THE RISE OF MEN’S RIGHTS IN CANADA
July 10, 2014
Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE) became the first men’s rights group to be granted charitable status in Canada this spring. In early June, CAFE organized a benefit concert for fathers’ child custody rights called E-Day, a family event to be hosted by Artscape Gibraltar Point (Toronto) and supported by a number of corporate sponsors. Once E-Day’s sponsors were made aware of CAFE’s mandate, however, many pulled their support. It’s clear that, in the case of E-Day, CAFE’s corporate and non-profit sponsors had simply not done their research; but the fact that such an organization, which openly aligns itself with the political agenda put forward by the North American men’s rights movement, has earned the title of charity remains a confounding fact.
In order to gain charitable status in Canada, Canada Revenue Agency requires that the organization be invested in the general public’s well-being and not assume an overtly political agenda. These requirements are put in place to ensure that an organization cannot take advantage of the benefits granted to charities, which include access to larger streams of government funding, exemption from taxes on certain expenses, and the ability to provide charitable tax receipts to donors.
But in recent years, the requirements to receive charitable status and subsequent government funding have become stricter, making it mandatory that organizations demonstrate how their cause benefits Canadians as a whole. Women’s shelters seeking support, for example, are now expected to provide success stories of women re-entering the workplace as autonomous and productive individuals. For organizations specifically oriented around more localized forms of advocacy, the conditions for charitable status have become difficult to meet.
Needless to say, women’s advocacy and research groups have struggled to maintain governmental sources of federal funding due to their political investment in particular issues or so-called “special interest” causes. This delegitimization of women’s rights advocacy was perhaps most clearly reflected by the Harper government’s decision in 2006 to cut 37 percent of funding to Status of Women Canada, the federal department responsible for ensuring women’s full participation in economic, social, and democratic life in Canada. As a result, SWC was forced to redraft their funding criteria. In the wake of this drastic reformation, a distressing number of charitable service providers, research collaboratives, and advocacy groups (such as rape-crisis centres, pay equity research groups, and child care advocacy groups) have become ineligible for SWC funding, which now amounts to 0.03 percent of direct federal program spending. In order to gain access to different streams of government funding, many women’s rights advocacy groups have had to allot their resources to raising public awareness about women’s issues, consequently putting the essential services, action-based organization, and feminist research they once facilitated on hold.
It is following these precarious years for women’s rights advocacy that CAFE—a branch within a larger movement committed to the social and economic advancement of men, critical of the “abundance of resources” set aside for women’s advocacy, aggressively skeptical of women’s testimonies of sexual assault, and openly backing representatives in university student bodies—has passed as a public interest group without an overtly political agenda.
How is it possible that a men’s rights group, which so pointedly targets women’s advocacy, has been granted charitable status? It might be, to a certain degree, a matter of strategy, as the men’s rights movement grounds its ideas, actions, and campaigns in a simple goal shared by many social advocacy groups: to achieve equality for everybody. CAFE, for example, positions itself as “committed to achieving equality for all Canadians, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, family status, race, ethnicity, creed, age or disability.” While employing inclusivity as their hallmark for action, CAFE has also managed to re-brand their controversial politics in the form of a digestible, accessible mandate:
We provide current evidence-based research and balanced information. We also provide opportunities to engage in furthering this cause by participating in discussions, events and family-friendly activities. We sincerely believe the goal of true equality and human rights is best served by conducting inclusive conversations based on facts and evidence, not by promoting ideology or special interest agendas.
Despite the neutral language, of course, this mandate gestures toward a critique that is foundational to the men’s rights movement: women’s advocacy evades factual accuracy and is motivated by the politics and ideologies of a privileged few. This is one of the rallying points of the men’s rights movement, sometimes articulated by way of outrageous means, including rape posters featuring feminist educator’s faces, or fake Twitter accounts used by MRA trolls to pose as women of colour and embarrass online feminist writers and communities. CAFE, however, has managed to transform this explicitly misogynistic accusation—that women have exaggerated their own exploitation, oppression, and victimization in an effort to forward self-interested ideologies which disempower men—into an equality movement that some Canadians are starting to take seriously. As shocking as Canada Revenue Agency’s decision might be, CAFE’s use of words like “true equality” and “special interest agendas” is uncomfortably similar to the rhetoric employed by the Conservative government when making cuts to social and economic welfare initiatives targeting specific “minority” groups.
Much like our federal funding bodies’ lack of support for any organization invested in localized advocacy work, men’s rights activists’ accusation of feminism’s exclusivity can depoliticize feminist initiatives. We witness this at SlutWalks and International Women’s Day marches, in the comments sections of articles written by feminists, and on posters throughout university campuses: MRAs inserting their voices in order to promote their more inclusive understanding of equality, and to remind feminist organizers of their failure to include everybody. This accusation is an effective strike against women’s advocacy, especially when divisions so clearly persist within the North American feminist movement. (Take, as one relevant example, the popular “Lean In” movement’s failure to address the fact that, in industries like hospitality and childcare, there are few ladders available for women workers to climb their way to the top, or, as another, the growing animosity between feminist communities who support sex work as a form of labour, and those who see it as solely as a means of sexual exploitation.)
