from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

Five Questions on Gender Equality in Foreign Policy: Jacqueline O’Neill

Ambassador O’Neill, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion, and International Trade, meet with three Ethiopian women entrepreneurs. (Addis Ababa, February, 2020). Adam Scotti, Office of the Prime Minister of Canada

This blog post is part of the Women and Foreign Policy program’s interview series on Gender Equality in Foreign Policy, featuring global and U.S. officials leading initiatives to promote gender equality in the defense, development, and diplomatic sectors.

April 21, 2020

Ambassador O’Neill, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion, and International Trade, meet with three Ethiopian women entrepreneurs. (Addis Ababa, February, 2020). Adam Scotti, Office of the Prime Minister of Canada
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This blog post is part of the Women and Foreign Policy program’s interview series on Gender Equality in Foreign Policy, featuring global and U.S. officials leading initiatives to promote gender equality in the defense, development, and diplomatic sectors. This interview is with Jacqueline O’Neill, Canada’s Ambassador for Women, Peace, and Security. 

How and why was the Canadian Ambassador for Women, Peace, and Security post created? What is your mandate?

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The concept of “women, peace, and security” (WPS) has been important to Canada for many years. It’s rooted in the idea that the most just and effective policies result when those directly affected are meaningfully involved in shaping them. For too long, women have been largely excluded from official processes to prevent, end, and rebuild after violent conflict. We recognize that this exclusion is not only a violation of women’s rights but also leads to poor outcomes. In the face of complex new security threats associated with pandemics, climate change, artificial intelligence, and cyber, we need to employ all resources available. Increasingly, we’re understanding that women’s meaningful inclusion is a national and international security imperative.

Twenty years ago, when Canada sat on the UN Security Council, we worked with several countries to support the passage of Security Council Resolution 1325, a foundational call for women to be fully engaged in all aspects of peace and security. Like eighty-three other countries, Canada now has a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. We introduced the first five-year plan in 2011, and the second in 2017. Canadian civil society had long called for a dedicated champion for WPS and parliament passed a motion to create the position of Ambassador for Women, Peace, and Security. In the summer of 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed me to a three-year term, with a mandate to advise the government on delivering on our National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, and demonstrating global leadership in this area. The mandate relates to eight departments and one federal agency, meaning it spans international and domestic work.

Only a few countries have created ambassador or envoy positions for global women’s issues, and Canada’s is the first ambassador-level role to focus on women, peace, and security. Do you think your position is changing the way WPS is integrated into Canadian foreign policy?

I hope so! That’s the goal. Canada has strong policy frameworks related to women, peace, and security, and made great progress in adapting policies, programs, and practices across government. The objective in creating this role was to accelerate the pace of change in implementing the WPS agenda in Canada and abroad. My team and I want to maintain, deepen, and broaden a sense of ownership and responsibility for implementing our national action plan. We take great care not to duplicate work already underway, but also to ensure that we don’t enable—even unintentionally—the “outsourcing” of thinking or action related to this issue.

In practice, I serve as a force multiplier for the government of Canada—or in other terms, a boost of surge capacity. That includes a surge of strategic thinking and vision, to ensure Canadian government departments and civil society learn from each other and remain focused and ambitious. It includes a surge of ideas, to learn from others around the world, and to share what has worked well at home and where we continue to struggle. And it involves a surge of high-level attention; the role is at the level of ambassador to send a signal of Canada’s commitment. It enables unique access and helps confer importance—both at home and abroad.

What would you consider your main achievements so far? What programs and/or initiatives have had the most impact?

The most impressive initiatives were already in place when I started the job. One that underpins so much progress is a tool for analysis used across the government called ‘Gender-Based Analysis Plus’ (GBA+). GBA+ is a process used to assess how diverse groups of people experience policies, programs, and initiatives. The ‘plus’ means that analysis goes beyond sex and gender to look at other factors, including race, religion, age, and physical ability, among others.

