With democracy imperiled in Ukraine, and Canadians grappling with the insurrectionist convoys in Ottawa and elsewhere, University of Waterloo political scientist Anna Drake answers questions about the role women play in a democracy this International Women’s Day 2022.

Do you feel Canadian democracy is under threat this International Women’s Day, and why?

Canadian democracy has always prioritized people based on race and sex. The three-week Ottawa occupation of white supremacists calling themselves a “freedom convoy” captures much of what is wrong with our democracy. Our institutions completely failed us. That comes from failing to acknowledge this history and its ongoing systemic harm.

Just look at institutional responses to protest undertaken by people who are poor, Black and Indigenous — they’re routinely swift and violent, with the Toronto police spending $2 million to destroy homeless encampments and make arrests this summer. In contrast, Ottawa police allowed people wielding swastikas and confederate flags to effectively trap people in their homes and close schools, medical treatment, and businesses for weeks. It felt like an invasion to those living there.

Our provincial government has since done much of what the occupiers wanted; removing vaccine mandates, preparing to lift mask mandates. But unfortunately, this ensures those hardest hit, often women and racialized people, will continue to be ignored. This seems like a clear threat to me, and it should to all of us.

What role are women playing in this current moment of unrest around covid and democracy?

 The impact of COVID-19 continues to be disproportionately felt by women. A major driver of this is women’s roles as primary caregivers. With prolonged school and daycare closures as well as an inability to rely on constant school/childcare, women have left the workforce in significant numbers. They’re burnt out. I think you see a renewed sense of activism. Many advocate for safe schools, pointing to high transmission rates when students eat together unmasked and drawing attention to the gender-based consequences of governmental failures to make children and their caregivers a priority.

Many women continue to highlight the government’s prioritization of non-essential businesses over schools. Parents have also been pushing for access to rapid testing: something that, again, the government has continually extended to businesses rather than to schools.

On the other hand, we’ve seen this activation applied in the other direction. Some women are vocal proponents of removing COVID protections. Notably, key figures are also white supremacists with financial support looking to benefit on an individual level. Structural sexism and white supremacy are systems of power, and those who are genuinely concerned with equality need to bring the focus back to this.

What needs to change for women to have a more just democratic future?

As women, men and non-binary people, seek equality we need to focus on the deeper structural and systemic problems. As part of this, we need a meaningful re-examination of what’s really happening when we use the label “feminist.” Instead of equating it with successful women —celebrating their wealth and political success — we need to focus on structural oppression.

The data we have tell us these successes are exceptions to deeper entrenched gendered and racist patterns. For example, poverty and incarceration rates disproportionately impact Black and Indigenous women, and we lack meaningful system-wide responses from what underpins this, which is the entrenched racism and colonialism.

Women’s participation in anti-mask and anti-vax misinformation and protest does not diminish the extent to which these views and actions disproportionately harm women, particularly racialized women. We need to demand change from institutions that maintain and advance sexist and racist policies, including Ontario’s refusal to sign on to the $10 per day childcare agreement, and to hold each other accountable when so-called “feminists” engage in racist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist behaviour. We need to be aware of our privilege: to amplify marginalized voices and work towards dismantling structural injustice.

What can we do to ensure their demands are met?

We need to recognize that women will not have equality until we prioritize equality for all. Many of the injustices we see are compounded for women who are not cishet, white, and in positions of economic stability. We see this in the disproportionate harms resulting from our responses to COVID-19. Racialized communities have experienced disproportionate infection rates and are underserved in vaccine rollouts, while wealthy countries have failed to prioritize global vaccination efforts.

These responses are interconnected. The massive failures in mitigating the spread of COVID underscore how harmful individual-focussed responses are: they amplify the power of those with undeserved privilege and let us ignore our collective responsibilities to each other. Similarly, global responses to the invasion of Ukraine highlight the uneven ways we respond to challenges to democracy.

There is rightly global support for people in Ukraine. Yet, there is also a great deal of racism, with Black and Brown refugees denied entry and news commentators elevating Ukraine from other attacks because the people affected “look like us” and come from countries “like ours.” Gendered and racist injustice is the product of systems of power. The only way demands for justice will be met is if we recognize the depth of the problem and work to dismantle racist and sexist structures.

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