Why is Ottawa taxing women's periods?

As the Conservative government rejigs its 2015/16 budget, delayed until April to deal with the impact of falling oil prices on tax revenue, a group of women is reviving an effort to exempt feminine hygiene products from GST, a move that could cost Ottawa millions.

Proponents say it’s unjust and discriminatory to class tampons, sanitary napkins and other products women use during their menstrual periods as luxury items for taxation purposes.

“It’s a product that women and girls use, and there’s not a whole lot of choice, and it should not be taxed, particularly when you look at the fact that items like incontinence products are not taxed,” says Ontario New Democrat MP Irene Mathyssen, whose private member’s bill C-282 on the issue was first introduced in 2011.

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The proposal has been floating around for more than a decade in the form of NDP-sponsored bills. The latest version revives a previous attempt by Judy Wasylycia-Leis, then a Winnipeg MP.

“I think it’s an important issue,” Mathyssen told Yahoo Canada News in an interview Wednesday.

“Judy said at the time it’s a gender-based tax. It’s women and girls who pay this GST because the government doesn’t regard them as essential. In fact, they’re considered as luxury items.”

For Mathyssen, the absurdity is underscored by the fact wedding cakes and jars of cocktail cherries are exempted from the GST as food items.

Mathyssen’s bill is unlikely to be debated before the scheduled fall election but nonetheless is getting support via a petition that’s garnered more than 40,000 online signatures in the last couple of weeks.

Petition organizer Jill Piebiak told Yahoo Canada News her group hopes to get 50,000 signatures by March and deliver printed versions to Parliament. It’s modeled on similar recent petitions in Australia and Britain, where the value-added tax on the products was reduced a few years ago but not eliminated.

Treat tampons like incontinence products, says advocate

Piebiak said she doesn’t understand why tampons and related products aren’t the same as exempted incontinence pads and adult diapers.

“The government recognizes that [users can’t do without them] but it doesn’t recognize that anybody who has their period needs to use these products every month for about 40 years of their lives to live a public life,” she said.

According to data collected by Piebiak’s group, women aged 12-49 bought almost $520 million in menstrual products last year, from which Ottawa collected about $36 million in GST. Most provinces do not have sales tax on them.

The petition is directed at the office of Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay but a spokesperson in her office told Yahoo Canada News that, essentially, it wasn’t their department. We just collect the taxes; we don’t make tax policy. Try the Finance Department.

A spokesman for Finance also sloughed off the question.

“As you might suspect, the department does not comment on proposed policies, particularly in the months leading up to a budget,” assistant media relations chief David Barnabe said via email.

Barnabe pointed out Canadians can make their views about the upcoming budget known via the department’s online consultation web page.

Status of women minister mum on tax plea

There was no comment, either, from the office of Kellie Leitch, minister of status of women, which noted the petition was aimed at Findlay. That response surprised Piebiak, who would have thought the minister responsible for women’s issues might have something to say.

“This is something that’s a tax that affects only one half of the population,” she said. There really isn’t another example of an essential product that discriminates that way.

“So I would expect that somebody whose job description is the status of women in Canada would be interested in issues that Canadian women and their allies pushing for.”

Mathyssen said her attempts to raise the issue’s profile within the government have also resulted in more passing-of-the-buck.

“They’re not interested in these fairness issues,” she said, while conceding the previous Liberal government wasn’t much interested either. “This has no resonance with them and that’s the frustration.”

If it’s a matter of the government having to preserve its revenue stream as resource-based taxes dry up, Mathyssen has a solution.

“I say tax the wedding cakes.”