By pointing to clear sites of division within the feminist movement, whether they are divisions of race, sexual orientation, or class, MRAs reorient conversations about sexual assault, workplace inequality, domestic abuse, and access to childcare around the question of an unbiased representation of “everyone’s” interests. Considering that many feminist organizations are concerned with accurately representing the demands of diverse and fragmented communities, the accusation of elitism really hits home and often with mixed results, ranging from anger, to frustration, to silence. Men’s rights says “We want what you want—equality for everyone,” but also, “feminism is not accessible to everybody; women’s rights helps women succeed at the cost of men’s failure.”
Perhaps responding to these critiques has proven to be so difficult because feminism doesn’t really operate according to these terms at all. The way I understand it, feminism has never been about flipping gendered power dynamics between men and women, but radically changing social relations as they exist within our legal systems, workplaces, and homes. What’s more, with the rise of a more intersectional understanding of gender categories, contemporary struggles for women’s and trans rights demand that such essentialized binaries be set aside in order to rethink ways beyond social and economic inequality. Division among feminist communities certainly exists; feminism, however, is not defined by these fissures, but by its attempts to find solidarity without reproducing the strategies and structures that alienate and oppress.
And yet, faced with the rise of a more palatable men’s rights movement in Canada, it might be time to dispense altogether with the term “equality” in feminist discourse. For it is indeed this language—of freedom of choice, of equal opportunity—that has allowed the men’s rights movement to advance their misogynistic cause within a broader community. If we want things to be truly equal, organizations like CAFE argue, then we ought to provide everyone with the opportunity to succeed upon the individual paths they have chosen; securing an advantage for certain groups is not conducive to this project of equality. Feminism, according to this view, is a confused and one-sided movement that only further instills the unfair distribution of resources to women and thereby perpetuates the very structures of social injustice it rallies against. By co-opting equality in this way, men’s rights groups have found a way to normalize one of the most troubling arguments voiced by the movement: patriarchy is no longer (and perhaps has never been) a force we need to organize ourselves against.
Of course, the men’s rights movement is not the first group that has taken up terms like “equality” and “individual choice” to better suit their political agenda. Consider, for example, the Conservatives, who have tactically used the language of equality to dismantle existing childcare services and slide in a one-size-fits all program. Less than ten years ago, our federal government terminated a national childcare program and replaced it with the universal childcare benefit, a insubstantial $100 monthly subsidy per child provided to all parents regardless of their financial need. The decision was justified by the argument that the childcare benefit would allow parents, no matter their economic and social background, the liberty to choose how to spend their tax subsidies on their dependents. The universal childcare benefit, however, is an insulting gesture toward those parents who need childcare—which costs significantly more than $100 a month—in order to survive.
As many critics have pointed out, neoliberal programs like the universal childcare benefit ignore structures of inequality under the assumption that, within the North American free market, equality is possible for everyone. When governments no longer question this fiction that we have overcome restrictions of class, race, and gender, “equality” becomes an empty signifier, a political tool that conceals structural inequality with false promises of progress and unlimited opportunities.
But despite the depoliticization of terms that have historically mobilized women across Canada, feminism is still poised to rally against this myth of equal opportunity. By pointing to the ways that our social and economic relations condition the success of the elite at the exploitation and oppression of everyone else—or more specifically, women, people of colour, and new immigrants—feminist organizations and initiatives stand as a persistent reminder that social injustice cannot be overcome through individual pursuits of self-fulfillment and economic success. This work requires collective action.
Communities of women may be divided across Canada, but we are all affected, albeit in different degrees, by these structures that oppress and exploit. As Kathleen Greier said in The Nation last month, “as long as a class system exists, there will be a class divide among women. But the vast majority of American women have many economic interests in common.” It is a similar situation in Canada. On average, women earn 34% less than men. The gender pay gap is even worse for women of colour, transgendered people, and new immigrant women. Meanwhile, 35% of visible minority women, 36% of Aboriginal women, and 21% of single parent mothers live in poverty. These discrepancies vary drastically between Canadian cities, of course, further exemplifying the need to address these national economic problems at a localized level. It goes without saying that, when we are presented with the reality of just these few statistics, it is difficult to accept the argument that everyone can be successful in today’s economy regardless of their class, race, or gender.
In the wake of various instances of violence against women prompted by men’s rights politics, ranging from attacks against feminist activists to the Isla Vista shootings, it is impossible to deny patriarchy’s survival and the continuation of various forms of misogyny. Awarding the Canadian Association for Equality with charitable status marks a new development in Canada—a growing tolerance of this misogynistic and hateful politics. While it is sometimes difficult to respond to men’s rights activism, it is clearly of upmost importance to collectively interrogate the many ways that misogyny persists in Canada. Changing the way we talk about and address gender relations might seem like a daunting task, but in a country where misogyny can pass as a charitable cause, this kind of radical work is integral to the struggle.
Author: Cynthia Spring
Image: Jonathan Dyck