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Pay inequity, support for abortion access among promises Liberals urged to act on

The Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings is shown through the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sunday, January 25, 2015.
The Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings is shown through the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sunday, January 25, 2015. Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

With the House of Commons back from winter break, all eyes have been on the slew of legislative priorities the government has promised to tackle.

Ratifying the new NAFTA, a promised ban on so-called “assault rifles” and amending the laws on medically-assisted dying are just some of the big-ticket items on the government’s to-do list.

But there are other promises made by the Liberals for which they’ve given few hints so far on how they plan to move forward.

READ MORE: How the wave of U.S. restrictions will affect Canadian women sent there for abortions

Those include things like improving and supporting access to abortion, implementing the recommendations of the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and getting new measures to enforce pay equity off the ground.

But now, with a minority mandate, Trudeau is also tasked with governing in a highly-partisan climate where women from all political stripes in public life are routinely targeted with harassment and abuse, and where women’s rights, their safety and feminism are under attack around the world.

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“There’s opportunity there but the clock is ticking,” said Sarah Kennell, director of government relations with Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.

“We all know that in a minority context, the runway is shorter than with a majority context and so every day that goes by, every sitting week that passes, we’re losing opportunity to drive forward progress on these issues … we need to demand accountability and we can’t be wasting time anymore.”

Here’s what to watch for on some of the prominent promises Liberals have made regarding gender equality and support for survivors of gender-based violence.

Pay equity and transparency

Last year, the Liberals put forward three measures targeting pay inequity that got a lot of attention.

First was the proactive pay equity legislation for the roughly 900,000 workers in workplaces that are federally-regulated.

The pay equity legislation takes effect this year and will require those employers to come up with pay equity plans within three years.

The legislation also creates the post of Pay Equity Commissioner, who will be tasked with enforcing the pay equity rules, reviewing complaints, doing investigations and when needed, issuing binding orders to resolve those complaints.

Employers that do not comply with the requirements can be hit with a fine.

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READ MORE: Bill C-65: Here’s what the anti-harassment bill does and how it will affect you

The second measure is Bill C-65, legislation coming into effect this year that aims to deal with harassment in federally-regulated workplaces.

In order to do that, the legislation tries to simplify the patchwork of regulations covering violence and harassment in the workplace and create one cohesive set of rules, while the third measure will be new pay transparency measures requiring federally-regulated employers to publish more information on pay levels.

But it’s not entirely clear when those will happen, as the government is still doing consultations on the regulatory changes needed to bring them into effect.

Gender-based and intimate partner violence

As well, the government has promised to do a “thorough review” and implement reforms from the final report of the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

There are 231 of them, many of which target reforms to the justice system.

For example, one of the recommendations is for the government to reform the Criminal Code so that violence against Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ2 individuals will be considered an aggravating factor when a convicted offender is being sentenced.

A similar recommendation for Criminal Code reforms wants to see homicide cases where an offender has a pattern of intimate partner violence and abuse against the victim be considered first-degree murder, which is the most serious homicide charge.

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Whether the Liberals can get a National Action Plan on gender-based violence off the ground will be another question to watch closely.

They promised $30 million for that in the 2019 platform but it’s not clear exactly what measures they could propose as part of that or whether they could find broad enough support among the other parties — on which they now rely for getting anything done — to move that forward.

Support for abortion access

And there is also the issue of equal access to abortion services.

READ MORE: Provinces violating law by making women pay for abortions: health minister

Support for reproductive rights was a core refrain for the Liberals during the campaign, but they have yet to propose any measures aimed at forcing provinces to up their game when it comes to making sure women across the country, including those in rural and remote communities, can access abortions in a timely way.

The mandate letter for Health Minister Patty Hajdu from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed her to “ensure that Canadians have access to the full suite of reproductive services and medications across the country.”

But it did not contain clear directives for specific actions or proposals on how to achieve that.

Health care is a provincial jurisdiction, not one the federal government can take a lot of unilateral action on. But they do have mechanisms such as withholding funding under the Canada Health Act to provinces that fail to uphold the conditions laid out in the agreement, which include the responsibility to provide citizens with “all medically necessary services” and ensuring that Canadians have “reasonable access to insured services without charge or paying user fees.”

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READ MORE: Provinces violating law by making women pay for abortions: health minister

Ginette Petitpas Taylor, the former health minister, made it clear in a letter sent to provincial counterparts in 2019 that the government views the imposition of “unnecessary barriers or delays” in accessing abortion as a violation of that Act.

Her letter came after a series of reports by media outlining the continued barriers women in Canada face in accessing abortion.

The Globe and Mail detailed how a large number of Canadians doctors appear to be wary of being viewed as abortion providers and will not prescribe the abortion pill to patients, forcing women to drive hours and rely on word of mouth to seek out doctors who will.

That report also flagged cases of Ontario and New Brunswick not fully covering the cost of surgical abortions that take place in clinics.

Hadju’s mandate letter hinted at work on that file by instructing her to “ensure compliance with the Canada Health Act on matters of private delivery and extra billing” but did not contain clear directions for action.

Global News also reported in May, 2019 how dozens of Canadian women are being forced to go south for abortions they are unable to access domestically.

Both issues remain unresolved.