Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada
The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada was created in 1967 and given the mandate 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 equal opportunities for women in all aspects of the Canadian society". The creation of this commission might not have happened without the collective efforts of feminist activists nation-wide, who were fed up with their unequal status and who envisioned a more inclusive Canada in which women could grow, achieve and thrive without limits. Learn more about the creation of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, the Commission’s Report, and some of the key figures involved by clicking the links below!
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Story of the Report
The 1960s was a period of dramatic change and upheaval in Canada, as it was in most western nations. As the civil rights and peace movements gained momentum, so too did the second wave of the women's movement, bringing with it pressure to advance equality for women. The post-war boom had seen a growing number of women choosing higher education and paid employment over traditional roles, while others were demanding recognition for their work at home and greater sharing of responsibilities between women and men.
The groundbreaking Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, tabled in Parliament on December 7, 1970, included 167 recommendations on updating the legislative system and addressing critical issues for women within 8 categories:
- women in the economy
- women in the family
- taxation and childcare allowances
- participation of women in public life
- immigration and citizenship
- criminal law and women offenders
All recommendations made, such as greater representation of women in politics, universal childcare, and eliminating the wage gap, were meant to increase women’s autonomy, bring women’s voices into positions of power and decision-making, and create a solid foundation upon which women could gain equal status to men in all aspects of Canadian society.
Over the last 50 years, The Report has paved the way for significant progress in advancing gender equality in Canada. Women and Gender Equality Canada’s earliest iteration was marked with the appointment of the first Minister responsible for the Status of Women in 1971. Initially established within the Privy Council Office, Status of Women Canada became a departmental agency of the federal government in 1976. The extraordinary work towards advancing gender equality was captured in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms enacted as part of the Constitution Act in 1982, which outlaws discrimination based on sex and a number of other grounds. This law set the stage for important milestones in Canada’s history, such as the election of the first woman Prime Minister in 1993, and the passing of Canada’s first federal proactive Pay Equity legislation and with it, the creation of the role of Pay Equity Commissioner in 2018. By way of the 50th anniversary of the Report, we honour and celebrate all those who have worked, and continue to work tirelessly towards advancing women’s and gender equality.
The Report has left a powerful legacy, inspiring a range of actions to address barriers to gender equality in Canada. While there is still work left to be done, our strong and vibrant women’s movement has created and sustained momentum far and beyond the changes called for in the Report, improving the lives of women and girls across the nation.
In December 2018, new legislation created the Department for Women and Gender Equality (WAGE), transforming the former Status of Women Canada into an official department of the Government of Canada. The evolution of Status of Women into WAGE modernizes and formalizes, in law, the roles of the Minister and the Department. Today, WAGE continues to promote gender equality and works with its many partners to advance women's and girls' full participation in all aspects of Canadian life.
Royal Commission’s key figures
The creation of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women was the result of a long, hard-earned fight for gender equality in Canada. While this was a collective effort made by a united front of strong, determined women, there were three remarkable women who made historic contributions. Without them, the Report would not have been possible!
Judy LaMarsh was the second ever woman to serve as a federal Cabinet Minister in Canada. As Secretary of State in 1967, LaMarsh urged Lester B. Pearson to initiate a public inquiry into the standing of women in Canadian society although this initial request was shut down. Yet her perseverance, alongside advocacy work from several activists and women’s organizations, ultimately resulted in the creation of The Royal Commission on the Status of Women. After leaving office and resuming her law practice, she often took on civil rights cases, including the defense of the Brunswick Four, a prominent 1974 LGBT rights case. In 1979, she was awarded the Order of Canada.
Laura Sabia was a feminist social activist whose advocacy work ultimately resulted in the creation of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. At a time when the women’s equality movement was beginning to gain traction around the world, questions surrounding the status of Canadian women began to grow. Sabia led a coalition of thirty-two women’s groups as the president of the Canadian Federation of University Women in a campaign that pressured the Canadian government to establish an inquiry into the status of women. This culminated in Sabia promising a march of two million women on Parliament Hill if action wasn’t taken, leading Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to ultimately agree to the commission. Her unprecedented work united women’s organizations in advocating together for the rights of Canadian women.
Monique Bégin is an academic and former politician who served as the Royal Commission’s executive secretary. As a sociologist with a background of research in women’s issues, she played a key role in the creation of the Report, which used over four hundred briefs and over a thousand letters regarding women’s rights from all across Canada. In 1972, she became the first Québec woman to be elected to the House of Commons. Throughout her career, Bégin would become both the minister of National Revenue and the minister of National Health and Welfare. She is known for her work in passing the 1984 Canada Health Act, a major success that played an important role in strengthening the Canadian health care system.
