Photography: Dick Darrell
As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the report by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, we reflect on its significance and note that, when it comes to gender equity, the struggle continues.
On December 7, 1970, a report was tabled in the House of Commons that the media called “a bomb, already primed and ticking.”
The 488-page document was loaded with research and insights that would prove very dangerous indeed—a threat to a Canada in which men blindly benefited from the unpaid labour of their wives at home, a society in which legal restrictions kept women from enjoying their recently enshrined human rights.
These pages contained big ideas. Big plans. A looming seismic shift. But the report by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, tabled fifty years ago this month, was no bomb. It was more of a starting pistol for the second leg of a marathon in pursuit of gender equality that was already revolutionizing the Western world in a post-war era. And it’s an endurance run we are still slogging away on half a century later.
This was the first sociocultural gut check of half the population, a group of people ignored by public policy since, well, forever. It was the first blueprint for how to tackle Canada’s gender inequality on a national scale. The report argued for women’s right to respect and identity beyond the home, as well as equal pay and opportunity at work. It pressed for reforms to outmoded tax, marriage, and divorce laws and called for urgent changes to the Criminal Code and immigration laws. It had radical-for-its-time solutions to labour market inequality, like creating national child care infrastructure. Yes, that yet-to-materialize idea is more than fifty years old.
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson established the commission in 1967, but he doesn’t deserve credit for it. Women made it happen. By 1966, they had organized to push for women’s rights to be recognized as human rights. That November, the Committee for the Equality of Women in Canada (cewc) filed a brief with the federal government, pressing them to take action. When it was ignored, activist and cewc leader Laura Sabia “impulsively” told a reporter she’d send 2 million women to Parliament Hill to protest, writes media historian and Carleton University journalism professor Barbara M. Freeman in her book The Satellite Sex: The Media and Women’s Issues in English Canada, 1966-1971. “If we have to use violence,” Sabia said back then, “damn it, we will.”
That wasn’t necessary. By early 1967, the prime minister appointed journalist and broadcaster Florence Bird to lead a commission that would dig deep into the lives of Canadian women and report back with ideas for how to reduce gender inequality. On February 3 of that year, the panel of five white women and two white men set out on their quest.
The commission focused on women’s equal opportunity with men and was less interested in tearing down systems that were built to be stacked against women, says Joan Sangster, a Canadian women’s and labour historian and Trent University gender and women’s studies professor.
Over more than six months, the commission solicited almost 470 briefs and about 1,000 letters of opinion from Canadian women. They held hearings in fourteen cities across Canada’s ten provinces and in the North and heard from nearly 900 witnesses. They also fielded lots of critique, says Sangster. “The report was assailed by left-wing women. They thought it ignored structural economic inequalities—especially [those created by] capitalism.”
Women of colour spoke up, too: Black activist and journalist Carrie Best, in an unofficial capacity, called out the commission for ignoring the fundamental issues facing Black and Indigenous women, says Freeman. Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) activist Mary Two-Axe Earley advocated for changes to the Indian Act, which robbed a woman of her status if she married a man without Indian status. To Malinda Smith, a political scientist and the University of Calgary’s vice provost of equity, diversity, and inclusion, the Canadian status of women report—and others like it—tend to try to hide the country’s racist and colonial history and ongoing discrimination. “By treating all [racialized] women as immigrants, it obscured the complexity of the history, but it also privileged the English and the French.”
There was no visibility of LGBTQ issues, and the report didn’t do much to tackle poverty, either. There was also little mention of violence against women—a matter that was still considered “private” at the time.
Despite these failures and oversights, Freeman calls the report revolutionary for its time. “It was transformative in the sense that a number of its recommendations were taken up and a number of changes were made,” she says.
