Canada’s Feminist Prime Minister, One Year In

 Will Justin Trudeau Fulfill his Promises to First Nations Women?

By Alexandra Kotowski

One year ago, Justin Trudeau took office as Canada’s 23rd prime minister and promptly fulfilled a major campaign promise by appointing a diverse and gender balanced cabinet that “looks like Canada.” When a reporter asked why appointing women was a priority, Trudeau shrugged and responded with his now-famous quip, “because it’s 2015.”

Trudeau isn’t afraid to identify as a feminist and over the past year he’s taken advantage of his high profile to raise awareness about gender politics on the international stage. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, he urged men to actively promote women’s rights and discussed the importance of modeling feminist behavior for his two sons. At the United Nations, Trudeau questioned the media uproar every time he talks about his feminism and promised to “keep saying loud and clearly that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug.” So far, he’s done just that, calling poverty “sexist,” gracing feminist memes, even weighing in on how to combat “man-terrupting” in a 10-second Snapchat video.

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But after a year in office, Trudeau’s critics are beginning to question whether he is backing up his feminist rhetoric with concrete action on women’s rights – particularly when it comes to protecting indigenous women and girls from police violence.
Human Rights Watch’s investigations in northern British Colombia have documented police officers’ abusive treatment of indigenous women and girls, including excessive use of force, physical assault, rape, and other forms of sexual violence. In Saskatchewan, indigenous women, including victims of violence, have also reported a deep distrust of police, recounting incidents of misconduct, abuse, and neglect. First Nations women are significantly overrepresented among homicide victims, and this violence – coupled with mistreatment by the very officers charged with protecting them – leaves many indigenous women in a near constant state of insecurity.

For years, this problem was ignored by the Canadian government and one of Trudeau’s most significant early policy decisions was his decisive action to launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. While the inquiry is an essential step forward, its terms do not explicitly mention policing. For this process to be successful, the inquiry must include rigorous investigations into police misconduct and take an unflinching look at critics’ allegations of widespread misogyny and racism in the ranks of Canada’s police forces.

After one year in office, it’s time for Trudeau to take decisive action to build a country where all Canadian women feel protected by law enforcement. The prime minister has already shown leadership in the international community on women’s rights. He now has an opportunity to do so at home, by taking a hard look at police misconduct and abuse against indigenous women and girls.

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Alexandra Kotowski is a Senior Associate for the Women’s Rights Division. Before joining Human Rights Watch, she worked at Amnesty International USA and the Romedia Foundation—a Roma rights organization in Budapest, Hungary. Alexandra holds an undergraduate honors degree in Political Science from Wesleyan University.

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