Gender Equality 40-Years after the Royal Commission on the Status of Women

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Malinda S. Smith, Vice President, Equity Issues Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

This past Saturday’s Globe and Mail included a story by Jane Taber entitled “Re-paving the way for women on the Hill…yet again.” In the article, Laurin Li, a 21-year old McGill University joint major in History and Cultural Studies student and recently elected parliamentarian who swept in to office in the Orange Wave in Quebec, states: “I think it will last throughout my lifetime and throughout the lifetime of my kids, unfortunately. We are making progress but it is a slow process.” That quote was about the banality of sexism and the structural barriers faced by women seeking electoral office. It came after Liu’s first experience on a national television panel. A male host’s remark to her and the women panelists was: “What a hot panel we’ve got tonight.”  Liu noted, “And then it just clicked. I’m in Ottawa and this is the way it is.”

Remarks that focus on women’s looks and what they are wearing rather than substantive issues and the political agendas they advance remind us of the challenges women, particularly visible minority women, professionals continue to face in the workplace. The glacial pace of change has led to some calls for a new Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW). Such remarks also remind us of why the first commission was important.

Under the theme, “Equality Then and Now: The Status of Women 40 Years after the Bird Commission,” the Equity Issues Portfolio used the occasion of Congress 2010 to offer a 40-year retrospective on the status of women. With the keynote speaker Donna Brazile and panelists that included scholars, activists and government officials, the sessions covered the major social policy issues that inform the status of women in Canada today.

Held at Concordia University in Montreal, Congress featured many opportunities to reflect on equity and social justice struggles locally and globally, to explore the current situation of women in Canada 40-years after the RCSW (the Bird Commission), to seek out possibilities for the future, and to ask the question: Where do we go from here? The Equity Issues digital archives of podcasts, videos and blogs, initially developed with the aim of public education and as a resource for teaching and learning, continue to offer insights into these important social policy debates.

The retrospective on the Bird Commission reminded us of the importance of social movements in the struggle for justice. The commission was launched on 16 February 1967 by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in response to demands by women politicians and a sustained grassroots campaign involving over 30 women’s and social justice groups representing over two million women. The groups were led by Laura Sabia of the Committee for the Equality of Women (CEW) and Therese Casgrain of la Federation des femmes de Quebec (FFQ). Their unprecedented campaign was taken up in women’s periodicals such as the English and French Chatelaine, by women journalists, on talk-shows that addressed women’s issues, and by equality advocates in political parties.

In response to this unprecedented mobilization as well as his own commitment to human rights, Prime Minister Pearson instituted the seven-member commission with representatives from across the country and various walks of life. With journalist and broadcaster, The Honorable Florence Bayard Rhein Bird at the helm, it was the first royal commission to be chaired by a woman. The commission members included: Jacques Henripin, professor of demography, Université de Montréal; John Humphrey, a professor of law, Université de Montréal; Lola Lange, a farmer and community activist from Claresholm, Alberta; Jeanne Lapointe, a professor of literature, Université Laval; Elsie Gregory MacGill, an aeronautical engineer, Toronto; and Doris Ogilvie, a judge from Fredericton, New Brunswick. Monique Bégin served as the Commission’s executive secretary.

The Bird Commission was tasked as follows: 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, having regard for distribution of legislative powers under the constitution of Canada, particularly with reference to federal statutes, regulations and policies that concern or affect the rights and activities of women.”  In the next three years, the commission received over 500 briefs and 1,000 letters and held a number of public hearings across Canada. The final Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women was tabled in the House of Commons on 7 December 1970.

The Bird Commission’s recommendations covered a range of issues, which framed the status of women as a fundamental social policy and social justice issue in Canada. The commission made recommendations on Francophone, Aboriginal, immigrant, rural and farm women, as well as on a range of social and sectoral issues including pay equity, child care, reproductive rights and freedoms, violence against women, health care, education, employment, pensions, housing and sports. A 10-year retrospective by Senator Florence Bird, a 20-year retrospective by the Hon. Monique Bégin, a 30-year retrospective by Pamela Cross, and a 40-year retrospective by Trudeau Fellow Isabella Bakker – all underline that the priorities set out by the Bird Commission continue to shape the national conversations on the status of women. While there has been partial progress, much work remains to be done.

Local and Global Social Justice Movements

Listen to the Social Justice Podcast

Women’s organizations played a pivotal role in persuading the government to establish the Bird Commission. The “Local and Global Social Justice Movements” panel explored the role of the women’s movement and activism in local and global struggles for equity and social justice. Moderated by me, the panelists included Janine Brodie, Distinguished University Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Alberta, A. Aziz Choudhry, assistant professor of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University, Gada Mahrouse, an assistant professor in the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University, and Sunera Thobani, an associate professor of Women and Gender Studies at University of British Columbia, and former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

Closing the Gender Wage Gap: Provincial Perspectives on Pay Equity

Listen to the Pay Equity Podcast

Recognizing the inequalities faced by working women, the Bird Commission recommended legislative change to address the issue of equal pay for work of equal value. Since then, laws, policies and programs have been put in place to help eliminate gender wage discrimination in Canada. The “Closing the Gender Wage Gap: Provincial Perspectives on Pay Equity” panel cosponsored by the Pay Equity Commission (Ontario), examined the evolution of pay equity and drew on experiences at the provincial level to reflect on the conditions and criteria required for adopting legislation or programs that contribute to closing the gender wage gap. Moderated by Pat Armstrong, Professor of Sociology at York University, the panel included Emanuela Heynick, Commissioner, Pay Equity Commission, Ontario, Norma Dubé, Assistant Deputy Minister, Women’s Issues, New Brunswick, Emanuela Heyninck, Commissioner, Pay Equity Commission, Toronto, Nitya Iyer, partner, Heenan Blaikie, Vancouver and Equal Pay Commissioner of the Northwest Territories and Louise Marchand, Présidente de la Commission de l’équité salariale, Quebec.

