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The Facts about Intersectional Feminism in Canada

Advancing gender equality in Canada isn’t just about closing gaps between men and women.  People experience different barriers depending on many elements of their identities—things like their sexuality, race, gender identity, ability, and age. Pursuing true equality means recognizing and meeting all peoples’ diverse needs.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation practices an intersectional approach to feminism and pursuing gender equality. That means we try to understand the many ways different women are affected by barriers and discrimination that go beyond their gender.

For example, some women are at higher risk of gender-based violence, have fewer economic opportunities, and face a bigger gender wage gap than others. It doesn’t happen because they’re not “trying hard enough”. It happens because of greater systemic discrimination in their lives.

This fact sheet answers some frequently asked questions about taking an intersectional approach to feminism and gender equality.

    • Where does the term intersectionality come from?

      In 1989, American legal scholar and civil rights activist, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to explain how race intersects with gender to produce barriers for Black women.1 Crenshaw used the metaphor of a traffic intersection to explain the concept:2 When traffic flows from four directions and an accident occurs, the accident can be caused by cars coming from one direction or from all directions. The cause is hard to distinguish. Similarly, when Black women face discrimination, it’s not due to only racism or only sexism — it’s a combination of both forms of discrimination.3

      • Crenshaw and her contemporaries recognized that the unique experiences of Black women were ignored by mainstream feminism and used intersectionality to describe Black women’s experience of discrimination.4 The term also helped draw attention to anti-discrimination laws that didn’t protect Black women’s rights.5
      • Before Crenshaw used the term intersectionality, Black women scholars and activists challenged scope and definition of feminism.6 Some used the concept of interlocking systems of oppression to address power structures that discriminate against women.
      • Diverse women’s movements have also “challenged the assumption that white middle-class women could make claims to represent all women when many were unable to identify with this homogenous definition. These feminists argued that marginalized women had rights to represent themselves based on their particular knowledge and lived experiences.”7
      • The terms intersectionality and intersectional feminism have expanded to encompass overlapping impacts of discrimination based on gender, race, physical ability, ethnicity, nationality, citizenship, socio-economic status, and more.8  Crenshaw herself addressed “The Urgency of Intersectionality” in a 2016 TED talk.
    • Why does intersectionality matter?

      Intersectionality plays a key role in understanding the challenges that diverse women face, as well as how we work together to advance gender equality. When we look at data related to gender equality, it reveals that some groups face different and/or higher risks than others, and services, systems, and solutions must recognize and address those risks to be effective. Here are some examples related to gender-based violence and poverty:

      Gender-based violence:

      • In Canada, the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is a tragic example of how intersecting barriers impact women’s safety and well-being.
      • Due to the legacy of colonization, residential schools, and marginalizing policies, women in Indigenous communities face complex barriers. For example, they experience higher rates of poverty, unstable housing, gender-based violence, and other forms of systemic discrimination.9
      • “This persistence of longstanding social and economic marginalization has given rise to large numbers of Indigenous women living in vulnerable situations, including homelessness, and abusive relationships,” says a report by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. “It has also led to the disproportionate engagement of Indigenous women in high-risk activities such as hitchhiking, drug use, gang activity, and prostitution. These vulnerable situations and high-risk activities perpetuate vulnerability to violence by making it more difficult for these Indigenous women to escape the vicious cycle of violence.”10
      • This legacy has also made it more difficult for women in Indigenous communities to trust authorities and institutions, including the police and justice system. 11 Police responses to disappearances, domestic violence, and sexual assault have been called into question for many reasons.12
      • According to the RCMP, there were 1,181 cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women in Canada between 1980 and 2012.13 However, the Minister for the Status of Women and the Native Women’s Association of Canada have estimated that the number is closer to 4,000.14 Statistics have indicated that Indigenous women in Canada are six times more likely to be killed than non-Indigenous women.15
      •  The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls described the violence as a form of genocide, and called on Canadians to listen and look closely at the systemic racism and colonialism that contributed to the deaths and abductions of Indigenous women and girls. It emphasized the importance of an intersectional approach to understanding the lived experiences of Indigenous women and girls, as well as 2SLGBTQQIA people.16 17
      • Violence against Indigenous women and girls is one example of the need for an intersectional approach to reduce risk and build equity and safety. Statistics show that other groups of women also face disproportionately higher risks of gender-based violence. Women with disabilities and those who are institutionalized, single women, young women, and women who are unemployed or have low incomes are at heightened risk of sexual assault.18