These changes included better representation of women in government. It led to affirmative action plans that resulted in more women being hired. Many stereotypes disappeared from textbooks disseminated in federal schools covered by the Indian Act—a move that eventually trickled down to the provinces and into broadcasting, says Freeman. In 1971, the federal government introduced a fifteen month limited paid maternity leave at 66 percent of the mother’s most-recent salary. Though it took until 1985, the federal government did finally amend the Indian Act to address gender discrimination. The report also mobilized interest groups motivated to keep the heat on the legislators to enact these changes—one of the most influential, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, was active from 1971 to the early 2000s. But equality—a.k.a. sameness—is not equity, which is making sure people have what they need to survive and thrive in a system that isn’t designed for all, says Smith. That’s today’s goal. And intersectionality, a concept that emerged in the 1980s to point out privileges and distinct disadvantages as they pertain to sexuality, gender identity, race, age, ability, and class, is now nonnegotiable for a new generation of feminists. The fight for gender equality has now moved beyond the binary.
“Mark Twain said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. And we are in a very rhyming moment right now,” says economist Armine Yalnizyan, the current Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers. Between the Women’s March and #MeToo, the revolutionary energy of the late 1960s and early 1970s is rebuilding, Yalnizyan says. Blind spots persist, however, particularly when it comes to the economy. Despite the 1970 report pointing out the inherent value of unpaid labour, she adds, “progress has been conflated with wealth.” The covid-19 pandemic has revealed this inequality: women are the essential workers, in low-wage service jobs, in the care economy. They’re the ones abandoning careers to homeschool and take care of children, contributing to the biggest drop in women’s labour force participation in more than thirty years. Yet, there’s reason to be hopeful. This fall’s Speech from the Throne promised national child care in its plan for covid-19 recovery.
We have historic work to build on. In this marathon, it’s safe to say the year of the pandemic, 2020, hit us on all of our weak spots. But it’s in the recovery that we see new opportunities that might just inch us closer to equity after all.
Image Courtesy of Bibiane Courtois
Nurse Bibiane Courtois has adapted health programs to fit the needs of Indigenous communities, and spent years as president of Quebec Native Women, where she supported the amendment of the Indian Act under Bill C-31. She has continued her advocacy as the commissioner on the Quebec Human Rights Commission and a member of the Status of Women Council of Quebec.
Photography: Randy Risling
For the past two decades, Farrah Khan has advocated for equity and an end to gender-based violence. She was appointed a member of the Gender Equality Advisory Council for the G7 and, in 2018, she addressed world leaders at the G7. Khan mentors at femifesto, a feminist organization that works to shift rape culture to consent culture; with them, she created Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada, a guide for journalists.
Janaya Future Khan
Photography: Paul Archuleta
Khan inspires the likes of Zendaya and Marc Jacobs with their Sunday Sermons on Instagram Live, which tackle everything from the Black Lives Matter movement (they are the co-founder of Canada’s chapter) to police brutality to queer theory and transfeminism. Khan has found purpose in fighting for the rights of others and working to change societal conditions and attitudes that lead to oppression.
Photography: John Mahler
As editor-in-chief of Chatelaine (1957–1977), Doris Anderson championed equality. She once published a feature on fifty women who would make good parliamentarians—and put twelve of their faces on the cover to encourage women to run for office. This led to a political career and an appointment as chair of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women. She later served as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.
Image Courtesy of the Senate of Canada
After spending most of her career covering women’s rights, international affairs, and pay inequity for the CBC, Florence Bird served as chair of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (1967–1970). She went on to be appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1971 and served as a senator until her seventy-fifth birthday.
Image Courtesy of W.H. "Bill" Olson, Dominion-wide Photographs Limited
Fifty years after the Royal Commission on the Status of Women made its 167 recommendations, we’re zooming in to track progress on five key issues.
BY AMY VALM
Recommendation 8: Equal pay
The commission asserts that women have a right to equal pay and that compensation should be determined based on skill level, responsibility, and effort—not gender. Factors like seniority should also be used to help determine the rate of pay.
