Trudeau tells N.Y. crowd to 'ask any woman they know' about what work remains on gender equality

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was lauded as an "agent of change" at the United Nations today for pushing gender equality and urging more men to join the movement.

'This is a challenge that all of us must be united on,' Trudeau tells audience at UN Women event

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau greets one of the guests at an event on gender equality with UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the United Nations in New York. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was lauded as an "agent of change"  at the United Nations today for pushing gender equality and urging more men to join the movement.

Trudeau, a self-described feminist, told an enthusiastic audience at a United Nations Women event that "Twitterverse" and media attention exploded when he publicly adopted the label. Yet in this day and age, he said it should hardly elicit a reaction.

"I'm going to keep saying loud and clearly that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug," he said Wednesday. "It's just really, really obvious that we should be standing up for women's rights and trying to create more equal societies. Like, duh." 

Trudeau was praised for progressive stands on various policy fronts, including bringing gender parity to his cabinet.

He said his approach is not exceptional, but rather a sign of a generational shift.

"I'm just one of the first of our generation to poke through and take a space on the world stage. Any one of my generation may have done as well as I happen to be doing," he said.

More work to do

While much progress has been made, Trudeau said there is still much more work to be done in Canada. He suggested revamping parental leave to carve out specific weeks for paternal leave, and making Parliament — an institution he said is designed for "old white guys" — more family friendly as examples.

He also lamented that Canada has a poor record on pay equity and violence against women, especially indigenous women.

The prime minister acknowledged that "moving the markers" in the face of deep-seated perceptions and habits can take time. But he noted the trend line is moving in the right direction, and called on more men to be part of the global movement.

"This is a challenge that all of us must be united on," he said. 

UN Women executive director Phumizile Mlambo-Ngcuka praised Trudeau as a "leading" member of the "he for she" global campaign, pinning a button on his lapel.

She agreed that mobilizing boys and men is crucial for advancing equality around the world, and said Canada is leading by example.

'It's 2016'

She borrowed a now-famous Trudeau phrase to say the UN must also set an example on gender equality.

"It's 2016 — the UN Secretary General should be a woman," she said.

Her 2016 comment echoes Trudeau's "because it's 2015" explanation for appointing an equal number of men and women to his cabinet. The comment is one of the moves that landed him an award at gala in New York later this evening.

Non-profit organization Catalyst, which promotes women in the workplace, said the phrase has become a mantra for equality.

"Prime Minister Trudeau, through his intentional leadership and commitment to inclusion, sets an example that shows leaders throughout the world what is possible when they deliberately build diverse teams that reflect the marketplace and the communities they serve," Catalyst president and CEO Deborah Gillis said in a release.

At the Catalyst dinner, Trudeau touted his government's success so far in addressing gender equality issues, saying he was only able to do that because Canadians voted for a "open, fair, positive way of doing politics," an example he said he hoped would be followed by other world governments. 

The crowd burst into applause at that point, prompting the prime minister to clarify that he was not talking about the U.S. presidential election. "No, I'm not thinking of any place in particular, don't..." he said before being cut off by more applause.

On the issue of women's equality, Trudeau had some words of advice for those who think the job of women's equality is done. 

"If anyone you challenge to step up and do more on gender equality dares tell you: 'we've come such a long way, I don't think there's that much left to do' just tell them to ask any woman they know," Trudeau said.

Kate White, president of the United Nations Association in Canada, praised the Trudeau government's decision to seek a seat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women as a "strategic use of amazing capital."

"His presence at the UN this week sends an important and frankly exciting signal that acknowledges both our  aspirations for a better world and willingness to invest and contribute, and that our national interests are served better through habits of cooperation and trust-building that can only take place at the table with 193 nations," she said.

With files from Peter Zimonjic


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