      Women and poverty

      When it comes to women’s earnings and financial stability, some women face higher rates of poverty and bigger wage gaps.19 Looking at this data through an intersectional lens helps to provide a more accurate and urgent picture of how these issues impact diverse women.

      • In Canada, 30 per cent of single mothers (compared to 10 per cent of coupled parents with children) 20 and 23 per cent of women with disabilities (compared to 9 per cent of women without disabilities)21 live on a low income.
      • On average, women working full-time, full year jobs in Canada earn 75 cents for every $1 earned by men.22 Indigenous women working full-time, full-year jobs earn 65 cents for every $1 earned by non-Indigenous men.23 Racialized women working full-time, full-year jobs earn 67 cents for every $1 earned by non-racialized men.24

      For more information, go to The Facts about Women and Poverty in Canada and The Facts About The Gender Wage Gap in Canada.

    • How does intersectionality play a role in the movement toward gender equality today?
        • The effectiveness of the gender equality movement depends on its ability to push for gains for all women. By many measures, the quality of life for many women in Canada has improved. But “an intersectional approach reveals no area that has unequivocally improved for all women. Deeper analysis reveals that for some women — Indigenous Black, and other racialized women, immigrant women, women with disabilities and women in remote areas — improvements have been marginal or insignificant.”25
        • A well-functioning gender equality movement that takes a strong intersectional approach requires robust funding. From 2005-2015, the movement stalled due to lack of government funding.26 More than 30 women’s organizations in Canada lost 100% of their funding. Organizations that provide support to Indigenous women, immigrants, and refugees had their funding significantly reduced.
        • In 2015, the federal government introduced the Gender Equality Policy, which prioritized gender parity in the federal cabinet and moved forward with the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, as well other initiatives to address gender equality.27
        • Despite obstacles, social movements organized by diverse women have helped to mobilize people and impact public policy around equity. Some examples include:
          • Idle No More: Formed in Saskatchewan by three Indigenous women and one ally, it quickly grew into an international movement that supports Indigenous people.28
          • Black Lives Matter: Started in the U.S. by three women, it has now spread into a global network. The Toronto chapter’s work led to a coroner’s inquest into the police shooting of Andrew Loku and the re-establishment of the provincial Anti-Racism Secretariat in Ontario. 29
          • In 2005, Sisters in Spirit was launched by Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) to raise awareness about violence against Indigenous women and girls. Its work, alongside other Indigenous women’s groups, brought about the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.30
        • In more recent years, some movements related to gender equality have been critiqued   from an intersectional lens:
          • Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo Movement, along with others, have expressed concern that marginalized women’s experiences were not acknowledged when the hashtag went viral in 2017.31 The focus on high-profile cases of sexual assault and harassment may have detracted attention from women in more vulnerable circumstances with few resources for help.
          • Some of the more recent women’s marches in the U.S. and Canada have been critiqued for a lack of inclusivity and/or for not sharing platforms with diverse groups of women.32 33

      Intersectional feminism on an international scale:

        • In 2018, 60+ feminists from Canada, G7 countries and around the world came together to call on all G7 leaders to adopt an intersectional approach to decision-making to advance gender equality.34
        • They advocated for the input of racialized and Indigenous women in G7 decision-making and policy and program implementation.35
        • They asked leaders to adopt a new economic model that works for all women and provide better resources for feminist movements.36
        • They urged the G7 leaders to focus on issues such as inequality, gender parity, sexual and reproductive health and rights, climate change, and gender-based violence against women.37
    • How can intersectionality be implemented by policy makers and governments?