First established in 1978, the Equal Wages Guidelines set a baseline for establishing pay equality. Protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act, the guidelines included skill, responsibility, effort, and working conditions as the measurements to determine value of work.
The Government of Canada introduces proactive pay equality legislation. This aims to ensure that federal workers—both men and women in private and public sectors—get equal money for work of equal value.
A study finds that, one year after postsecondary graduation, Canadian women will earn 12 percent less than men. Five years after graduation, the gap widens to 25 percent, or almost $18,000 less.
Recommendation 17: Parental leave
The commission recommends establishing a maternity leave program via the Unemployment Insurance Act so that women who contribute could have access to eighteen weeks of paid leave. The program was launched in 1971, but offered only fifteen weeks.
A new standard for maternity benefits is set when Canadian Union Postal Workers go on strike for forty-two days. The victory yields seventeen weeks of federal paid leave and helps catapult the issue into the public eye.
Justin Trudeau promises a fifteen week parental leave for adoptive parents as part of his reelection campaign. It is a step in the right direction, but some adoptive parents argue that they need more time to bond with their children than this period allows.
New and expectant parents laid off during the covid-19 pandemic before qualifying for employment insurance benefits are left struggling for benefits. The pandemic-affected school year offers a dilemma for parents as many Canadians—particularly mothers—are forced to choose between their careers and childcare.
Recommendation 76: Sex education
The commission recommends that all provinces and territories offer proper family life education. This includes sex education for boys and girls, taught in the same classroom starting in kindergarten and continuing throughout elementary and secondary schools.
Ontario implements a new sex education curriculum, its first update since 1998. The revamped syllabus includes same-sex relationships to reflect the legalization of gay marriage in Canada in 2005.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford cancels the 2015 sex education curriculum after protests from socially conservative parents.
The scrapped curriculum contains age-appropriate teachings on sexual orientation, gender identity, and consent.
Action Canada finds that the sex education being offered in Canadian schools—which varies by province and territory—is “sub-standard, outdated, inconsistent, and sometimes inaccurate.”
Recommendation 106: Treatment of Indigenous women
The commission recommends that an Indigenous woman be allowed to keep her legal Indian status if she marries a person without Indian status. It also recommends that she be allowed to pass this status down to her children.
After a decades-long campaign helmed by activist Mary Two-Axe Earley, Bill C-31 allows women who had lost their Indian status due to marriage to apply for full restoration of their rights and status. It also gives their children the right to apply for the same.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issues a public apology at the behest of the Government of Canada to Aboriginal Peoples. He acknowledges Canada’s role in the residential school system, that saw generations of children forcibly removed from their families and cultures.
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls releases a 1,200-page report that finds that Indigenous girls and women are twelve times more likely to go missing or be murdered than any other demographic in the country.
Recommendation 126: Abortion
The commission recommends that abortions be permitted at the request of any woman who has been pregnant for twelve weeks or less and highlights that a qualified medical practitioner should carry out the procedure. This requires an amendment to the Criminal Code.
The Supreme Court rules on R. v. Morgentaler, which brings the legalization of abortion. The Supreme Court of Canada deems the existing abortion law unconstitutional, stating it violates a woman’s right to “life, liberty and security of the person.”
The abortion pill, known as Mifegymiso, is made commercially available, granting greater abortion access to rural areas of the country and easing long wait times. Two years later, in 2019, Health Canada rules that women no longer require an ultrasound to be prescribed the pill.
Abortion remains a contentious topic, especially in New Brunswick, where the provincial government will not cover abortions performed outside of hospitals. The province’s only remaining abortion clinic faces closure and makes national headlines.
Gender Equality in Words and Numbers
Image Courtesy of The Walrus
Voices you should hear and statistics you should know.
BY TINA ANSON MINE
“The fight for women’s rights is an unfinished struggle. We must continue, as long as there are injustices.”
