Address by Foreign Affairs Minister at the Top 25 Women of Influence Luncheon


December 10, 2018 – Toronto, Ontario

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

I would like to recognize that the land on which we are gathered is the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit.

Dearest friends, distinguished guests, I am honoured to be here today, with so many inspiring women and alongside so many of you who understand the importance of investing in women and of doing everything we must do to advance our rights.

I also want to tell you how pleased I am to be considered, with all of these incredible women, a woman of influence. I can assure you that this honour is greatly appreciated and inspires me to keep fighting for women’s rights.

It is my pleasure to be with you here today at this luncheon honouring this year’s top 25 women of influence. It is an absolute privilege to be among such accomplished women from a variety of fields and backgrounds, whose unique accomplishments cannot be compared, only celebrated.

I also want to pay special tribute to our foremothers, to the older generation of feminists who are here. If we stand tall, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. 

I grew up in a pioneering feminist household.

My mother was an early Canadian feminist in northern Alberta. There were only seven women in her law school class at the University of Alberta.

In fact, we had a consciousness-raising circle in our house in Peace River in the 1970s in what was a very different environment than what we now have.

Speaking of foremothers, I would like to pause and acknowledge one Canadian in particular, Louise Arbour. I would like to offer my thanks for her tremendous work on the Global Compact on Refugees, something Canada is proud to support.

Canada’s feminist foreign policy is founded on a simple objective: we seek to enable women and men, girls and boys around the world to have an equal voice and equal rights; to benefit from equal opportunities; and to live in equal safety and security.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs, a core element of my mandate is to “champion the values of inclusive and accountable governance, including by promoting human rights, women’s empowerment, gender equality, peaceful pluralism, inclusion and respect for diversity.”

Inequality—whether it be social, economic or political—exacerbates instability and undermines prosperity.

It is in this spirit that I would like to speak today by pointing out that we are marking a very special anniversary.

Seventy years ago, on December 10, 1948, the nations of the world gathered in Paris and adopted a declaration that marked a pivotal moment in postwar history—a foundational document that has since guided us and served as our blueprint for peace: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As a proud Canadian, I would be remiss if I failed to point out that a Canadian, John Peters Humphrey, was a principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It was a document born of the heartbreaking lessons of the first half of the 20th century: two world wars, the Great Depression and, perhaps above all, the horrors of the Holocaust.

After the carnage and devastation of those conflicts, the world came together and said: Never again.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an important part of a broader effort to translate that sentiment into reality.

Another pioneering feminist, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the chairwoman of the declaration’s drafting committee, described it as a “Magna Carta for all mankind.”

Written in less than two years, the Declaration was approved by all member countries. While eight countries abstained, not one dared cast a vote against. 

Think about that for a moment.

At a time when the Iron Curtain was coming down and the battle lines of the Cold War were being drawn, the members of UN General Assembly nevertheless were able to come together around this seminal idea. 

Amid ideological struggle and geopolitical strife, our predecessors formally recognized that all people are worthy of dignity and respect.

That human rights should not be bound by our borders. 

That the rule of law is paramount; that international relations must be based on rules, and that might does not make right.

This was nothing short of extraordinary. 

Nations that, not so long before, had violently clashed on the battlefield—leaders who, just a few years prior, had been passionate antagonists—somehow found common ground. 

This common ground was in the idea that human rights are not a conditional gift from state to citizen, but rather fundamental, existential and worthy of international protection.

70 years later, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights continues to guide us. 

The principles it established have been enshrined in our laws and are valued by our people. 

But we are not yet living up to the bold and essential promise of the declaration.

I am profoundly aware of the work we still need to do at home.

As the Prime Minister has said, Canada must work harder and do more to advance the rights of Indigenous peoples. Of minorities and members of the LGBTQ2 community. And of women and girls.

Yet our resolve to address our own shortcomings must not discourage or disqualify us from speaking up for human rights around the world.

Quite the contrary.

While it is easy to celebrate human rights in theory, in practice, raising and addressing concerns about human rights is hard work.

It’s difficult. It’s often uncomfortable. 

It can make some diplomats—who sometimes see their jobs as ”getting along”—wince. 

Now, quiet words in private rooms are often the currency of diplomacy. Indeed, during the final phase of the NAFTA talks, Ambassador Lighthizer and I agreed not to negotiate in public, and that principle helped to create the space and trust to get the deal done.

But when it comes to human rights, very much including women’s rights, private conversations often just mean sweeping inconvenient issues under the carpet. Speaking up publicly is sometimes the only way to have an impact.

And we, who have this immense privilege of living in our wonderful country, should never forget the power our public words can have to assure brave fighters for human rights in darker places that they are not alone.

That is why Canada will always stand up for human rights, very much including women’s rights – even when we are told to mind our own business, or that matters such as these should only be discussed in private, behind closed doors. And even when speaking up has consequences.