      It is important for legal systems and governments to apply an intersectional framework to fulfill their responsibilities to the public.

      Data diversity is one of the keys to changing policies and systems so that they work for all women.38 For example, for racialized people, their lived experiences of racism are “(frustratingly) considered ‘not enough’ evidence—and for this reason, [race-based] data can be a powerful tool for communicating the institutionalized nature of racial inequities to the broader public and making a case for change.” Race-based data has been recommended by the Ontario Human Rights Commission as a tool to measure, monitor, and ultimately reduce racial profiling in police traffic stops. The Wellesley Institute notes the value of race-based data to improve healthcare for racialized communities, but demonstrates the importance of true commitment to using the data for that purpose and being accountable to racialized patients.

      Key research bodies have begun to improve data diversity in many areas. For instance, in 2018, Statistics Canada began testing a third gender option for non-binary individuals in surveys.39

      Statistics Canada launched its Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Department40to help policy makers and service providers better understand the barriers that intersect with gender, race and other social categories.41

      In 2019, the federal government released a new anti-racism strategy to build a more inclusive country.42

      When it comes to services, some government departments are applying research findings that addressing transgender youth by preferred pronouns has a positive impact on mental health.43

      In 2018, Service Canada began using gender-neutral terms to address their customers.44 In 2019, the federal government announced that Canadian citizens and residents can request the gender “X” for their identification documents.45

      At the provincial level, the Ontario Human Rights Commission takes an intersectional approach to multiple grounds complaints.46 Multiple grounds complaints refer to intersecting discriminations that a person has encountered.47 The Commission looks at the social, historical and political context of the discrimination on multiple levels, and how they have led to an individual’s unique experience of discrimination.48 The Commission acknowledges, however, that the court system has yet to fully understand or implement intersectionality.49

    • What is Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+)?
      • GBA+ is an analytical tool to identify potential policy impacts on different groups of people, recognizing multiple identities on top of sex and gender, including race, ethnicity, religion, age and mental or physical disability.50
      • In 1995, the federal government pledged to incorporate Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) into its policy- and decision-making processes.51 In 2016, the government renewed its commitment and vowed to strengthen its application.
      • In 2018, the government applied GBA+ analysis to the federal budget for the first time.52
      • Reports indicate that the full application of GBA+ across government policies is still in progress.53
    • How can I be an intersectional feminist ally?

      Being an intersectional feminist ally means using your voice to advocate for inclusion and diversity, as well as support women and girls who face barriers and discrimination that you may not face yourself.

      There are several ways you can be a better intersectional feminist ally:54

      • Be aware of sweeping generalizations or beliefs about marginalized groups, and recognize that within those groups, people have multiple identities and experiences. For example, not all women or people in the queer community have the same experiences or perspectives.
      • Use inclusive language when addressing or acknowledging people with multiple identities.
      • Analyze the diversity and representation in your daily life, whether it’s at work, at school, or in your community. Ask yourself whether these spaces could be more inclusive and welcoming.
      • Take the opportunity to listen when someone with multiple identities shares their experience, while recognizing it’s not their responsibility to educate others. Take the initiative to research diverse viewpoints that will broaden your understanding.
    • How can service providers apply intersectionality into their work to better support their clients?

