Reinforcing male privilege: The Trudeau cabinet, Andrew Coyne, and the mythology of ‘merit’

The 15 women appointed as federal cabinet ministers under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Image via the CBC)
The 15 women appointed as federal cabinet ministers under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Image via the CBC)

You really have to love it when the beneficiaries of the greatest social assistance program in the history of Western Civilization and Canada — the one that did and has rewarded white men for having been born white men since the day the country was founded — talk about “merit” to bemoan newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to ensure his cabinet will have an equal number of men and women, thereby reflecting the actual gender composition of the country.

Efforts to redress historic injustices are always met with cries of outrage about “quotas”, “reverse sexism,” and a bunch of other total rubbish. This situation was no exception.

Usually, as Andrew Coyne did in the National Post, lip service is paid to the fact that no past cabinet was ever based on anything remotely like merit and, in fact, had a quota system that ensured that all positions of power in both government and society as a whole were 100 per cent held by white men, but they will not then accept either that these systemic biases continue to this day or that anything done to reverse them has any merit.

The injustices do still exist and it should come as absolutely no surprise that those like Coyne, who are where they are due to the cosmic crap shoot of birth — which has a lot less to do with their own merits than they might care to admit — will then go on to pontificate in ways that serve to obfuscate their own profound privilege.

There is little doubt that positions of power in our economy and politics are greatly skewed and that white men remain the overwhelming beneficiaries, still, of the ultimate example of societal welfare.

Take the corporate world. As Kate McInturff , a Senior Researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives noted in 2014:

“What makes the top 100 CEOs different from the rest of us (aside from the money)? For a start, they are almost entirely men. If the top 100 looked like the rest of working Canadians then 47 per cent of them would be women. In reality only three per cent are women.

In a recent survey, senior Canadian executives suggested that a lack of qualifications was the reason for the absence of women at the top. Yet two in five business post-graduates in Canada are women. Senior executives suggested that women were less ambitious than their male peers. Yet, 81 per cent of female MBA graduates seek corporate jobs following graduation. For those women who do manage to get their foot in the corporate door, there is no lack of hours to work. It’s their pay that looks different. Women with MBAs earn $8,167 per year less than their male colleagues in their first jobs after graduation. And the pay gap, here, as in every other field, just keeps on growing as they enter their 30s and 40s.”

Note that here too, of course, the claim of “merit” and “qualifications” are used as a lie by male executives and their apologists to buttress the argument for doing nothing about the very real male privilege that still exists in their world.

Never mind that, as she also notes:

“It would take the average working age woman in Canada 235 years (or 85,778 days) to make as much as one of these CEOs makes in a single year. It would take a first-generation immigrant woman 268 years to do it. Visible minority women and Aboriginal women would have to work the longest, at 273 years and 285 years respectively.”

Or take the fact, as noted in the Globe and Mail, that when it comes to the persistent gender-based pay gap:

“After decades of narrowing differences in pay and labour force participation rates, momentum has stalled, with some measures deteriorating in recent years. Canadian women still take home on average 73 cents for every dollar men earn, even as educational attainment has surpassed their male counterparts. The gap remains when controlled for measures such as occupations and hourly wages.”

In politics this same pattern has, of course, played out to such a degree that even Wikipedia, when commenting on the lack of women in leadership roles in Canadian politics, has come to the conclusion that:

“This dearth of women in political leadership may, in some ways, be attributable to women’s general exclusion from important cabinet positions that are seen as stepping stones to leadership. Women were largely excluded from Canadian cabinets until the 1970s. Only in rare instances do women comprise a significant proportion of Canadian cabinets, as in the case of then-Ontario Premier Bob Rae’s first cabinet in 1990, in which 11 of 26 ministers were women. As of July 2013, the Harper Cabinet had 11 female ministers in a cabinet of 39, though most hold minor portfolios.

This bears repeating: “This dearth of women in political leadership may, in some ways, be attributable to women’s general exclusion from important cabinet positions that are seen as stepping stones to leadership.”

I think this needs to be emphasized as it points to the basic and grotesque hypocrisy and contradiction at work when primarily white male commentators pen these types of apologias for historic sexism.

Again, for example, we see Andrew Coyne state:

“But nothing we have seen before can quite compare to the course the Liberals have embarked upon: an explicit 50/50 gender quota. This is not an objective or a target; not a balancing of merit and other considerations. It is a fixed rule, to be adhered to come what may.”

Yet he, himself, now obviously forgetting this in the typical way, already acknowledged that we had very much seen something that “could compare”… That is the historic — and far more dramatic and exclusionary — white male quota.

Only now, when a Prime Minister seeks to actually upend the quota imposed on our society by white men for the benefit of white men, do white men suddenly care at all about “merit!”

Where were all the white men whining about this when only (or virtually only) white men (and rich ones to boot) were the bulk or entirety of basically every cabinet in Canadian history?

That certainly was not based on merit. It was based on sexism and racism. It was only not considered a quota as the white men running the system had constructed racist and sexist narratives that claimed that only white men had the alleged “qualifications” necessary.

Folks like Coyne need to cut the false, self-serving sanctimony and bullshit. Trudeau’s plan is not a quota. It is an effort to include voices deliberately excluded from being heard for the entire history of our country and perspectives that have been deliberately kept out of the real power positions of our government — voices and perspectives that come from half the population.

The fact that countless white men were afforded positions of power and privilege not due to “merit,” but due solely to being white men, is now supposed to be simply forgotten and ignored according to the Coynes of our society. It is a call for little more than business as usual and a call, not for “merit,” but for continuing the white male hegemony that defines “merit” solely in terms of the privileged qualities that its male commentators see in the mirror.

