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Women and the Canadian Welfare state: challenges and change.


Patricia M. Evans and Garda R. Wekerle, eds.

University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1997.

The Canadian welfare state has been dramatically altered during the past two decades. No social policy remains untouched as a result of the neo-liberal attack on the social safety net. This transformation of the Canadian welfare state is of such enormous proportions that I recognize its impact on my women students each and every day I teach at my ivory towered institution. One of my students brings her three-year old son to class on a fairly regular basis because her day care subsidy has been cut. Another just received an eviction notice and is spending all her spare time preparing to defend herself in the local housing tribunal. And many others are overwhelmed by the size of their expanding student loans.

These changes to the Canadian welfare state are happening so quickly with such alarming consequences that I feel inadequate in my attempts to document them and to explain their rapid occurrence. I am relieved to find that a number of my colleagues have addressed these issues in a number of edited collections about women's particular relationship to the Canadian state. Among them is Patricia M. Evans and Gerda R. Wekerle's edited collection, Women and the Canadian Welfare State: Challenges and Change.

This is a timely and important collection for a number of reasons. First, the book successfully documents many important changes in welfare state policy. Changes to immigration, housing, welfare, unemployment insurance, family law, long-term care and pay equity and their impact on women's lives are all carefully explored. The authors address many of the current themes in international welfare state scholarship regarding citizenship rights, discursive struggles and current strategies of the women's movement.

It is impossible to adequately assess each of the author's contributions. Each one, in its own way, enhances our understanding of the changing nature of the Canadian welfare state and what this means for all women, particularly those disadvantaged by race and/or class inequities. There were four articles in particular which prompted me to reconsider my own understanding of this turbulent time.

Marjorie Cohen's work always teaches me more about the politics of making economic policy. She dispels the popularly-held belief that global economic pressures require us to restrict our welfare state policies as a myth that needs to be challenged. These are political decisions that are made at the national level and can always be challenged and altered. Her chronology in her appendix, which documents the cuts and alterations to Canadian social policies during the last 15 years, powerfully illustrates the extent to which our Canadian welfare state has been transformed before our very eyes. This alone should be enough to convince anyone that the Canadian social safety net has been quickly and dramatically unwoven and that we, as feminist academics and activists, must speak out against it.

Hester Lessard explores the changing nature of citizenship rights and the implications for women. She examines proposals for a social charter which were discussed during the Charlottetown Accord and, if accepted, would have expanded the notion of citizenship rights within the Canadian constitution. She argues that these social rights which may have included the right to shelter, food and other basis necessities would have been ineffective because they would have been unenforceable, possibly perpetuating a myth of economic equality amongst Canadians while real economic disparities grew. I understand and appreciate Lessard's argument and I would have agreed with it until recently. In the last few years I have become involved in legal struggles which attempt to use the Charter's limited rights to argue against draconian welfare measures. I have participated in these legal challenges not because I think the Charter will actually protect poor Canadians, but because there are few other measures to use. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, however limited, can create a discourse of rights, and low-income citizens believing that they have these rights can begin to make claims upon the state.

Pat Evans is also interested in social citizenship rights. She carefully documents the manner in which the dual-nature of the welfare state is gendered with women most often the recipients of menial policies such as social assistance while men received rights-based policies such as unemployment insurance. She believes this gendered nature of the welfare state is being replaced by gender-neutral social policies. She argues that this is not a victory for women because these gender-neutral policies ignore the real gender differences in women's caring responsibilities. This omission creates real economic hardship for many women. I would not argue with this, but I would add that at the same time that the Canadian welfare state has developed gender-neutral policies it also has developed profoundly gendered policies. For example, the re-establishment of spouse-in-the-house regulations in Ontario once again makes women the subject of intrusive welfare investigation. Similarly, government reports of welfare fraud reveal that women are the most common targets of the welfare fraud phone line and administrative investigations.

Sue Findlay is a keen observer of state administrative processes. She provides insightful analyses of why, for example, the Ontario pay equity legislation did not address many of the inequities experienced by working women. She explores how compromises are made within the state which marginalize feminist demands. Findlay also explores how the legislative process encouraged women to provide a unified position which ignored or undermined the diversity and specificity of working women's wage discrimination. As a result, the legislation favoured the interests of women who were members of more established organizations, such as organized labour, and disadvantaged marginalized women workers.

The recognition of how the Canadian welfare state perpetuates inequities between women is a theme also explored by Patricia Daenzer. Through a participatory research project, Daenzer examines how Black women have a distinct relationship to the Canadian welfare state. She dispels the myth that Black women are passive recipients of Canadian social policy because they do not engage in white-dominated feminist organizations who make demands upon the state. With the use of historic and contemporary evidence Daenzer demonstrates that Black women have their own distinct welfare state agenda based on their own unique issues. Consequently, Black women have tended to organize separately from white women to pursue their goals of racially specific community services.

Daenzer's work stands alone as a call for the need to unpack the universal concept of "woman" and to realize that we have very different relationships to the Canadian welfare state based on race, class, disability and sexual orientation. The diversity of women's experiences of the Canadian welfare state has yet to be adequately addressed by feminist scholars. It is no longer enough to say disadvantaged women are more severely affected by the cuts to the Canadian welfare state. We need to document precisely which women are affected. We need to understand the processes by which this happens. Only then can we develop effective strategies of resistance.
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Publication:Resources for Feminist Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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