      Intersectionality can be applied to services, programs and projects by:55

        • Recognizing the intersecting barriers within communities based on ethnicity, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etc.56
        • Considering the barriers to accessing services such as transportation, language barriers, physical access barriers, and lack of childcare.57 For example, in 2018 the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters revised an American danger-assessment tool from the 1980s to tailor questions based on newcomer women’s experiences, and translated questions into more languages.58 Several agencies, including Edmonton law enforcement and medical staff, were trained to use this tool to determine the safety of newcomer women in abusive relationships.59
        • Building intersectional policies into the organizational structure to reduce barriers.60
        • Training all volunteers, staff and board members on the importance of intersectionality.61
        • Collecting client data to ensure the organization is reaching marginalized populations and to track past achievements.62
        • Forming partnerships with other social justice groups that serve marginalized communities.63
  1. Columbia Journalism Review. The origin of the term ‘intersectionality.’ Merrill Perlman. 2018. Available here
  2. International Socialist Review (ISR). Black feminism and intersectionality. Sharon Smith. Issue 91. Available here
  3.  International Socialist Review (ISR). Black feminism and intersectionality. Sharon Smith. Issue 91. Available here
  4. Time Magazine. What’s Intersectionality? Let These Scholars Explain the Theory and Its History. Arica L. Coleman. 2019, Paragraph 4-7. Available here
  5. NewStatesman America. Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality: “I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use.” Bim Adewunmi. 2014. Available here
  6. Time Magazine. What’s Intersectionality? Let These Scholars Explain the Theory and Its History. Arica L. Coleman. 2019. Available here
  7. Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women. Intersectional Feminist Frameworks: An Emerging Vision. 2006. Available here
  8. Columbia Journalism Review. The origin of the term ‘intersectionality.’ Merrill Perlman. 2018. Available here
  9. Organization of American States (OAS). Inter – American Commission on Human Rights. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia, Canada. 2014. p. 39-44. Available here
  10. Organization of American States (OAS). Inter – American Commission on Human Rights. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia, Canada. 2014. p. 39- 44. Available here
  11. Human Rights Watch. Those Who Take Us Away. Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada. 2013. P. 66. Available here
  12. Human Rights Watch. Those Who Take Us Away. Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada. 2013. p. 67-72. Available here
  13. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview. 2014. p. 3. Available here
  14. CBC News. Confusion Reigns Over Number of Missing, murdered Indigenous Women. John Paul Tasker. 2016. Available here
  15. Statistics Canada. Homicide in Canada, 2014. Available here
  16. National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Volume 1a. p.102-110. Available here
  17. Maclean’s. The MMIWG final report lands: ‘I hold up a mirror to Canada.’ Shannon Proudfoot. 2019. Available here
  18. Department of Justice. Statistics on Sexual Assault. Characteristics of Crimes of Sexual Assault and of its Victims. Available here
  19. Statistics Canada. Low income in Canada: A multi-line and multi-index Perspective, Summary. 2012. Available here.
  20. Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population, Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016124. Available here
  21. Canadian Income Survey, Statistics Canada. Table 206-0053. “Distribution of employment income of individuals by sex and work activity, Canada, provinces and selected census metropolitan areas, annual.” Available here.
  22. Statistics Canada. Distribution of employment income of individuals by sex and work activity, Canada, provinces and selected census metropolitan areas, 2012-2017. Available here.
  23. Statistics Canada, 2016 Census. No. 98-400-X2016268. Calculated using the full-time, full-year average employment income in Indigenous females ($48,590) divided by the full-time, full-year employment income of non-Indigenous males ($74,691), equaling 65%, or a 35% difference. Available here.
  24.  Statistics Canada, 2016 Census. No. 98-400-X2016360. Calculated using full-time, full-year average employment income for total visible minority females ($51,173) divided by the full-time, full-year average employment income of males who are not a visible minority ($76,853), equaling 67%, or a 33% difference. Available here.
