Remarks by the Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the Association of Women in International Trade (WIIT) 2019 Annual Awards Dinner


June 12, 2019 – Washington, D.C.

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.

Good evening. It’s a great pleasure to be here and especially to be in the company of such a diverse group of women who are making a difference in the world of international trade.

Tonight I am going to talk about two things we all care about—women and trade.

I am fifty years old and I know that if my generation is able to stand tall (metaphorically, of course) it is because we stand on the shoulders of the giants. So I want to start by paying tribute to our foremothers, to the older generation of feminists who blazed the trail for us.

Let’s hear it for every woman here tonight and around the world who is over seventy. Let’s hear it for the grandmothers!

Pioneering feminists are close to my heart because I’m the daughter of one of them—my late mother, who was a feminist in northern Alberta in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

By any measure—whether economic, social or cultural—that was a pretty tough time and place to fight for women’s rights. But she did. There were only seven women in my mother’s law school class at the University of Alberta. And I have warm childhood memories of the consciousness-raising circles she convened in the kitchen on our farm in Peace River.

It wasn’t so long ago that in Canada women were not even considered to be full persons. In 1929, a group of brave and determined Alberta women—the Famous Five—had the temerity to assert that women were, in fact, “persons” and should be granted the rights owing to persons under Canadian and British law.

Believe it or not, Canadian courts initially ruled against them. But the British Privy Council, which was our highest legal authority at the time, ruled in their favour.

Of course, things were a lot better for women in Canada by the sixties and seventies when my mother and her sisters, those amazing second wave feminists, got organizing.

And I grew up thinking that by the time I came of age, the fundamental issue of women’s rights would have been resolved. I thought this was my mother’s fight, not mine.

Sadly, things haven’t quite worked out that way.

Now, I am pretty sure that in this room everyone will agree that women’s equality is good for business. It’s good for the economy. It’s good for social cohesion and social progress.

Economic growth is stronger when women are allowed their rightful and equal place. When women are included in governance, states are more stable. When women and girls are included in the peace process, peace is more enduring.

I suspect everyone in this room knows these facts and has deployed them dozens of times. And we are right to do so.

But I also want to encourage us all to never shy away from this essential truth: women’s rights are human rights. As the Privy Council ruled nearly a century ago, women are people and for that reason, and for that reason alone, we have the right to full equality.

Equal rights mean the right to take on the biggest issues of our time. And, my dear women in trade, that is what you are doing. If economics is the dismal science, trade used to be its even dowdier stepchild, governed by arcane and complex rules and of interest only to people who actually buy and sell things. (Maybe that is why they let some women into the profession.)

But today, for better or worse, trade is where the action is. Trade has become downright sexy.

In talking about trade tonight, I want to start by going back to basics. And I am going to do that by sharing a wonderful quote from Joan Robinson, who taught economics at Cambridge University. In 1937, she wrote that for free traders, the idea of applying tariff barriers to trade is “just as sensible as dropping rocks into our harbour because other nations have rocky coasts.”

Her vivid metaphor reminds us of something that is important and true: trade is not a prize we grant to our partners as a reward for good behaviour, nor is it a boon we altruistically bestow. We trade because it is good for us. We remove those rocks from our harbours—those tariff barriers—to help ourselves.

Now, in the best of all possible worlds, our partners remove the rocks from their own harbours, too. And reciprocal rock removal does seem to be the best way to get that job done, which is why so many people here have spent so many hours in trade negotiations.

But let’s not allow that daily grind to obscure the truth at the heart of the work we all do: trade is good for our countries and our people. Trade makes us all richer.

I am quite confident that this is an economic reality that everyone in this room understands. But we need to confront another reality, too.

In many countries around the world, including the Western industrialized democracies that have benefited so much from global trade, protectionist sentiment is on the rise.

We need to ask ourselves why that is so—and what we need to do about it.

Here is my diagnosis—and my prescription.

When people think that their economic future is in danger, that their children have fewer opportunities than they had in their youth, that is when people become vulnerable to demagogues who put the blame on foreigners, on the “other”.

The reality is that working middle-class families are not wrong to feel left out. Median wages have stagnated; jobs become more precarious, pensions uncertain; housing, child care and education difficult to pay.

These are the wrenching human consequences—the growing pains, if you will—of the great transformative forces of the past 40 years: the technology revolution and globalization. Of the two, technology is having the greatest impact. But even free-traders like me need to recognize that globalization has contributed as well.

So what’s the answer? I think we are agreed that it is not, as the Luddites unsuccessfully proposed at the start of the Industrial Revolution, to stop the march of technology. We all love our smartphones too much!

When it comes to trade, we need to introduce labour standards with real teeth, as Canada and the EU have done in our free trade agreement and as we—Canada, the United States and Mexico—have done in the new NAFTA. It is long past time to bring the WTO up to date with the realities of 2019 and beyond. We need to seriously address non-tariff barriers to trade and forced technology transfers.

However, and overwhelmingly, the chief answer to the legitimate grievances of the middle class lies in domestic policy. The middle class and people working hard to join it need the security that comes from education for your youth, health care for your family, good jobs for your adult children, and dignity in your retirement. We need to think about what the jobs of the future for our citizens will be and ensure that those jobs will pay a living wage and that our people will have the skills to do them.

Perhaps most importantly—and this is work that would benefit from international cooperation—we need to ensure that in a 21st century in which capital is global but social welfare is national, each of our countries has the durable tax base necessary to support the 99 percent.

That is a pretty ambitious agenda. And I believe that all of you here, as women in international trade, have a particular ability—and therefore a particular duty—to get it done.

Here’s why.

It is not because, as I sometimes hear advocates of women’s rights argue, that women are uniquely virtuous or caring.

I am convinced that kind of cheerleading, in addition to being plain wrong, confines women to just another pink ghetto.

But women do have a shared experience of being barred from leadership, from the seat at the head of the table. Pick any kind of power and consider the hard numbers.

In 2018, women made up just five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, a 25-percent drop from the year before. Nearly 90 percent of the world’s corporate board seats are held by men. Only one-quarter of all national parliamentarians were women in 2018, according to the UN. The percentage of women ministers is lower—around 18 percent.

All of us here, as women, have been excluded, and we know how harmful that is. All of us here, as women in trade, know that globalization—done right—makes everyone more prosperous.

So let’s work together to make trade work for everyone. And let’s keep chipping away at the glass ceiling while we are at it.

I am incredibly optimistic that we will succeed. But I know that there are people who will stand in our way, and times when we will despair. So let me leave you with this final thought.

In one of the haunting scenes in Margaret Atwood’s dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator comes across some doggerel Latin left as a message by another despairing Handmaid: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”

That happens to have been one of my mother’s favourite mottos, too. And it is my hopeful cri de guerre for us all as we end this great evening: Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Thank you all so much. 

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