Florence Bird was a senator, journalist, broadcaster and author. She served as Chair of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada from 1967-1970. Born in the United States in 1908, Bird immigrated to Montreal with her husband in 1931. Over the next few years, she would begin her long and illustrious career in print and broadcast journalism that extensively covered topics relating to the rights of Canadian women. Bird was appointed to become the Chair of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada in 1967 by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, becoming the first woman to head a royal commission of inquiry. She was appointed to the Senate of Canada by Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1978.
Elsie MacGill was the first female aeronautical engineer in the world and in 1938, she becomes the first female member of the Engineering Institute of Canada. As chief aeronautical engineer of Canadian Car & Foundry (Can Car), MacGill oversaw the refurbishing of the Can Car plant by equipping it to mass-produce the Hawker Hurricane, one of the main fighter planes flown by Canadian airmen in WWII. This garnered much media attention and she was dubbed “Queen of the Hurricanes.” MacGill was known for being an active feminist and served on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada from 1967-1970. She worked tirelessly after her time as a commissioner to strive for women’s equality, including speaking out about discrimination against women in engineering. In 1979, she was awarded the Gold Medal from the Association of Professional Engineers Ontario, the organization's highest honour.
Lola M. Lange
Lola Lange was a rural Canadian feminist and a member of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Born in Edmonton, Alberta in 1922, she moved to the rural community of Claresholm after marrying her husband, Ottomar Lange in 1943. While there, Lange became involved in rural organizations such as 4-H and the Alberta Farm Wives' Union and in 1967 the Bank of Montreal awarded her a grant to study the effects of continuing education in farming and rural communities. It was her research during this time drew the attention of the Canadian government during the formation of the Royal Commission. Lange’s role on the Commission was to represent the interests of rural women and to ensure their voices would be heard and she went so far as to set up a telephone line to hear from women too isolated or busy to attend the Commission hearings. Lange joined with Bird to journey to the remote northern regions of Canada to capture Indigenous perspectives for the project. On completion of the Commission’s work in 1970, it was Lange who lobbied for copies to be distributed in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Jeanne Lapointe was a Canadian intellectual and academic who played a key role in changing research and critical perspectives in Quebec universities. Born in 1915 in Chicoutimi, Quebec, Lapointe became the first woman professor of literature at the Faculty of Arts at Laval University in 1940. Her published essays and intellectual debates in the 1950 Journal Cité Libre ushered in a new era of modernity in Quebec literature. During the 1960s, Lapointe served as a commissioner on the Royal Commission on Education (Parent Commission) in the Province of Quebec as well as on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, both of which led to many progressive ideas that would go on to influence education and women’s rights. After her time as a commissioner, Lapointe turned her focus to psychoanalytic literary analysis in the 1970s and to feminist analysis in the 1980s and 90s where she influenced current thinking against sexual inequality.
Doris Ogilvie was a Canadian judge and activist. A law graduate from the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in 1960, she was appointed Deputy Judge of the Juvenile Court and Deputy Judge of the Provincial Court in 1965 where she advocated for the rights of women and children and helped pave the way for greater legal equality in Canada. In the courtroom, she was known to make her rulings in a fair and just manner and with the best interests in mind for those who had no voice in the judicial system. In 1967 she was appointed to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and she later chaired the Canadian Commission of the International Year of the Child in 1979. Ogilvie became recognized as a pioneer for those who have gone to law school and pursued a legal career after raising a family or doing other work outside the home.
Jacques Henripin was an accomplished academic in demography and economics and in 1964 he became the founder and Head of the University of Montreal's Department of Demography, the only unit in this field in Canada. His research interests are widely cited as mandatory sources for all topics dealing with the quantitative study of the population of Quebec and of the country as a whole. Henripin devoted much of his time outside of academia serving as an advisor on the Royal Commission on the status of women in Canada and from 1978 to 1982, as a member of the council in the Social and Humanity Research Council of Canada, as well as in various functions at Statistics Canada from 1985 to 1991. Henripin has received many accolades and awards for his work and in 1988 he was awarded the Order of Canada.
John Humphrey was a Canadian legal scholar, a jurist and a human rights activist. Most famous for drafting the UNs’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was while teaching at McGill University in the early 1940s that Humphrey met Henri Laugier, a refugee from France who would later became the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations. In 1946, it was Laugier who appointed Humprey as the first Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, within the United Nations Secretariat. Humphrey went on to become the principal drafter of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights after consulting with Executive group of the Commission chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. On December 10, 1948 the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the Declaration. Humprey stayed on with the UN for the next 20 years and returned to McGill in 1966 to resume his teaching career where he remained active in the promotion of human rights in Canada and internationally for the rest of his life, including through his participation in the Royal Commission on the status of women. Professor John Humphrey was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1974.
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