its population is female.

Institutional change is necessary not just to change attitudes but to literally change institutions themselves. Mlambo-Ngcuka, who is regularly referred to at the UN by her first name, Phumzile, recalled during the armchair conversation with Trudeau the need to add women’s toilets to her native South Africa’s parliament building in the 1990s to support female politicians.

Both Trudeau and Mlambo-Ngcuka spoke about the importance of gender equality in eradicating domestic violence.

“Biggest issue we have to address is violence against women, and particularly violence against indigenous women and girls in our country,” Trudeau said. In Canada, over the past 30 years, thousands of indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been murdered. More than 80 percent of those victims were mothers. Despite being less than 4 percent of the female population in Canada, indigenous women account for more than 10 percent of women murdered. They also experience a much higher rate of domestic violence than other women in the country.

“It’s been something that has been ongoing as an example and key problem of the marginalization and discrimination and lack of proper relationship with indigenous peoples,” Trudeau said.

To counter the violence against indigenous women, Trudeau’s government launched a national inquiry into why these women have vanished, led by three members of his cabinet: Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Indigenous Affairs and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu. All three were present during the UN conversation. Trudeau’s immediate predecessor, Stephen Harper, had actively resisted an inquiry into the deaths and disappearances of indigenous women.

On a more UN-centric focus, when Baderinwa, the moderator, asked Mlambo-Ngcuka what changes she would like to see at the UN, Mlambo-Ngcuka echoed Trudeau’s lingo, saying it was time for a woman to be secretary-general. Why?

“Because it’s 2016.”


Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.

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