Canada puts its feminist foreign policy to the test

With its G7 presidency, Canada faces the challenge of applying
a gender lens to policy areas like trade, peacekeeping and diplomacy. Such
efforts put the feminist foreign policy concept under the microscope. 

By: /
6 March, 2018
A female Canadian soldier, part of a NATO battle group, arrives at Riga International Airport, in Riga, Latvia, June 10, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins
By: Karen K. Ho

Journalist based in New York, New York

As president of the G7 this year, Canada is responsible for hosting the annual summit, which will be held June 8-9 in Charlevoix, Quebec, as well as several ministerials between G7 nations (France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) over the next few months.

Canada has made advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment one of the five central themes of its G7 presidencythe latest initiative that puts gender equality at the centre of Canadian foreign policy, similar to the kind of feminist foreign policy Sweden adopted in 2014.

However, experts say there are several challenges for Canada in the adoption of a truly feminist foreign policy, including its very definition.

Stefanie von Hlatky, an associate professor of political studies at Queen’s University and the director of Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy, says feminist foreign policy means “integrating the mentality of gender equality in [not only] the programming and policy that Canada deploys abroad, but also the actors that are the country’s representatives.”

“Gender equality has to be at the centre of everything that various government branches do,” she says.

The Trudeau government has already signalled a commitment to the theme, stopping short of officially renaming Canada’s foreign policy. It has instituted a cabinet that is 50 percent women, a new feminist international assistance policy, and a new defence policy that specifically addresses the low number of women in the Canadian Armed Forces.

The international aid policy is focused on initiatives that “fight poverty and inequality by supporting gender equality and defending the rights of women and girls, particularly their sexual health and reproductive rights.”

Applying a gender lens to the G7 puts the challenge of defining a feminist foreign policy into sharper focus, especially when trying to get other countries to commit to a variety of new policies and procedures focused on these topics.

“The G7 works on consensus,” says government relations consultant Lauren Dobson-Hughes. “Nobody can force anyone to do anything. It’s all negotiations.”

For the G7, while the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment is a central theme, unlike the other four — preparing for jobs of the future; building global peace and security; investing in growth that works for everyone; and climate change, oceans and clean energy — this fifth gender theme “will be integrated into all ministerial meetings.” The ministerial meetings will also integrate gender-based analysis.

Even with this framework and the understanding that many of the other G7 countries have the capacity, resources and even domestic support to implement policies around issues like maternal health or forced child marriage, it’s already clear that some country members, especially the United States, don’t want to.

“What if another country is not interested in gender-based analysis as a commitment or statement?” Dobson-Hughes asks. “It’ll be interesting for me to see how far Canada is able to push the other member states to adopt these principles, policies or ideas that frankly are very unfamiliar or in some cases very unwanted.”

Dobson-Hughes believes that there are specific issues Canada is more likely to be able to push with specific member countries based on their prior policies and political decisions. “I think there are ways every administration, regardless of political stripe, can find a way to advance gender equality,” she says. “The trick is finding what is that thing that appeals to them and how meaningful is it.”

It’ll be interesting to see how far Canada is able to push the other member states to adopt these principles.

One challenge Canada may be measured on during its G7 presidency, even if it is largely out of its control or influence, is how much the current US administration will be supportive of the feminist foreign policy theme. However, Dobson-Hughes says it’s not fair or strategic to focus on it as “the problem child” of the G7 or to paint every Republican administration with that perception.

“From George W. Bush’s administration emerged PEPFAR, which has now emerged as an essential and a quite progressive pillar of tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” she says. 

More recently, the US government passed legislation that puts United Nations Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which was passed by the UN Security Council in 2000, and the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, which was passed through an executive order in 2011, into its national laws. (Canada’s recently announced Elsie Initiative has similar goals as well.) 

These initiatives recognized how the inclusion of women in peace processes, negotiation, mediation and security help reduce conflict and advance stability.

The actions in the US in particular raise the question of whether progress on gender should be evaluated on all levels of government, and not just when framed by a national leader or representatives. 

Annick T.R. Wibben, professor of politics and international studies as well as the director of the peace and justice studies program at the University of San Francisco, says recent action on defence falls into this category. “Many might say, well, this is actually a feminist foreign policy move.”

Experts like Dobson-Hughes say feminist foreign policy also often involves specific, measurable actions like gender-based budgeting, thoroughly reviewing development assistance goals, or insisting on many more women around the table during peace negotiations, all of which are not currently standard practice in several G7 countries.

