How Canada’s Ambassador for Women, Peace, and Security can use her global experience to make a local impact

By Alicia Sinclair

This year is the 20th anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, the first time the Security Council formally recognized the unique impact that conflict has on women.

Considered the foundation for the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda globally, Resolution 1325 sought to prevent the violation of women’s rights during conflicts, to support women’s participation in peace negotiations and in post-conflict reconstruction, and to protect women and girls from sexual violence in war. Since then, the United Nations Security Council has passed nine additional WPS resolutions.

Canada was critical not only to passing Resolution 1325 as a member of the Security Council but also as a leader in maintaining international momentum on the WPS agenda.

During Prime Minister Trudeau’s first term, Canada became only the second country to launch an explicitly feminist foreign policy, drawing from the WPS agenda. Some initiatives include:

  • A new Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) launched in 2017 increases investments for programs that target gender equality and the women’s empowerment to 15% of Canada’s $2.6 billion bilateral development assistance in 2022, up from 2% in 2015-16.
  • The Elsie Initiative Fund provides $15 million to increase women’s participation in UN peace processes.
  • During Canada’s G7 presidency in 2018, it spearheaded the G7 WPS Partnerships Initiative, which aims to increase WPS implementation in partnership countries.
  • Canada doubled support for the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund.

Canada’s Ambassador for Women, Peace, and Security

Continuing this feminist foreign policy, last June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Jacqueline O’Neill as Canada’s first Ambassador for Women, Peace, and Security.

Her mandate includes advising the Canadian government on domestic and foreign policies related to the WPS agenda; representing Canada in national and international WPS initiatives; and hosting events with stakeholders across the globe who are advancing women’s participation in peacebuilding.

Chief among her responsibilities is raising the profile of Canada’s National Action Plan and advising on a “whole-of-government” approach to meet its stated objectives. This will involve providing policy advice to several federal departments: Crown-Indigenous Relations; Foreign Affairs; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship; Indigenous Services; International Development; Justice; National Defence; Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness; and Women and Gender Equality.

Trudeau could not have picked a Canadian better suited to launch this office. Ambassador O’Neill—a native of St. Albert, AB and the daughter of former Alberta MLA Mary O’Neill and former Alberta deputy minister Jack O’Neill—has advised over 30 countries, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the Canadian federal government on Women, Peace, and Security initiatives throughout her career. Most notably, for 12 years she served as the President for the Institute for Inclusive Security, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit whose mission is to include a variety of stakeholders, particularly women, in preventing conflict and building peace.

O’Neill’s First Term in Office

An Ambassador is inherently a global-facing role, and O’Neill’s experience makes her an asset for Canada in the international arena. Her first nine months were consumed by trips to Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Senegal, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere.

But Ambassador O’Neill’s unique role involves not only representing Canada globally but also advising the government itself. Just as important as international engagement is raising the importance of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda at home.

The jargon-filled world of foreign policy often fails to connect with everyday Canadians. Without a clear understanding by the public, the WPS agenda risks remaining a politicized objective, instead of a national priority. Canada’s support of WPS over the past 20 years – under governments of different stripes – was critical to its global impact, and maintaining that support should be the first objective of the new Ambassador.

During the remainder of her three-year term, Ambassador O’Neill should elevate the public awareness and support of the WPS agenda domestically by undertaking the following three recommendations.

Apply the Women, Peace, and Security Lens to Local Policing and Community Safety in Canada

As an advisor to the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, she should engage the RCMP and other police forces and community policing organizations across Canada to provide a Women, Peace, and Security lens to public safety and policing.

Though the Women, Peace, and Security framework developed through the United Nations focuses on women impacted by armed conflict in fragile states, Ambassador O’Neill can bring the principles from these resolutions to policing in Canada. The WPS framework understands women have unique and valuable perspectives to anticipating where and how crime breaks out, and she should provide guidance on how police forces can engage women effectively to prevent crime and promote community safety. At a time when Canada faces what experts are calling a domestic abuse crisis, the RCMP and other police forces can apply lessons learned from other countries who use WPS principles and strategies to prevent and respond to violence against women.

Additionally, just as Canada funds initiatives to support more women police and soldiers around the globe as part of its WPS objectives, Ambassador O’Neill’s office should support programs to encourage more women in uniform at home. Studies have shown that women police officers are less likely to use excessive force, are better at diffusing confrontations, are better at responding to sexual violence.

By guiding such efforts, she can be seen as a trusted WPS advisor to local communities, and police forces will experience firsthand the positive impact that the Women, Peace, and Security framework has in community safety and conflict reconciliation—just as it does in places around the world. More Canadians will support her work when they see the global framework’s effective impact in the local context.

Bring the Women, Peace, and Security lens to Crown-Indigenous Affairs and Elevate its Importance in the next National Action Plan

Canada’s current National Action Plan (2017-2022) acknowledges the government’s failures in protecting Indigenous women’s security and states its commitment to renewing relationships with Indigenous peoples. However, the plan does not mention steps to improving the security of Indigenous women and girls, and the Departments of Crown-Indigenous relations and Indigenous Services are not listed as “Action Plan Partners” in the current plan.

Ambassador O’Neill should actively engage Canada’s Indigenous community during consultations for Canada’s next National Action Plan. WPS principles of women’s participation and inclusion have a lot to offer Indigenous reconciliation, and when developing Canada’s next National Action Plan, O’Neill should engage Indigenous women and list objectives for improving the security of Indigenous women and girls in the plan.

Using WPS principles to advance reconciliation is not only the right thing to do because it can improve security of Indigenous women and girls but also Canada’s treatment of Indigenous women harms Canada’s WPS credibility. If O’Neill can use WPS principles to improve Indigenous women’s security and can become a trusted partner within the Indigenous community, she can secure the Women, Peace, and Security agenda – and its application domestically and abroad – as a national priority.

Communicate in Language Everyday Canadians Understand

Before the end of her first term in office, Ambassador O’Neill should tour the country to share Canada’s progress on WPS and its goals. The critical shift will be to distill the WPS agenda into language everyday people understand with a focus on how Canada is making the world safer and how the WPS lens can make Canadians safer at home.

Ambassador O’Neill’s experience so far is rich with first-hand stories of the difference Canada is making in the world. From supporting women-led civil society groups in Sudan’s revolution last year to training an all-female, Jordanian military squad in preventing violent extremism, O’Neill has seen the fruits of Canada’s WPS priorities and its role in preventing conflict and in peaceful nation building.

For many Canadians, the term “feminist foreign policy” elicits an emotional and sometimes polarizing response. Instead, stories about how Canada has played invaluable roles in making the world not only safer for Canadians but also for the world’s vulnerable are narratives that all Canadians can unite around. In order for more Canadians to support the important work O’Neill is doing and elevate it to a national priority, she should promote her work and the WPS agenda to Canadians in their language, in words and stories that remind them why they are proud to be Canadian.