  25. Gender Equality Network Canada. Women’s Equality in Canada: An Environmental Scan. Available here.
  26. The Canadian Women’s Foundation. Gender Equality Network Canada. Women’s Equality in Canada An Environmental Scan. p. 1. Available here.
  27. The Canadian Women’s Foundation. Gender Equality Network Canada. Women’s Equality in Canada An Environmental Scan. p. 2. Available here.
  28. The Canadian Women’s Foundation. Gender Equality Network Canada. Women’s Equality in Canada An Environmental Scan. p. 4. Available here.
  29. The Canadian Women’s Foundation. Gender Equality Network Canada. Women’s Equality in Canada An Environmental Scan. p. 4. Available here.
  30. The Canadian Women’s Foundation. Gender Equality Network Canada. Women’s Equality in Canada An Environmental Scan. p. 4. Available here.
  31. The Washington Post. The marginalized voices of the #MeToo movement. Eugene Scott, 2017. Available here.
  32. HuffPost US. Women’s March Organizers Address Intersectionality as The Movement Grows. Rahel Gebreyes, 2017. Available here.
  33. YWCA Metro Vancouver. Intersectionality: YWCA Metro Vancouver Blog. Elysse Cloma. 2017. Available here.
  34. W7 Feminist Vision for the G7. 2018. P. 1. Available here.
  35. W7 Feminist Vision for the G7. 2018. P.2. Available here.
  36. W7 Feminist Vision for the G7. 2018. P.2. Available here.
  37. W7 Feminist Vision for the G7. 2018. P. 3-9. Available here.
  38. The Globe and Mail. How Canada’s racial data gaps can be hazardous to your health. Tavia Grant and Denise Balkissoon. 2019. Available here.
  39. The Globe and Mail. Statistics Canada begins testing non-binary gender options in surveys. Tavia Grant. 2018. Available here.
  40. Statistics Canada. Gender, diversity, inclusion statistics. 2019. Available here.
  41. Mobile Syrup. Innovation Minister announces Statistics Canada Centre for Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Statistics. Aisha Malik. 2019. Available here.
  42. National Post. Ottawa unveils anti-racism strategy, which includes definition of Islamophobia. Maura Forrest. 2019. Available here.
  43. CBC. Better mental health among trans people addressed by their preferred name: Study. Kas Roussy. 2018. Available here.
  44. CBC News. Adopting gender-neutral terms ‘step in the right direction’ for Service Canada.  2018. Available here.
  45. CBC News. New gender ‘X’ option on Canadian ID a mixed blessing, say advocates. Alexandra Burza. 2019. Available here.
  46. Ontario Human Rights Commission. An introduction to the intersectional approach. Available here.
  47. Ontario Human Rights Commission. The move towards an intersectional approach. Available here.
  48. Ontario Human Rights Commission. An introduction to the intersectional approach. Available here.
  49. Ontario Human Rights Commission. The move towards an intersectional approach. Available here.
  50. Government of Canada. Government of Canada’s Approach. GBA+ Gender-Based Analysis Plus. 2018. Available here.
  51. Government of Canada. What is GBA+? GBA + Gender-Based Analysis Plus. 2018. Available here.
  52. Canadian Women’s Foundation. “Historic 2018 Federal Budget Sets Out a Path Toward Gender Equality”. February 28, 2018. Available here.
  53. Canadian Press, “Many federal departments not meeting gender analysis targets, internal docs show”, Teresa Wright, Feb. 2, 2019. Available here.
  54. YWCA Boston. What is intersectionality, and what does it have to do with me? 2017. Available here.
  55. CRIAW/ICREF. Everyone Belongs. A Toolkit for Applying Intersectionality. P. 19-22. Available here.
  56. CRIAW/ICREF. Everyone Belongs. A Toolkit for Applying Intersectionality. P. 19. Available here.
  57. CRIAW/ICREF. Everyone Belongs. A Toolkit for Applying Intersectionality. P. 19. Available here.
  58. Toronto Star. Nisa Homes to open shelter for Muslim women in Edmonton. Kasmala Fida. 2019. Available here.
  59. Toronto Star. Nisa Homes to open shelter for Muslim women in Edmonton. Kasmala Fida. 2019. Available here.
  60. CRIAW/ICREF. Everyone Belongs. A Toolkit for Applying Intersectionality. P. 20-21. Available here.
  61. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Youth and Student Organization (IGLYO). Intersectionality Toolkit. Ani Giorgadze, Dani Prisacarui, Daniela Prisacariu, Eirik Rise, Euan Platt, George-Konstantinos Charonis, Joshua McCormick, Maryam Din, Mina Tolu and Orlaith Hendron. p. 12. Available here.
  62. CRIAW/ICREF. Everyone Belongs. A Toolkit for Applying Intersectionality. P. 22. Available here.
  63. CRIAW/ICREF. Everyone Belongs. A Toolkit for Applying Intersectionality. p. 21. Available here.