According to von Hlatky, one of the most obvious places Canada can immediately make its foreign policy more feminist is in the security and defence sector, by addressing the underrepresentation of women in the armed forces, currently estimated at only 15 percent. “The military as an organization is trying to rethink the tenets of its culture to be more inclusive and diverse,” von Hlatky says. “That would include the presence and participation of not only women but other minority groups within the military, and Indigenous groups as well.”

There’s more to be done at home, in other areas, too. Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent criticism of the state of women’s rights in Mexico, Canada also still has a lot of work to do when it comes to issues like sexual assault and harassment, as well as the multi-decade mistreatment of Indigenous women and girls. (A 2016 report by Statistics Canada found approximately 636,000 self-reported incidents of sexual assault across the country, a rate that “remained unchanged from 2004,” and a 2010 report by the Department of Justice found “Aboriginal women experience dramatically higher rates of violent victimization than non-Aboriginal women.”)

From an international perspective, Canada’s feminist international aid policy has been called “hypocritical” by author and columnist Rafia Zakaria because the country also has an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a criticism similarly levelled at Sweden following the creation of its feminist foreign policy.

Traditionally, military security hasn’t been [an issue] many feminists have supported.

Wibben also noted recent news reports that questioned Canada’s selling of weapons to the Philippines as inherently contradictory of its professed values. Canada is “on one hand condemning the Duterte government for its human rights abuses…and on the other hand saying, ‘oh yeah, sure, we’ll sell you some weapons,’” Wibben says. “I think that rather than saying Canada should necessarily follow Sweden, there are similar issues that [both] governments are running up against in terms of trying to keep their trade relations functioning the way they have functioned [in the past].”

Wibben is in fact skeptical of the whole idea of feminist foreign policy because of issues like these. “Is it feminist foreign policy to include more women in the military? Or is that actually, you know, counterproductive, because traditionally, military security hasn’t been [an issue] many feminists have supported?”

Regardless of her skepticism, Wibben says there’s a lot of debate within feminist scholarship around how an ideal feminist foreign policy should be defined. “Would it be something that tries to alleviate the bad things happening globally, and particularly to women? Is it looking at trade agreements and what they mean for women’s labour conditions? It’s used as a term to signal a more open and in some sense gender-conscious foreign policy, but it doesn’t always work out in practice,” she says. “It also makes it easy for detractors to say, ‘what does this really mean?’”

Both Dobson-Hughes and Wibben ask whether the use of the term “feminist” instead of “women’s empowerment” or “women’s equality” could be a hindrance to long-term policy changes. “Finland has done many of the same things that Sweden has done but hasn’t called it ‘feminist foreign policy,’” Wibben says. “I’m wondering if it’s a branding effort more than it is a policy.”

Overall, Dobson-Hughes believes Canada has an uphill struggle this year, despite its heart being in the right place.

“Every single country in the world does badly at gender equality and women’s rights. There is no equal country that gets to sit on a moral high horse and lecture others. None of the G7 countries are where they would want to be and where they have all committed to be under the [UN] Sustainable Development Goals,” she says. 

“Part of Canada’s big task ahead is [looking at] where are those places where it thinks it can make progress.”

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter

Also in the series

Is the future of foreign policy feminist?

An OpenCanada series on the intersection of feminism and global affairs. 

The making of a gender-balanced foreign service

The making of a gender-balanced foreign service


Stories from the women driving Canada’s diplomatic corps toward equality

A gender equality toolbox: These areas of society still need work—here’s how to do it

A gender equality toolbox: These areas of society still need work—here’s how to do it


As the world ups the ante in the fight against gender inequality, all countries should back up commitments by using a wide range of
tools, including investment and immigration policies.

10 reasons why we need feminist foreign policy

10 reasons why we need feminist foreign policy


We asked 10 leading thinkers, policymakers, journalists and activists what feminist foreign policy means to them. They each support the idea — here’s how they see it working.

The women and girl migrants who disappear, and the feminist policies that could save them

The women and girl migrants who disappear, and the feminist policies that could save them


Immigration policies are largely based on the experience of the
male migrant, Alice Driver explains from Mexico and Central America, as she
explores what a feminist approach to immigration might look like. 

Four years on, Sweden remains committed to its feminist foreign policy

Four years on, Sweden remains committed to its feminist foreign policy


Both praised and questioned, Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is a
global first. But, as Nathalie Rothschild reports from Stockholm, some say it
doesn’t go far enough.