OTTAWA, Ontario — It was the sort of audience meant to be a natural fit for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada — more than 300 young women taking part in a “Daughters of the Vote” day of civic engagement in Parliament. But no sooner had he begun to speak than several dozen of the women stood up and dramatically turned their backs on him.
“Respect the integrity of women & indigenous leaders in politics,” Deanna Allain, one of the participants, said in a tweet aimed at Trudeau earlier this month. “Do better.”
Try as he might, Trudeau can’t seem to move past the controversy that has sucked up most of the air in Canada since February, when the country’s first indigenous female attorney general quit after accusing the prime minister’s office of inappropriately pressuring her to consider a civil rather than criminal penalty for a company accused of corruption.
The episode has propelled Canada into an agonized, bad-tempered, and occasionally hairsplitting argument about the rule of law, the exigencies of party loyalty, and the role of women, indigenous people, and feminism in political life.
It has also left Trudeau, whose Cabinet by design contains equal numbers of women and men, repeatedly trying to defend his feminist credentials.
He has, for instance, had to answer complaints that his treatment of the minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and of another female minister who resigned in solidarity with her, has been covertly but classically sexist, a here-they-go-again example of men in power failing to listen to women who dare to speak their minds.
But there are broader questions, too, over what it means to run a country according to feminist principles. Very few places have even embarked on such a thing — in 2014, Sweden proclaimed itself to have the world’s first feminist government — so Canada’s experience is a kind of experiment in progress.
Trudeau has lived up to his promise, his foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said in an interview, by pursuing feminist policies at home and abroad.
Among these are committing billions of dollars to a program that pays money to families with children under 18 and promoting sexual and reproductive rights overseas.
Still, how is a feminist government supposed to operate? How does having a half-female Cabinet change the dynamics? In tough conversations, or tough debates in Parliament, does gender matter?
With his government lagging in the polls as Canada prepares for a national election in the fall, Trudeau has come under attack from both right and left; the opposition has deployed the hashtag #fakefeminist as a weapon against him.
“If this prime minister is such a feminist, why is he muzzling the former attorney general?” Michelle Rempel, a Conservative member of Parliament, taunted Trudeau in a debate.
“We will not be lectured by the Conservatives about women’s role in our society,” Trudeau responded.
In this noisy game of they said/they said, the rest of the country is trying to sort out what is politics and what is objective reality.
“We’re all looking at a Rorschach picture and coming away with different interpretations,” said Elizabeth Renzetti, a columnist for the Globe and Mail. “But because Trudeau has so diligently nailed his colors to the feminist mast, then any step he takes outside those rigidly proscribed boundaries is going to reflect badly on him.”
“It’s a hoist-by-your-own-petard situation,” she said, of the expectations raised by Trudeau’s avowed commitment to feminism: “Live by the F-word, die by the F-word.”
The Trudeau government said it pushed for the civil penalty for the company, SNC-Lavalin, because a criminal conviction would have cost the company contracts, imperiling Canadian jobs. The company is accused of bribing Libyan officials to win contracts.
Wilson-Raybould’s complaints are wide-ranging but have focused on two aspects of the episode: first, that a senior adviser to the prime minister used “veiled threats” to compromise the integrity of her department, and second, that as a woman and an indigenous leader — she is a former regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations — she has been silenced in her efforts to speak truth to power.
“I come from a long line of matriarchs and I am a truth teller,” she said recently. And in a written submission to the House of Commons, she said the government’s treatment of her had included “undeniable elements of misogyny.’’
Tracey Ramsey, a member of Parliament from the New Democratic Party, repeated criticisms leveled by the opposition that members of Trudeau’s Liberal Party had used loaded language to demean Wilson-Raybould, who was also the justice minister. “The prime minister’s office has attempted to make this a gender issue by labeling a strong, capable woman difficult to work with, something that women hear all the time when they’re trying to challenge the power structure,” she said.
But what some people call mansplaining, others — including women in Trudeau’s Cabinet — call politics, pure and simple. Patty Hajdu, the employment minister, said in an interview that being a minister entailed having “vigorous conversations about things that you don’t agree on.”
The issue is not one of sexism, she said, but of disagreement. “Obviously with strong leaders around the Cabinet table we won’t always agree on everything,” she said. “To think there’s a gender normative way that women behave is actually sexist.”
She added: “There’s a phrase I used to like, ‘Add Women, Change Politics,’ but it’s not the whole story. Absolutely add women. But just because we have more women doesn’t mean things are necessarily going to be gentle or more cooperative.”
Trudeau himself thinks he can reset.
“You define labels not by what you choose to affix yourself with, but with what you actually do,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s lots more to do, and I am not going to worry too much about labels. I expect people to judge me on my actions.”