Michael Laxer lives in Toronto with his partner, Natalie. He has a Degree in History from Glendon College of York University, is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, was a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2014, and is on the executive of the Socialist Party of Ontario. His website is The Left Chapter.

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  • ptittle

    Excellent piece, thanks! (And colour me surprised but DELIGHTED with Trudeau!)

  • behaviorismworks

    Andrew Coyne is the son of a former governor of the Bank of Canada. He’s led a privileged life as a white man with affluent and influential parents. The issue of privilege and merit is one that he needs to spend more time thinking about – this time, more humbly. Most successful white men tend to think they ‘earned’ their place at the table….

  • Srdar

    Underrepresented are rightfully represented finally. LOVE it.

  • Lucia Lola

    I’m waiting for the reports of past cabinet ministers which detail the meritocracy adhered to when they were appointed. Until then, all I hear is noise from the naysayers.

  • Lucia Lola

    Not sure what you are claiming about capable people being systematically excluded. Give me proof of the people chosen for cabinet as being less capable than others?

  • Chamberlain Adrian


  • marv

    Keep in mind that Ministers are usually figureheads. The Deputy Ministers and bureaucrats actually run the departments on a day-to-day basis. The Ministers learn from them like students – a grooming process. This constraint on bold leaders is one of the many reasons radical change is almost impossible in government. Really the whole system is stacked against class liberation no matter how knowledgeable and revolutionary the Minister might be. So gender equality is more symbolic than transformative because it will not overthrow the patriarchal structures of the state and capitalism (which also define what ‘merit’ is btw).

    A loose analogy is having gender equality in the Vatican. Women popes, cardinals and bishops
    would operate the same domineering levers of power as men.

    Nonetheless women have a right to be in the positions of authority men have created, and emblematic value could inspire women and girls to push forward to deep equality – the elimination of gender, race, economic and ability classes.

    Anyhow it’s a wretched predicament for flaming egalitarians who want to run for office.

  • Harold_Snepsts

    Fair point.Why can’t ministers be from another party? Unelected may be stretching it slightly.

  • Lucia Lola


  • Gail Harwood

    Thank you Brother for the truth you have spoken. In fact, Justin Trudeau the rich man’s son has more insight into how everyday Canadians live than the bloated, white male-centered media. Check out the interchange on the bus with Peter Mansbridge of CBC and PM Trudeau before the ceremonies at Rideau Hall. Peter Mansbridge in a smarmy fashion ridiculed the national executive riding in a bus. “Doesn’t this remind you of going to camp?” Peter intones, “Maybe we should break into singing Kumbaya.”

    To his credit, Justin was not amused, looked Peter in the face and said.” I don’t know what your experiences are on a bus, Peter, but most Canadians take the bus to work every day.”

    This rich man’s son actually had a real job. He was a teacher who went to work every day in a unionized classroom, taught students from every social class, worked collaboratively with his colleagues and probably had female bosses. So he knows from the ground up about the lives of millions of his people living in their little houses, apartments, trailers and on the sidewalks.

    I am getting sick and tired of precious air time given to the aging white boomers in the chattering classes who have lost touch with working people. As an old boomer who was saved from the lure of corporate media when I took a left turn and ended up teaching in traditional and rural Africa, I am thrilled that the next generation has finally taken over. We dare not go backwards.

    Thanks again for your fabulous article,

    Gail Harwood,Powell River BC

  • Amy Luna Manderino

    Does anyone notice that saying that a cabinet historically full of white men was based on merit is saying that being white and being male inherently has more merit? Is there any argument more racist and misogynist than that?

  • Constant

    This is such a ridiculous thing to say. Men have ruled us all for centuries, and now you are concerned that someone is dividing by gender? Now you express an interest in “qualifications?” 100% male power never invited this concern? Women have been as qualified as men since we stepped out of the primordial soup. Men have insisted on grabbing the authority, the power, and even set themselves up as the arbiters of what is ethical for all of us. Women, thanks to thousands of years of forced subordination, have a very different perspective of the world, and it is high time that perspective equally matters in making every policy decision that gets made. There is qualification in simply a non-white-male perspective. It’s called EQUALITY. It is called JUSTICE. Get used to it.

  • Curtis Manly

    Late I know but just a couple of thoughts:

    Trudeau had a couple of years to work with his party. They ran a full slate of candidates, only 31% of whom were women. This figure falls far short of the numbers run by the NDP and Greens, and just barely beats out the Bloc (had they run two more women candidates the Libs would have placed fourth). Obviously they smoked the Conservatives. He’s still running an old boy’s club. There is no gender neutral government until parties are running at least 50% female candidates.

    50 female Liberals won their ridings, making up 27% of caucus. This beats female representation in the House for the nation as a whole by a whopping 1%, and doesn’t quite meet the party’s representation of 33%. Check to see which throwaway ridings they ran women in.

    Cabinets are not selected on merit… but one wishes they were. But by couching the selection in terms of a 50-50 gender split, Trudeau instigated this entire issue. He had the opportunity to appoint a cabinet with a female majority (a really gutsy move) or a slight minority, and make it about the people he chose. Instead he chose to make it gender balanced no matter what the outcome of the election (50% of the positions selected from 27% of the available candidates), making it about him.

    So we have all these men complaining about merit, and all these women thanking a man for giving them equality. Because it’s 2015.

    It’s a good thing Stephen Harper didn’t think of this first.

  • Inagrtio

    Ministers being MPs and from the government is a feature of the Westminster system. It’s like how the floor of Parliament in most Westminster systems is only open to those who are members (small exceptions are made occasionally). To not have Ministers in Parliament at all would additionally complicate how Question Period functioned because ultimately that is one way through which Ministers are held to account. Justin at the end of the day is a politician, and for practical reasons, functional governments only make deals with other parties on cabinet positions when necessary.