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Each year, International Women's Day celebrates the many victories won by women in Canada. This year is special because 25 years ago a group of Canadian women successfully pushed for gender equality in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This year also marks the tenth anniversary of Quebec's Pay Equity legislation. These achievements have not come easily.
In 1981, when the Canadian Constitution was being repatriated, Doris Anderson, the president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), chaired a committee to organize a conference to critique the proposed Charter and lobby the government to alter the wording of the Charter to include women in a substantive way. The Government insisted that the committee delay the conference until June, which would have meant that women's concerns about gender equality guarantees in the Charter would have been left out of the final wording. Anderson and five other committee members resigned in protest and the conference was cancelled. However, about 1,300 women met on Parliament Hill on February 14, 1981, to debate the Charter and today we have a specific Equality Rights clause (Section 15) and a specific guarantee for gender equality rights (Section 28).
Section 15 of the Charter gave courts the power to strike down laws that discriminate "on the basis of sex, race, disability, religion, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, age and/or any other analogous ground." The first of many key cases was the Robichaud vs. Canada Treasury Board case. Bonnie Robichaud, a feisty woman, filed a case against her supervisor for sexually harassing her. In its decision, the Supreme Court of Canada articulated the concept of a positive obligation for the employer to establish and maintain a workplace free of sexual harassment. It also ruled that human rights laws must be enforceable so that discrimination can be identified and eliminated.
The second case was Action Travail des Femmes vs. Canadian National Railways in 1987, which had far-reaching implications for women because the Supreme Court ruled that because systemic discrimination exists, employment equity plans must include reasonable hiring goals to remedy it.
Only 20 years after equal pay for work of equal value was enshrined in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights in 1976, was the Pay Equity Act implemented. However, it continues to be a major stumbling block in most sectors; currently, daycare workers in Quebec have threatened job action in the coming weeks and months over the issue. Quebec led the way for the rest of Canada with five-dollar universal daycare (now increased to seven dollars). However, the recently elected minority Conservative government of Stephen Harper threatens to undo the progress women have made in the past decade by not supporting a national childcare program.
Harper's decision to pay parents $1,200 a year for childcare in no way meets the real needs of working parents. Moreover, lack of sufficient not-for-profit daycare spaces seriously threatens the ability of working women and men to provide safe, stimulating environments for their children. The issue of daycare is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the rights threatened by the neo-conservative agenda.
In a perceptive article on Carrie Derrick, the first woman to be appointed as a full professor by McGill (in 1912, as a professor of morphological botany), Margaret Gillett writes that "the appearance of equity must not be taken at its face value. These days, although we would dearly like to think that the battles have been won, we can still expect to find discrepancies between men and women in rank, salary, and rate of promotion " (Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science, Marianne Gosztonyi Ainley (ed.), 1990: 87).
Therefore, as we celebrate our achievements on March 8, let us not forget that we cannot take gender equality for granted. Indeed the very notion of equality needs to be broadened. The struggle for social justice must include a struggle to eliminate discrimination "on the basis of sex, race, disability, religion, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, age and/or any other analogous ground."
Shree Mulay is the director of the McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women.