Huberte Gautreau, gender equity activist and co-founder of New Brunswick’s Crossroads for Women, a house for victims and survivors of domestic violence.
(Acadie Nouvelle, 2016, translated from French.)
“Publicly funded child care can…support economic growth by increasing the participation of women in the labour force and expanding the tax base. Child care is not an expense but an investment towards a more gender-balanced, resilient economy.”
Jasmine R. Rezaee, director of advocacy and communications at YWCA Toronto; Carolyn Ferns, public policy and government relations coordinator at the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care; Abigail Doris, executive director of the Toronto Community for Better Child Care; and Janet Davis, former Toronto city councillor. (Now Magazine, 2020.)
“This time, we’ll leave no woman behind.”
Zanana Akande, the first Black woman elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.
(Toronto Women’s March, 2018.)
“We are a dysfunctional nation because of past oppression. But only we can get ourselves out of our situation. People are still here who can teach us Aboriginal ways. And, while seeking the truth, we must be careful to be respectful of everyone.”
Gloria May Eshkibok, Two Spirit Indigenous actor, singer, and community activist.
(International Women’s Day at York University, March 2000.)
Mapping a Path to Equity
Image Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada/Topley Studio
Change takes time—and nowhere more than in the fight for gender equity. Get to know the players and the events that lead to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and their historic report.
BY REBECCA GAO
The federal advocacy group National Council of Women of Canada (ncwc) forms in 1893 with the goal of becoming a “parliament of women.” It lays the groundwork for the formation of other women’s rights groups well into the twentieth century.
The Persons case is successfully appealed, establishing women as “persons” under the law. This means they can no longer be denied the same rights as men and can work for reforms within the federal government.
On December 14, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women is created in the United States and chaired by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt until her death in 1962.
Its report, American Women, is released on October 11, 1963, and recommends substantial reforms that inspire activists in the Canadian women’s movement.
Judy LaMarsh becomes minister of national health and welfare. She is the second female cabinet minister in Canadian history and the sole woman in Lester B. Pearson’s cabinet. She immediately alerts the prime minister to the need for a federal public inquiry similar to the American one.
On April 18, the president of the Canadian Federation of University Women, Laura Sabia, sends a letter to women’s organizations across Canada inviting them to a meeting to examine the status of women.
On May 3, thirty-two women’s organizations send fifty representatives to Sabia’s meeting in Toronto. They form the Committee on the Equality of Women in Canada (cew), and pressure the federal government to launch a commission.
On November 10, cew presents the government with a brief demanding the appointment of a royal commission. With support from LaMarsh, who continues to pressure the prime minister, the cew’s demands are met, and the government agrees to launch a formal inquiry.
Pearson establishes the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada “to inquire into and report upon the status of women in Canada, and to recommend what steps might be taken by the Federal Government to ensure for women equal opportunities with men in all aspects of Canadian society”.
The commission begins their work, holding public hearings across the country.
They distribute brochures in supermarkets and libraries, and hold the events at times and in locations that are accessible for women. At the hearings, nearly 900 witnesses give testimony.
The Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada is tabled in Parliament on December 7. Its 167 recommendations tackle a wide range of issues, including pay equity, maternity leave, child care, birth control, abortion rights, and equal access to education.
The cew takes a new name, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and resolves to hold the government accountable for following through on the report’s recommendations.
The Office of the Coordinator, Status of Women—as well as a corresponding cabinet position—is created. It becomes a federal departmental agency in 1976. In December 2018, the federal government’s Department for Women and Gender Equality is established.
Provinces and territories begin to create their own advisory bodies on women’s issues, modelled on the federal office. Every province currently has a minister responsible for the status of women.
Many of the report’s recommendations are either partially or fully carried out by this decade’s end. Despite this progress, however, significant problems identified by the report still have not been resolved. Advocacy efforts continue, as certain crucial recommendations have yet to be implemented in 2020.
For more information and to read the whole story, visit TheWalrus.ca.