Tax cramped women’s pocket books

This Canada Day, women across the nation have one more reason to celebrate: GST will no longer be charged on feminine hygiene products. Was the day chosen because it is a holiday that is all about red and white? Or perhaps because it is about celebrating Canada’s independence and now women are freed from a tax that shouldn’t have been there in the first place?

It has truly been a long time coming and it was a text from my father that reminded me of my personal connection to this issue.

Back as early as October 1998 I began corresponding with the then Minister of Finance, the Honourable Paul Martin. I wrote to ask for a review of the taxable status on sanitary napkins and tampons as I felt they should be listed under schedule V or VI (tax exempt or zero rated) exemptions because they are a necessity, not as they were then categorized as “a luxury.” I challenged him to offer up a substitutable good if they are not a necessity.

I contacted the Minister after I had spoken to Revenue Canada’s technical interpretations department, had read all of the relevant GST memorandums, and contacted the finance department’s information line; all with no forward momentum or further understanding of the issue.

The Minister replied a month and a bit later, thanking me for my letter. Part of it read: “I have noted your comments that feminine hygiene products should be exempt from sales tax. While I appreciate your point of view, the government believes it is more appropriate to provide tax relief for low-income Canadians than to exclude specific items from the tax base. This is achieved through the GST credit…”

(Clearly the Minister was unaware that low-income women also have periods.)

Then his letter turned into a form letter trying to sell me on the “government’s fiscal successes” before it closed with his huge signature.

I felt like my concern was not taken seriously.

Unfortunately, I had a monthly reminder as to the injustice that this tax showed a quarter of the nation. Suddenly, I found myself at the computer, in May of 2000, “PMSing” about this issue.

I wrote again, concerned how this tax discriminated against women. This time, a reply from the Minister took four and a half months, and unfortunately it said little more than the first:

“Allow me to begin by saying that the GST/HST does not discriminate against women. The GST/HST applies to a very broad base, with only a limited, narrow set of exemptions. These include a limited number of medical devices, prescription drugs, and basic groceries, which are equally available to women and men… The government believes that it is preferable to tax a broad base of goods and services at a lower rate rather than to exclude certain items.”

I decided to agree to disagree, reluctantly, realizing that I was only one person and my career path was not being an activist. I would need many more voices added to the conversation to make a change.

If only back then I had had Facebook at my disposal and/or a petition website, so that I could have rallied together a group of women to show the government that this issue had us all seeing red.

That’s exactly what a group of women did earlier this year. A petition was posted by Jill Piebiak with the aim of collecting 50,000 signatures in order to have the tax removed from feminine hygiene products because they are a necessity. The petition wittily stated: “Don’t tax periods–Period.”

According to their site, a couple of female MPs over the years attempted to right this wrong unsuccessfully with private members’ bills. Luckily, over 74,000 women went with the flow and signed the petition asking to change what amounts to gender-based taxation.

Fittingly, the announcement was made on menstrual hygiene day (perhaps another celebration where people don red and white?).

When I wrote the Minister in my late twenties I couldn’t have imagined the existence of social media, let alone the power it has to impact change. I have to thank Piebiak for taking up the tampon tax torch successfully and relieving us of this monthly cramp on our pocketbooks.

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