Canada’s hypocritical ‘feminist’ foreign policy

As it applauds itself for following a “feminist agenda”, Canada continues to sell weapons to regimes that kill women.

Canada feminism op-ed photo Reuters
Canadian feminists, eager to put Canada first, are applauding a hollow feminism that diverts and deflects, dresses up and glosses over the dirty business of war and weapons, writes Zakaria [Reuters]

I am definitely here to push my feminist agenda,” Canadian Minister for International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau declared to a journalist at the World Bank meetings held in Washington, DC at the end of October. Bibeau was talking about Canada’s much-touted and widely feted “feminist international assistance” policy. Announced earlier this year, the policy has been described by Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland as “a matter of basic justice and basic economics“. Under its stipulations, Canada will direct over 95 percent of its development budget towards the task of “empowering women,” in turn making “families and countries more prosperous”.

It is a hopeful agenda but sadly not one that includes empowering all women. This summer, before Bibeau went off selling Canada’s shiny new feminist agenda, the Canadian Foreign Ministry in Ottawa had been busy with dirtier business. In a reluctant statement issued in late July, the Ministry announced that it was “deeply concerned” that Saudi Arabia’s rulers “appear to be deploying Canadian-made armoured vehicles in an escalating conflict with Saudi citizens“. Even this acknowledgement of sorts came only after a Canadian newspaper published a story showing that the combat vehicles manufactured by Canadian company Teradyne were used against Saudi civilians in the country’s eastern Al-Qatif province.

So far, Canada’s Trudeau-led “feminist” government has been unwilling to look into the $15bn deal that it inherited from its predecessor, taking the line that without “evidence of misuse” and “reasonable risk” to civilians there was no need to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Foreign Minister Freeland has even gone so far as to discard a leaked report of a United Nations-mandated panel that has denounced “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets by the Saudi-led coalition in neighbouring Yemen. Yemeni women, like the Saudi women of Al-Qatif province, are not included in the empowering agenda that Canada wants to take to the world’s women.

This here is the glossy and catchy feminism of convenience, called on at conferences but discarded and shoved to the side when it comes to lucrative arms deals.


Then, there is the case of Nigerian women. In September of this year, a few months after Canada had announced its new global feminist agenda, the US government signed a $593m arms deal with the Nigerian military. A crucial and key component of this deal are A-29 Super Tucano warplanes whose engines are manufactured by Pratt and Whitney Canada. These Pratt Whitney outfitted Super Tucano aircraft will be part of the Nigerian Air Force, which has in the past used light aircraft to bomb refugee camps, killing dozens of civilians. An older deal made last year with Canadian-led Streit Group also sold 177 armoured vehicles to the Nigerian military. 

The hedging that has typified the Trudeau government’s response to its part in arming some of the world’s most repressive and anti-feminist governments suggests that the “feminist” label it has pinned to its dealings with the world is merely crafty sloganeering. Per its assumptions, the use of Canadian armoured vehicles to mow down hapless Saudi civilians or bomb Yemeni women and children or even Nigerian refugees has little to do with feminism or empowering women. In this circumscribed and compartmentalised version of feminism a la Canada, the sale of weapons that maintain the dominance of repressive, brutal and male-dominated regimes cannot be held against a country’s commitments to empowering its women. The one stands separate and distinct from the other, the self-enriching agendas of saving Canadian jobs and safeguarding Canadian affluence trumping any true concern for the world’s women. This here is the glossy and catchy feminism of convenience, called on at conferences but discarded and shoved to the side when it comes to lucrative arms deals. The “basic justice” that Freeland mentioned in her speech on Canada’s foreign policy priorities has no place in these latter discussions.


The groundwork of this sort of feminism, which uses all the right rhetoric, talks about empowering local women, then sneaks bombs and ammunition to fuel the very conflicts that imperil them, was laid over a decade and a half ago by Canada’s neighbour (and partner in arms sales) the United States. As still-suffering Afghans remember well, one of the avowed pretexts for invading Afghanistan in September 2001 was, as announced by First Lady Laura Bush herself, the liberation of Afghan women and the facilitation of their return to schools, to security and to freedom. As the years and then a decade wore on, a two-faced approach reigned. The killing of Afghan civilians including women and children, the night raids by US forces that terrified families, and the accidental bombings of hospitals were all swept under the rug because the United States was allegedly “empowering” Afghan women. 

If the United States can use the feminism-as-branding strategy to sell a war, then it follows that Canada can follow suit with its international-assistance agenda. That the United States has not delivered on any of the promises it made to Afghan women, and that two-thirds of Afghan girls still don’t attend school as result of poverty, insecurity and displacement, doesn’t seem to bother anyone. This last fact likely recommends the strategy to the Canadians, since it proves the premise that the feminist label is valid not because it has to deliver to the women it claims to empower but because it can better sell government programs, wars or aid, to the voters at home. The omnipotent logic of Western largesse against global want dictates that it is the givers who matter; the better Canadian voters can feel about themselves, the more successful Canada’s groundbreaking feminist international assistance policy will be deemed to be. So clever is this political branding trick that even local Canadian politicians are taking a go at it; Valerie Plante, a mayoral candidate in Montreal, announced last week that if elected she would inaugurate the city’s first “feminist” Metro line. What would make this line “feminist” (beyond being pink) remained unspecified.

It follows, then, that even while Canadian armored vehicles ply the desert border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen or the lanes of Maiduguri, and while jets with Pratt and Whitney engines drop bombs on civilians in different portions of the globe, Canadian voters energised by the historic nature of their “feminist” government and a “feminist” international aid assistance policy can continue to smugly look away. That the possibility of the “basic justice” identified by Chrystia Freeland as central to empowerment has been eviscerated for these women, that Canada is complicit in the crimes of these regimes, does not give anyone pause. American feminists remained largely silent when feminism became a pretext for war. Canadian feminists, eager to put Canada first, are doing the same, applauding a hollow feminism that diverts and deflects, dresses up and glosses over the dirty business of war and weapons. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.