Editor’s Note: On March 9, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau delivered a speech at a McGill Institute for the Study of Canada event in Toronto, titled, “Canadian Liberty and the Politics of Fear.” The media focused on his comparison of the Conservative government’s attitude toward Muslims with Canadian immigration policy in the 1930s and ‘40s that turned back Jewish refugees from Europe. What the media ignored was Trudeau’s praise of abortion and birth control as one of Canada’s greatest accomplishments. Below is an excerpt from that speech. See also our editorial on page 4.
There is no greater illustration of this point than the history of women’s experience in Canada.
When I was one, my grandmother Grace held me in her arms before she passed away. She was of a generation of Canadian women that had to fight to gain the franchise. Her eldest son – my father – was born in the first year women were eligible to vote in federal elections.
My mother, who in many ways represented a new movement of freedom to her contemporaries, still endured public criticism that would be unacceptable today.
And when I think of the possibilities open to my daughter’s generation, it’s hard not to be proud of all we have achieved. Again, though, much remains to be done. Women still face unacceptable sexual violence in Canada and discrimination, especially when it comes to equal pay for equal work.
But when you take the long view, it is impossible to be anything but awestruck by the progress we have made in creating a society where women are not just included, but vital to our economic and social progress.
We have proven that a country – an astonishingly successful country – can be built on and defined by shared values. Not by religion, language, or ethnicity. But shared values.
The instructive point here is obvious, but often overlooked. One set of policies in post-war Canada generated more liberty for more people than any other. It was the decades-long effort of the women’s movement to gain control over reproductive health and rights.
Indeed, let me be perfectly clear on this point. The Canada we know today is unimaginable without widely available birth-control and the legalization of choice.
Every conceivable measure of inclusion and progress has moved in the right direction since women gained legally protected reproductive freedom in Canada. From workforce participation to educational attainment to representation in the corridors of economic and political power.
That’s why I took such a strong stand in favour of a woman’s right to choose when I sought the leadership of my party. It’s why I implemented a strong new policy soon after being elected, a few years back.
You see, I have this notion that the Liberal Party ought to be a liberal party. It ought to stand for the policy that created an unprecedented expansion of liberty for half the population of the country.
The criticism that followed my decision from many quarters shows you how badly we need to restate and defend a clear idea of Canadian Liberty. Indeed, most of my critics argued that this new policy represented a restriction of freedom – the freedom of Liberal MPs to vote their conscience.
This is an important point, because when different notions of liberty come into conflict it helps clarify our thinking.
Their argument went like this: forcing a Liberal MP to vote against their conscience on a matter of morality is an unjust restriction of their liberty. It sounds like a reasonable argument. However, it is easily dismissed when you realize it is based on a value judgment about whose freedom is more important: that of an MP elected as a Liberal, or that of Canadian women.
Let’s be clear on this. For Liberals, the right of a woman to control her body is more important than the right of a legislator to restrict her freedom with their vote. MPs who disagree with that have other choices. They can sit as independents, or as Conservatives.
But for me, Canadian Liberty is not about the freedom of powerful people to exercise that freedom according to the dictates of their conscience. It is about Canadians’ rights not to have their freedom unduly restricted, especially by the state.