Monique Bégin on patriarchy, 2017

Monique Bégin received a lifetime parliamentary achievement award. Her acceptance remarks were about patriarchy and women's equality
Monique Bégin, circa 1970s

Maclean’s magazine hosted its annual Parliamentarians of the Year Award in Ottawa early in November 2017. The magazine presented a lifetime achievement award to Monique Bégin, who served as an influential cabinet minister in Pierre Trudeau’s governments, most notably as the minister of health and welfare. After leaving politics in 1984, Bégin pursued an academic career, including 11 years at the University of Ottawa. In her acceptance speech, she talked about male power and women’s equality in the context of numerous allegations about sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment and news industries and in politics. A significant portion of Bégin’s remarks follow here.  The full text of her address is available on the Maclean’s site.

“I want the roots of patriarchy to be addressed”

The Speech

I was really taken by surprise by the offer of this award. My spontaneous reaction was that it was a mistake on the person. In French we say, une erreur sur la personne, a mistaken identity. But this being said, my thanks for this wonderful honour. I am particularly touched.

It was suggested I would speak on women and or on health care. I’ll speak of women tonight. No men can leave the room, by the way. I want to say a word on women in political power to start, because with all the “Sunny Days” excitement of two years ago, with the first federal gender parity Cabinet, the temptation was to conclude: we have made it! Oh! No–we haven’t. When I was first elected to the House of Commons, we, the five women—and Flora MacDonald was one of them—in 1972, we were 1.8 per cent of the 264 MPs, at the time. This percentage reached 20 per cent in 1997, 20 years ago. My shock when checking today’s figures, is that women still make only 26.3 per cent of this House membership, ranking us—Canada—to the 64th spot out of the 188 countries analyzed by the Inter Parliamentary Union .…. Empirical research by Scandinavian feminists tell us that only when a critical mass of 30 to 33 per cent of parliamentarians are women do things start changing: the reactions to women in politics; their performance and efficiency; the political culture (norms and social conventions); the political discourse; the political agendas starting to include issues of interest to women, and so on. To conclude: we still have a long way to go, the objective being around 50 per cent of women MPs in the House of Commons.

Abuses of male power

Let’s now look at women without power, an entirely different story. The Globe’s Elizabeth Renzetti recently entitled her column: “Systemic abuses of male power are everywhere”. We all know something is wrong, for the longest of time, and that it has to do with male power. But where do we start with this infamous list of Harvey Weinstein, the RCMP, Amazon [Studios] Roy Price, Bill O’Reilly, Kevin Spacey, the Paris and Oxford University “rock star” of Islamism Tariq Ramadan, the Canadian Armed Forces, Bill Cosby, the Montreal chef and TV personality Giovanni Apollo? Where do we start? Where do we go with all of that? I admire and thank the women [who] suddenly and massively came out through the hashtag “#MeToo”, Ou celui des Françaises: “#balancetonporc” [“rat out your pig”], des Québécoises “#MoiAussi”. Ou des Espagnoles: “YoTambien”. Ou des Italiennes: “#QuellaVoltaChe” [“That time when”].

“Pussy grabbing”

On a lighter note, I admit my English vocabulary has been enriched these last months, starting with Trump’s “pussy grabbing.” Not in my Robert & Collins dictionary, which has lots of pussy-this and pussy-that, like pussy-footing but not Trump’s one! “Stalking”: I had heard the word before and still have, today, a vague idea of what it means and that it could become very scary. “Groping” is my last one. After reading its translation into French on the web—I hadn’t a clue what it meant. That word I knew from unwanted experience, way back as a new young MP—I won’t say more today. As a former academic, I recently also acquired new concepts: “toxic masculinity” or “dominant masculinity”, which The Globe [and Mail’s] Denise Balkissoon defines, quoting its author, a U.S. university professor, as “a form of alpha manhood that demands men extract submission from women, be emotionally removed but hypersexual and in control everywhere they go.” The title of her piece tells it all: “Masculinity is toxic. Men don’t have to be.” I love it! I am sure the men here tonight are men with “non-toxic” masculinity. (What would the right adjective be? …)

“Greatest danger facing man”

Let me close, on this subject, with our inimitable biologist-oceanographer-humorist-storyteller, the Senegal-born Quebecer Boucar Diouf, who wrote in La Presse in October: “My father, whom I don’t often quote, said that the greatest danger facing a man is the one swinging between his legs. And he was totally correct. To fail to understand this fundamental principle is to run the risk of a spectacular downfall, of the sort that has now befallen Éric Salvail and Gilbert Rozon. They sowed their wild oats in a lot of places where nobody wanted them. They’re reaping a media whirlwind and a richly-deserved hanging by the penis.”

Addressing patriarchy

In 1967, Mr. [Lester] Pearson’s government wanted us to make recommendations “so that women have opportunities equal to men’s.” It was about equality of opportunity and equity. Some observe that it is now switching to equality of outcomes. Those concepts, metaphors like breaking through the glass ceiling, do not address the roots of many deeply rooted social problems such as sexual abuses and harassment. . . I am not interested in being equal to men. I want the roots of patriarchy to be addressed.


Photo credit: Canadian Museum of History

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