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Women and Women's Rights

Conflict Prevention

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WPS Ambassador, Canada
Ambassador O’Neill meets with Jordanian soldiers and their Canadian military advisors outside of Amman, Jordan (March 2020). Nicolas Alonso, Canadian Armed Forces

An example is when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police identified that fewer women than men were applying for promotions. Applying GBA+ to the promotion process, they identified that part of the problem was that they took applications every September, making it challenging for members with school-aged children. The timing predominantly affected women, but also men who were primary caregivers. They adjusted the process to allow year-round submissions and saw an immediate 12 percent increase of women applicants. GBA+ has informed our analysis of COVID-19 as well and led to commitments such as the inclusion of $50 million in funding for domestic violence shelters as part of the government’s initial response plan. I think GBA+ is a national treasure. It’s become such a valuable tool that it’s now mandatory in all submissions to the cabinet.

There are two more highlights to note. First, the formalization of civil society’s role in the implementation of our National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (representatives co-chair the Advisory Group). Second, Canada’s leadership as Chair of the Women, Peace, and Security Chief of Defence Staff’s Network. Our Chief of Defence Staff is determined to grow membership from forty to one hundred countries, strengthening a network of highest-ranking men talking to other highest-ranking men about diversity and gender equality.

Have you encountered challenges, either domestically or abroad, in advancing WPS within the foreign policy apparatus?

Certainly. Within institutions, the biggest challenges I see are not rooted in overt resistance. The overwhelming majority of people I encounter—in Canada and around the world—want to be effective in their roles. They want to shape and implement smart and respectful policies, and they want a more peaceful world. An issue is that ensuring women’s meaningful inclusion in shaping peace and security is not yet viewed throughout organizations as a key strategic priority, although that is starting to change. 

When an issue is not a strategic priority, it often doesn’t receive the resources needed. We’re working to make sure people have not just leadership and policy guidance, but also customized tools, examples of precedent, access to networks, etc., that will help them in their day-to-day jobs. An effective approach has been sharing short examples and anecdotes; stories have a special way of changing mindsets. We’re also encouraging academics, civil society, and others to introduce people to concepts of women, peace, and security earlier in their careers. If you graduate from top schools, or complete elite military or government training, but have never seen a gender analysis, or understand how excluding women from decision-making affects outcomes, it’s a lot harder to convince you that it should be a priority.

Of course, there are pockets of active resistance everywhere in the world. There are deeply concerning trends showing a global pushback on women’s rights. In some ways, the increased profile of women, peace, and security has made resistance harder to detect. People are now more aware of what they think they are supposed to say or not say. That just means we need to dig deeper to see how resistance manifests. For example, is someone declaring something a priority, but assigning no resources? Are they relegating discussions to committees or processes that are notoriously slow or ineffective as a means of biding time and hoping political attention shifts? There is a lot to keep on our radars.

Your role has both an international and a domestic purview; why is it important to advance WPS at home, and what does that look like in Canada?

Barriers to women’s full inclusion on issues of peace and security exist here too. I’m proud that our National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security includes nine implementing partners. Our lead implementers are our departments of Global Affairs Canada, the Department of National Defence, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Other partners include the Department of Justice Canada, Public Safety Canada, Women and Gender Equality, and Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada. Crucially, it also includes two departments focused on Indigenous peoples: Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada.

First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women in Canada continue to pay the heavy price of living at the nexus of colonialism, racism, and sexism. We are striving to come to terms with the historical impacts of patriarchal and sexist policies which resulted in the loss of status and community for many women, family separation and traumatization, forced sterilization, inadequate education, housing, and health care, food and water insecurity, and more recently, the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Even today, an Indigenous woman in Canada is three times more likely to be a victim of violence than a non-Indigenous woman. We cannot accept that.

Contributing to reconciliation domestically is also key to our credibility globally. Why would governments and partners around the world view us as genuine partners if we’re not willing to undertake the same self-reflection that we’re asking of them? Patience for hypocrisy is long gone. No country is perfect, and no country has a monopoly on good ideas. We will only make progress if we are genuinely open and reflective about what’s going on at home, and are humble enough to learn from others. 

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