Opinion

Perhaps the Liberals should change their motto to 'Diversity is our strength, sorta': Robyn Urback

The Trudeau government is free to walk out on whomever it wants during a status of women committee meeting, and to be selective in its divvying-out of grant money, but to do so should wipe out this illusion of the Liberals as advocates of diversity. They are advocates of diversity that looks different but sounds the same.

The issue with the Liberal approach to inclusivity is they try to make it look easy. It's not supposed to be

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to promote diversity, but not when it comes to certain ideas and beliefs. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

A humble suggestion for the good folks churning out the talking points in the Prime Minister's Office: one of your oldies could use an update.

Instead of "Diversity is our strength," I'd suggest something more specific. Perhaps: "Visual diversity is our strength" or maybe "Diversity is our strength — sorta."

The old slogan jibed well for a while, when the government could control its inclusivity narrative with big shows of gender parity in cabinet and the push for a gender-neutral national anthem. That kind of diversity is easy.

But diversity is more complicated when you go beyond the superficial, and understand that embracing difference means not simply embracing people who look different, but those who have different ideas, different values and different world views. Yet achieving that level of inclusivity has proven rather challenging for the governing Liberals, especially when it comes to the issue of abortion. 

Liberal MPs walked out on a status of women committee meeting in opposition to the Conservative pick for chair, Rachael Harder. (Rachael Harder/YouTube)

Last October, the Liberals staged a theatrical walkout of a status of women committee meeting to reject Rachael Harder, the Conservatives' pick for chair, over her anti-abortion views. The whole exercise was rather meaningless since Harder's candidacy would be squashed in a vote anyway, but by walking out, the Liberals could make a big show of just how odious they found her views.

"The fact is that the Liberal Party, and indeed this government, is unequivocal in our defence of women's rights," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the time. "We will always defend women's rights ... and quite frankly, one would hope that the committee for the status of women would have a spokesperson to stand up and unequivocally defend women's rights."

Many read the prime minister's comments as advocating for the right kind of spokesperson to defend women's rights — one that would align, naturally, with the party's position. But this view assumes there is some sort of universal consensus on abortion among women, which there is not. Women, you might recall, belong to the "human" species, which is characterized by individualized thoughts, personalities and beliefs. We do not all think alike.

Summer jobs funding

Now the Liberals are in a spat with religious groups over a wording change to the government's youth summer job grants program, which requires applicants to check a box acknowledging their respect for "reproductive rights," among other commitments. Employment Minister Patty Hajdu has suggested religious groups should have no problem checking the box, concocting some incoherent distinction in an interview with Maclean's between an organization's "core mandate" (spreading the word of Jesus, for example) and its additional beliefs (rejecting abortion). This is nonsense.

Religious groups will either have to click the box in bad faith, or be denied federal funding based on their views. To say there is another option is nothing but spin.

Many people — including the prime minister, apparently — see no problem with a government denying funding to an organization on the basis of its views on abortion. But if we take the word "abortion" out of it, we have a government denying funding to an organization based on its views.

If it is acceptable for Prime Minister Trudeau to disqualify an anti-abortion group from summer jobs funding, what's to stop a Prime Minister Andrew Scheer from disqualifying a pro-choice group from summer jobs funding? Contrary to some of the rhetoric flying around about this issue, there is no such thing as a charter right to an abortion, meaning it's just as arbitrary to deny funding to a group on one side of the debate as it would be to deny a group on the other.

The Trudeau government is of course free to walk out on whomever it wants during a status of women committee meeting, and to be selective in its divvying-out of grant money (unless someone wants to launch a herculean charter challenge), but to do so should wipe out this illusion of the Liberals as advocates of diversity. They are advocates of diversity that looks different but sounds the same.

Tolerating other views

Pro-choice advocates would nevertheless argue that no one — especially not the government — should be inclusive or even tolerant of those who seek to control women's bodies. I can understand that view. But you don't need to respect someone's views to respect their right to hold those views and to still be entitled to the same opportunities as everyone else.

The overall problem with the Liberals' approach to inclusivity is that they try to make it look easy. It's not supposed to be. We are, by design, most comfortable with people who look, sound and think like us. Inclusivity really should be an uncomfortable exercise — one that would see, for example, our feminist prime minister engage with anti-abortion religious groups, rather than dismiss them as anti-women. What we have going on in government now is diversity-lite, which isn't really diversity at all.    

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at: