On Women’s Rights in Canada

John Peters Humphrey returned to Canada with twenty years of experience working in the United Nations under his belt, which served as a prominent framework in which he addressed his work thereafter.  In 1957, he expressed that many “may think that the situation in Canada is, on the whole, pretty good, [but] I should be very surprised if that were the case.”[1]  This seemed to be the position with which he re-entered the ‘Canadian rights arena’ in 1966, one characterized by criticism but also expectations of improvement.

 

Women’s Rights

One area of interest that Humphrey pursued once back on Canadian soil was that of women’s rights, a movement that he directly contributed to with his involvement in the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW) approximately a year after his return.  When addressing rights issues such as those presented in the women’s rights movement, Humphrey seemed to remain in a strict legal mindset based on traditional understandings of equal rights. He also frequently referenced the importance of upholding the standards set by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that he had contributed to the construction of.[2]  As will be seen in the more detailed account of his contributions to the RCSW below, Humphrey was dedicated to maintaining ‘true equality’ in all circumstances, and thus was in stark opposition to measures such as employment equity.  His ideology could be characterized as one that avoids all instances of discrimination (‘positive discrimination’ included) and any act of imposition infringing upon personal rights and choice.

Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women

Humphrey’s most overt, tangible contribution to the women’s rights movement was his involvement in drafting the official report presented by the RCSW in 1970.  That being said, he was the sole dissenter out of the seven commissioners who worked on the Report. This dissent occurred despite claims made by Commission chairperson Ann Francis, approximately one year before completion, that the members “came through very united” and they were not expecting any minority reports.[3]  Nonetheless, Humphrey presented an opposition and justified it by claiming that he simply could not agree with the reasoning behind a number of the recommendations, despite his support for most others.[4]  He saw in many of the recommendations the introduction of “new kinds of discrimination, not only between men and women but also between different classes of women,” which he considered to be contradictory in “a just society [where] you do not eliminate one injustice by creating another.”[5]

In addition to this observation, Humphrey found the common thread of ‘special treatment’ among a number of recommendations, be it a quota system or other direct compensatory measures.  He saw this as a way of relegating women to a “special category in the body politic” in which they would be treated as a minority, something he believed would be more detrimental than positive in its outcomes.[6]  He drew upon this attitude in his objection to recommendations such as setting higher rates of pay for traditionally female-dominated public sector jobs and actively increasing the number of women in decision-making positions, such as members of the Senate.[7]  He believed that establishing a quota in representational fields such as the Senate was predicated on the idea that Senators should not be appointed based entirely on qualification.  He claimed that “a woman should not be appointed to the Senate because she is a woman any more than a man should be appointed because he is a man,”[8] thus demonstrating that his dedication to unconditional equality overrides any perceived need to make up for structural inequity.

Humphrey also opposed measures that would push women into the labour force, regardless of their individual preferences.  This kind of pursuit, which was implied in the recommended reduction of the Married Status Exemption under the Income Tax Act, was seen by Humphrey as a “barrier to [a woman’s] free choice.”[9] This was because it put women — especially those who would be economically impacted by increased taxes — in the position of having to enter the workforce exclusively for reasons of practicality.[10]  Although it was calculated to positively encourage women to participate in the labour market, he viewed this as an imposition of expectations and ideals that would limit freedom of decision.

Humphrey was clear throughout the Minority Report that he believed that “women are entitled to all the rights possessed by men without any discrimination.”[11] This was a statement that he felt was vital to make, as he was aware of and explicitly stated the likelihood of many to attribute his divergent views to male prejudice.[12]  But this was not the case; he simply held fundamentally different views about how to reach the final goal of equality.  However, it is also important to keep in mind that he was in agreement with the majority of recommendations, many of which impacted the future of women in Canada.

 

Short and Long Term Impacts

The Report by the RCSW not only presented practicalsolutions to what they considered to be all aspects of the Canadian woman’s life,[13] but also inspired and coincided with an emerging culture of acknowledging and wanting to right gender inequalities.  The preliminary stage of conducting the Report was a six-month long period of public hearings across the country, which exposed the unfavourable realities facing many women.  Once the drafting of the Report became public knowledge, an already burgeoning feminist movement was expanded.  There were also visible changes being made at this time, such as major articles being published on women’s issues and initiatives to bolster the federal government’s Women’s Bureau.[14]  Even in its early days of inception, the prospect of unearthing women’s rights issues fostered an environment that encouraged women to think of themselves in a new way and visualize accomplishments that took them beyond their current confines.  In terms of the tangible effects of the Report, according to an assessment on the implementation of RCSW recommendations presented by M.P. Dawn Black in 1990, many of them had been at least partially implemented.  This showed the great strides made within twenty years of its publication; however, it also shed light upon the issues that still had not been significantly improved upon, such as equal pay for work of equal value and the alteration of protective labour legislation to suit both sexes.[15]  But despite these limitations, the Report did end up having “value for a long time to come.”[16]

 

Endnotes

[1] Speech Delivered by Mr. John P. Humphrey, Director, Division of Human Rights, United Nations, 1 November 1957, Speeches – 1935, Box 18, John Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[2] Canada. Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. (Ottawa: Privy Council Office, 1970), 433.

[3] Members in Agreement on Report, Claims Status of Women Chairman, The Evening Times-Globe, 6 October 1969, Status of Women – 1958-1969, Box 12, John Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[4] Canada. Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. (Ottawa: Privy Council Office, 1970), 433.

[5] Ibid., 434.

[6] Ibid., 434, 437.

[7] Ibid., 439, 448.

[8] Canada. Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. (Ottawa: Privy Council Office, 1970), 448.

[9] Ibid., 434.

[10]Ibid., 441-442.

[11] Ibid., 433.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Members in Agreement on Report, Claims Status of Women Chairman, The Evening Times-Globe, 6 October 1969, Status of Women – 1958-1969, Box 12, John Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[14] Status of Women Brings New Status to Women, The Evening Times-Globe, 7 October 1969, Status of Women – 1958-1969, Box 12, John Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[15] Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women. 20 years later: an assessment of the implementation of the Recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, by Dawn Black and Marika Morris. (Ottawa: Status of Women Canada, 1990), i.

[16] Members in Agreement on Report, Claims Status of Women Chairman, The Evening Times-Globe, 6 October 1969, Status of Women – 1958-1969, Box 12, John Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

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