That means standing up for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, as we have done alongside so many allies in recent weeks, in denouncing the abhorrent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Under Canada’s Magnitsky law, we recently imposed targeted sanctions against 17 people who, in our government’s judgment, are responsible for or complicit in Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.

And until there is a transparent, credible investigation, as far as Canada is concerned, this case is not closed.

Because facts matter. Truth matters. Justice matters.

That is why Canada calls for the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia, including Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, currently in jail and on a hunger strike to protest Russia’s unjust treatment of political prisoners.

That is why this summer Canada spearheaded an effort to save some of the White Helmets—brave Syrians who united to rescue their fellow citizens and to document war crimes.

I met with some of the White Helmets in Canada a few weeks ago. One 39-year-old man talked about how eager he is to vote for the first time in his life. Others spoke about wanting to set up a Canadian version of the White Helmets, or becoming paramedics or firefighters.

These people are traumatized. But also poised and proud. And we are proud to welcome them.

Women’s rights are, of course, human rights, something that here and now seems obvious.

But even here in Canada, this was not always the prevailing view. In fact, not so long ago, women were not even considered people.

In 1929, 89 years ago, a group of brave and determined women, the Famous Five, had the temerity to assert that women were “persons” and should be granted the rights owing to “persons” in Canadian law.

Canadian courts ruled against them. But the British Privy Council, which was then our highest legal authority, ruled in their favour.

To Canadian girls today, it seems shocking that their foremothers were not considered to be people. But what should really shock us is that, in 2018, 89 years later, women in Canada and around the world are still not fully equal.

What should really shock us is that 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came to be, there still are women being robbed of their right to abortion and control over their own bodies.

Girls are still denied the education offered to their brothers.

Women continue to be treated as property; and can’t file for divorce; and can’t testify in a court of law; and can’t obtain access to capital to launch or build a business. 

There are still millions of women around the world who can’t speak freely, dissent, or exercise any form of political power.

In Canada, there are Indigenous women and girls who go missing and are murdered at a rate that dwarfs that of non-Indigenous women. 

Now is the time to finally get this right.

We cannot be deterred by the false argument that women’s rights are somehow culturally specific—that it is all right to deny a woman her full humanity—her personhood—in some parts of the world because that is the cultural norm.

That is wrong.

This isn’t identity politics or “virtue signalling”—it’s about equality, plain and simple.

When we hide behind the pretext of culture, when we shy away from difficult conversations, we fail to live up to the spirit and letter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

We fail women and girls who merit our unconditional support. 

Women and girls who deserve to have autonomy over their own bodies. 

Who deserve to speak freely and live in safety.

Who deserve equal pay for work of equal value.

Who must no longer be denied promotions and opportunities because they are women.

Canada is proud to have a feminist foreign policy, and our government is proud to fight for women at home and around the world to take positions of leadership.

But speaking out for a woman’s right to do every job in the world is in no way a claim that women leaders are perfect by virtue of their gender any more than male leaders are.

A tragic example of the fallibility of female leadership is the conduct of one of my erstwhile heroes, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The world rightly lauded her and the brave personal sacrifices she made in the fight for democracy in Myanmar.

Indeed, we recognized her exemplary courage by granting her honorary Canadian citizenship in 2008.

That is why we were particularly appalled by her continued failure to speak out against the genocide of the Rohingya, a crime against humanity being committed by the military with which she shares power.

We had expected more of her. And that is why Canada’s House of Commons adopted a unanimous motion to remove that honour.

We should stand up for women’s rights for one simple reason: because women are human beings. 

No further justification is needed. 

Standing up for women is about more than just words though; we must put action behind our words.

That is what Prime Minister Trudeau did when he named a gender-balanced Cabinet.

It is what our government did when we introduced pay equity legislation.

It is what Canada did at the G7 this year, where we led a push that resulted in the European Union, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the World Bank committing close to $3.8 billion to reduce the barriers that women and girls face in accessing education.

It was what we did when we put women and girls programming—including sexual health and reproductive rights—at the heart of our development assistance.

It is what we did when we created the Elsie Initiative, aimed at significantly increasing the number of women in peacekeeping operations.

I could go on, but I am also aware of how much further we have to go as a government, as a country and as a planet to ensuring that women and girls are fully equal.

Why does that matter?

It matters because where women are included in the economy, economic growth is greater.

It matters because where women are included in governance, states are more stable.

It matters because where women and girls are included in peace processes, peace is more enduring.

It matters because where women, in all their diversity, are included in our collective security, everyone is safer.

It matters because no society can possibly reach its full potential when half of its population is held back.

And above all, it matters because to be treated equally is the birthright of every human being.

Seventy years ago, the nations of the world came together to accomplish something truly extraordinary.

Let us cross the next frontier of protecting and promoting human rights.

Let us emulate their courage and demand rights for every single person on earth, once and for all. 

Thank you.

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