Toula Drimonis: To 'defend women,' we need more action, less talk

Real advocacy doesn’t consist of politicians pandering to the overreactions of misinformed pundits.

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The National Assembly passed a unanimous motion last week by Status of Women Minister Martine Biron denouncing “the choice of words used in a recent Supreme Court judgment to designate women.”

The motion — presented jointly with Liberal MNA André A. Morin, Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon and independent MNA Marie-Claude Nichols — “reiterates the importance of preserving the word ‘woman’ and dissociates itself from the use of terms or concepts that contribute to making women invisible.”

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Soon after, however, it became clear the ruling was not attempting to erase the word “woman.” In fact, “woman” appears 67 times. Université de Montréal law professor Anne-Marie Boisvert commented: “I can’t believe the National Assembly trivializes its role by stooping to pass motions like these. It’s certain that no one there read the judgment.”

Premier François Legault admitted he didn’t read it, yet insisted he wants “to make sure we defend women.”

This is the second time in recent months the National Assembly has rushed to unanimously pass a motion in reaction to a news item or legal ruling that has been misread or taken out of context.

In December, MNAs passed a motion (as did MPs in Ottawa) to defend Christmas in response to a discussion paper by the Human Rights Commission. The HRC found itself having to state the obvious — “Of course, Christmas is not racist” — after it wrote what should also be obvious: that providing a statutory holiday for one religion, and not providing reasonable accommodation for others, may be considered discrimination. Nuance.

The latest motion transpired after a National Post columnist took the Supreme Court decision out of context, and some Quebec pundits ran with it. “There are no more women in Canada!” declared the headline over a column by the Journal de Montréal’s Richard Martineau. Former PQ leader Jean- François Lisée retweeted the original column, saying the ruling was “Reason #10246 Quebec should separate.”

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The motion itself mentions “the significant gains made in recent decades to advance women’s rights and the need to protect these acquired rights.” At quick glance, it all appears rather feminist, doesn’t it? Reality, however, can seem less progressive.

The CAQ’s housing minister, France-Elaine Duranceau, last week ordered a stop to the construction of desperately needed shelters for women victims of violence because they’re … too expensive.

Bill 31, ending lease transfers, will affect low-income women. The housing crisis, which housing advocates say the province isn’t doing enough to help alleviate, forces many women experiencing abuse to choose between having a roof over their heads and their safety.

As well, the CAQ government is challenging a Quebec Court of Appeal ruling which would allow asylum seekers to access subsidized daycares, preventing many mothers (among them single moms) from accessing affordable daycare while they work in our hospitals, daycares and CHSLDs.

And let’s not forget the recent strikes by teachers and nurses — women-dominated professions — for better salaries and conditions.

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One major problem with this latest motion is it implies interest groups are actively trying to erase the word “woman” and replace it with “woke” language. This can incite intolerance toward the trans community, which is already experiencing disproportionate levels of hate and violence.

The other problem is such motions replace action with empty gestures.

To their credit, Québec solidaire and the Liberal party backtracked after legal experts pointed out the judge’s words had been misinterpreted. The CAQ and the PQ, unfortunately, stood firm. (For the record: In one passage, the judge writes “a person with a vagina” would know whether there was penetration during a sexual assault.)

Performative “feel-good” motions are easy. Real advocacy, however, doesn’t consist of politicians pandering to the overreactions of misinformed pundits.

If the government wants to “defend women,” as Legault asserts, it should be responding to the alarming reality of intimate partner violence, femicides and gender-based poverty, and working to improve a rapidly diminishing social safety net that almost always affects women the most.

Can we get a bit more help with any of that?

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal journalist and the author of We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. She can be reached on X @toulastake

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