The Status of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Women 40 Years On

Listen to the Indigenous Women Podcast

The Bird Commission’s final report, Equality First, made recommendations to governments on a range of issues relating to First Nations, Inuit and Métis women. The report highlighted gender discrimination in federal legislation as well as the need for education and training, and the elimination of employment barriers for Aboriginal women. In an arm chair dialogue moderated by Tracey Lindberg, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair at Athabasca University, Mary Simon, national Inuit leader and president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Ellen Gabriel, president of the Québec Native Women’s Association, discussed the status and needs of Aboriginal women in Canada 40 years after the commission.

In Conversation: The Status of Women 40 Years On

Listen to the Status of Women Podcast

The Bird Commission was established by the Government of Canada to “inquire into and report upon the status of women in Canada… to ensure for women equal opportunities with men in all aspects of Canadian society.” The priorities it established shaped women’s movements and organizations and framed the status of women as a social justice and social policy issue for Canada. This panel’s conversation explored the current situation of women in Canada 40 years later, focusing on possibilities for the future and how we can continue to work for change. Chaired by Carissima Mathen, an associate professor of Law, University of New Brunswick and the Acting Director of Litigation for the Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), this panel included for Minister of States for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women and Ontario Fairness Commissioner, The Honorable Jean Augustine, former Minister for the Status of Women and the Présidente, Conseils des Montréalaises, Charlotte Thibault.

Donna Brazile – Women and Leadership in the Age of Obama

Big Thinking Equity Issues Keynote Podcast  / Video

Many of the people who advocated for the implementation of these solutions were women Members of Parliament – and women MPs from all parties continue to call for action to ensure gender equity. Their voices are essential to ensuring women’s issues do not fade on the political stage. The topic of women in politics was, therefore, a key element to the theme of “Equality Then and Now,” as it helped us identify how to keep these issues front and centre of the policy agenda. This is also why it was fitting that the last lecture of the series should be given by a woman who has long been engaged in politics.

Donna Brazile has been a key participant in American politics for several decades. She worked on every Democratic presidential campaign from 1976 to 2000, serving as the campaign manager for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign – the first African-American woman to hold this position. Ms. Brazile is the Vice-Chair of Voter Registration and Participation at the Democratic National Committee, and formerly the chair of the Democratic National Congress’s Voting Rights Institute. Author of the best-selling memoir, Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics, Ms. Brazile is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commenter on American political affairs, appearing on CNN, ABC and “This week with Christiane Amanpour.” A syndicated columnist, Ms. Brazile regularly publishes columns for newspapers and magazines, including Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah magazine. In her Big Thinking Equity Issues keynote lecture, Ms. Brazile offered her unique perspective on American politics, the political landscape in the United States and the powerful role that women are playing in shaping American politics, including inside the Obama administration at this moment in political history.

Where do we go from here?

Today there are growing calls for a new Royal Commission on the Status of Women. In the lead up to Congress and since, I’ve tried to sustain these policy-relevant conversations, particularly by inviting and editing various Equity Matters series on the Fedcan Blog, including on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, on women and gender equity, and on the status of women in the academy. The various podcasts, videos and blogs have given rise to an unparalleled social media archive that will long serve as a resource for public education, as for research, and teaching and learning by scholars in the social sciences and humanities and Canadian Studies more broadly.

Whether Judy Fudge on pay equity, Kathleen A. Lahey on women’s unpaid labour, Susan Prentice on child care, or Maneesha Deckha and Louise Langevin on violence against women – each of these entries speak to the continuing social policy relevance of the priorities established by the Bird Commission. Similarly, Caroline Andrews, Alexandra Dobrowolsky and Christine Overall discuss what was and remains at stake in taking seriously the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity among Canadian women; and Jill Vickers examines the important and changing relations between Quebec and English-Canadian feminists. Judy Rebick and Jane Arscott use the occasion of International Women’s Day to celebrate notable gains and to take stock of recommendations, like women in leadership, child care and pay equity that have yet to be fulfilled. Elisabeth Gidengel, Brenda O’Neill, and Linda Trimble identify the challenges to women and leadership in their explorations of the gender gap in electoral politics. Isabella Bakker explains how and why engaging the state and gender budgets matter for sustaining women’s human rights commitments. Finally, Janine Brodie draws our attention to the role of the state both in enabling and delegitimizing the women’s movement, and on the need for courage in the pursuit of social justice in policymaking.

The Bird Commission’s final reportEquality First – was premised on the notion of “equality of opportunity” and it took from the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights one of its fundamental guiding principles, that “[A]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”  Like the podcasts and videos on the status of women from Congress, ongoing contributions to the Equity Matters blog series continue to challenge us to think critically and to be courageous in the pursuit of women’s equality, human dignity, and equity and justice for all.

Malinda S. Smith is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta, and the Vice-President, Equity Issues, at the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.


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I also recc'd people check out Dr. Mary Jo Nadeau's great intersectional analyses (thesis and publications) of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women