OTTAWA — It was the sort of audience meant to be a natural fit for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada — more than 300 young women taking part in a “Daughters of the Vote” day of civic engagement in Parliament. But no sooner had he begun to speak than several dozen of the women stood up and dramatically turned their backs on him.
“Respect the integrity of women & indigenous leaders in politics,” Deanna Allain, one of the participants, said in a tweet aimed at Mr. Trudeau earlier this month. “Do better.”
Try as he might, Mr. Trudeau can’t seem to move past the controversy that has sucked up most of the air in Canada since February, when the country’s first Indigenous female attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, quit after accusing the prime minister’s office of inappropriately pressuring her in a criminal case.
The episode has propelled Canada into an agonized, bad-tempered and occasionally hairsplitting argument about the rule of law, the exigencies of party loyalty and the role of women, Indigenous people and feminism in political life.
It has also left Mr. Trudeau, whose cabinet by design contains equal numbers of women and men, repeatedly trying to defend his feminist credentials.
He has, for instance, had to answer complaints that his treatment of Ms. Wilson-Raybould, and of another female minister who resigned in solidarity with her, has been covertly but classically sexist, a here-they-go-again example of men in power failing to listen to women who dare to speak their minds.
But there are broader questions, too, over what it means to run a country according to feminist principles. Very few places have even embarked on such a thing — in 2014, Sweden proclaimed itself to have the world’s first feminist government, and a few countries have formed cabinets that are at least 50 percent female — so Canada’s experience is a kind of experiment in progress.
Mr. Trudeau has lived up to his promise, his foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said in a recent interview, by pursuing feminist policies at home and abroad.
Among these are committing billions of dollars to a program that pays money to families with children under 18, and promoting sexual and reproductive rights overseas.
Still, how is a feminist government supposed to operate? How does having a half-female cabinet change the dynamic among its members? Should negotiations be any different when one or both of the participants is a woman? In tough conversations, or tough debates in Parliament, does gender matter?
With his government lagging in the polls as Canada prepares for a national election in the fall, Mr. Trudeau has come under attack from both right and left; the opposition has deployed the hashtag #fakefeminist all over Twitter as a weapon against him.
“If this prime minister is such a feminist, why is he muzzling the former attorney general?” Michelle Rempel, a Conservative member of Parliament, taunted Mr. Trudeau in a recent debate. In the same debate, her Conservative colleague Candice Bergen ridiculed the prime minister as a hypocrite and then accused the Liberals of “yelling” at her during her remarks.
“We will not be lectured by the Conservatives about women’s role in our society,” Mr. Trudeau responded.
In this noisy game of they said/they said, the rest of the country is trying to sort out what is politics and what is objective reality.
“We’re all looking at a Rorschach picture and coming away with different interpretations,” said Elizabeth Renzetti, a columnist for the Globe and Mail. “But because Trudeau has so diligently nailed his colors to the feminist mast, then any step he takes outside those rigidly proscribed boundaries is going to reflect badly on him.”
“It’s a hoist-by-your-own-petard situation,” she said, of the expectations raised by Mr. Trudeau’s avowed commitment to feminism: “Live by the F-word, die by the F-word.”
Olivia Chow, a former member of Parliament from the left-leaning New Democratic Party, said she saw a wearyingly familiar scenario in the dispute.
“She said, ‘No’ — once, twice, three times, four times — and they just kept at it,” Ms. Chow said, referring to Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s complaint that the prime minister’s office relentlessly leaned on her to consider a civil penalty for a company accused of bribing Libyan officials to win contracts there. “At some point you feel like, ‘How many times am I going to say, ‘No,’ and you won’t listen to me?’ ”
The Trudeau government said it pushed for the civil penalty because a criminal conviction would have cost the company government contracts, imperiling Canadian jobs.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s complaints are wide-ranging, but have focused on two aspects of the episode: first, that a senior adviser to the prime minister used “veiled threats” to compromise the integrity of her department, and second, that as a woman and an Indigenous leader — she is a former regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations — she has been silenced in her efforts to speak truth to power.
“I come from a long line of matriarchs and I am a truth teller,” she said recently. And in a written submission to the House of Commons, she said the government’s treatment of her had included “undeniable elements of misogyny, much of it aimed at myself.”
Tracey Ramsey, a member of Parliament from the New Democratic Party, repeated criticisms leveled by the opposition that members of Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party had used loaded language to demean Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who was also the justice minister.
“The prime minister’s office has attempted to make this a gender issue by labeling a strong, capable woman difficult to work with, something that women hear all the time when they’re trying to challenge the power structure,” she said. “The characterization that she ‘experienced this differently’ — how many times have women heard that in workplaces?”
But what some people call mansplaining, others — including women in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet — call politics, pure and simple.
Patricia A. Hajdu, the employment minister, said in an interview that being a minister entailed having “vigorous conversations about things that you don’t agree on.”
The issue is not one of sexism, she said, but of disagreement. “Obviously with strong leaders around the cabinet table we won’t always agree on everything,” she said. “To think there’s a gender normative way that women behave is actually sexist.”
She added: “There’s a phrase I used to like, ‘Add Women, Change Politics,’ but it’s not the whole story. Absolutely add women. But just because we have more women doesn’t mean things are necessarily going to be gentle or more cooperative.”
Ms. Freeland, the foreign minister, agreed. “I think it is both wrong and a mistake to somehow represent women in politics as somehow being better by virtue of our X chromosomes,” she said.
“I know some women who are wonderfully kind and generous and loving,” she added, “and I know some men who are — and I know some women and men who are tough and ruthless and cunning. The moment you start attributing any kind of characteristic to one gender or the other, you’re not reflecting the world I live in — and you’re setting the women up for failure.”
She said, too, that a minister should support the prime minister “99 percent of the time in private, and 100 percent of the time in public.”
Arguing that he is far better than the alternative, supporters of Mr. Trudeau point to measures like the introduction of gender-based budget analysis; the enactment of a parental leave policy for second parents; and heavy investment in public housing as examples of programs that specifically benefit women.
“By any objective measures — and I would put this in bold, in italics, underlined, highlighted — this is, bar none, the most feminist government Canada has ever had, period,” said Kate Bezanson, the chairwoman of the sociology department at Brock University.
“The charge of #fakefeminism is a handy alliterative stance for a party that is anti-choice, anti-gun control, anti-childcare legislation,” she added of the Conservatives.
One of Mr. Trudeau’s problems may be that, much like President Barack Obama, he has raised expectations.
“Something there is kind of bubbling up that has nothing to do with politics, but is more of a generational discontent,” said Penny Collenette, a prominent Liberal who now teaches at the University of Ottawa, citing the anger expressed by the young women at the parliamentary event earlier this month.
“The world needed a man to stand up and say that he was a feminist, and Trudeau did that,” Ms. Collenette added. “If he can reset — and there a number of ways he can do that, if he can make people understand that he knows he’s made some errors and has honestly apologized — will that be enough to reassure everyone?”
Mr. Trudeau himself thinks he can reset.
“You define labels not by what you choose to affix yourself with, but with what you actually do,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s lots more to do, and I am not going to worry too much about labels. I expect people to judge me on my actions.”