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February 14, 1981 women’s constitution conference

by Penney Kome | February 6, 2001

Do you remember where you were 20 years ago today, on Valentine’s Day, 1981? Many women in Canada will remember the day that they gathered in Ottawa to talk about Canada's new constitution. On that day and in all of the activity that followed they, with thousands of other women across Canada who spoke up and took action, changed the history of Canada. Canada has equality rights provisions, guaranteed to all in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that women in other countries, including the United States, are still dreaming about. Our thanks to all the women and men who made this happen in Canada.

Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.

So reads Section 28 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Women’s groups forced the government to adopt that section with a year-long lobby that kicked off with a huge, almost spontaneous, conference on February 14, 1981.

The Women’s Constitution Conference was the first public conference ever held in Parliament buildings. Originally, the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women (CACSW – then a federal arm’s-length agency, since abolished by the federal government) organized the event and issued invitations to women across Canada.

The CACSW had researched the issues involved in the proposed Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Prime Minister Trudeau’s new constitution (released in September 1980), and found cause for women to be alarmed. Even though the federal government announced changes to the proposed equality provisions in January 1981, after Parliamentary Committee hearings in which the CACSW made a persuasive appearance, the changes did not go far enough. Hence the conference. But government interference resulted in the cancellation of conference.

Doris Anderson, a high-profile feminist much loved by generations of women who read about feminist issues in Chatelaine Magazine even before the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s–1970s, was president of CACSW at the time.

She resigned in protest at the cancellation, causing headlines across the country.

Women’s groups were too outraged to let the matter rest there. Within a week, twin planning-committee meetings were held in Ottawa and Toronto, mapping out strategy. A brand new coalition resulted: the Ad Hoc Committee of Canadian Women on the Constitution, involving representatives of most major women’s groups, as well as women who had never been politically active before.

The twin committees resolved that they would hold the conference anyway, on a voluntary basis, on the same date (February 14) selected by the CACSW. The Ottawa group agreed to make the physical arrangements, and the Toronto committee would plan the program. Both worked on mobilizing national support.

With 18 days to go, they found they’d taken on a full-time project. Pat Hacker and Jan Frizzell, of Women’s Career Counseling Service (an employment outreach program), anchored the Ottawa committee, assisted by a committee including Rosemary Billings, Pat Webb, Susan Phillips, Vaughan Jeliffe, Jan Mears, and Patricia Wudel.

Linda (Ryan) (Palmer) Nye, Margaret Bryce, Kay Macpherson and Laura Sabia were among the Toronto co-ordinators, along with Mary Corkery, Ada Hill Susan McCrae VanderVoet, Shelagh Wilkinson, Janka Seydegart, and Nancy Ruth [then Nancy Jackman].

Lawyer Marilou McPhedran, working in Ottawa but maintaining a household in Toronto, served as a vital resource for and contact between the two committees, as well as a separate lawyers' committee that included Mary Eberts and Beverley Baines.

In all, perhaps 50 women volunteers pitched in on the conference organizing committee. They had help in high places, too. Several women MPs (including Margaret Mitchell, Flora MacDonald, Pauline Jewett) and Senator Martha Beilish, lent their offices to the effort.

At first, organizers thought they might attract a modest crowd of perhaps 250 women. By February 13, about 700 women [from all over Canada] had pre-registered for the conference. This was already more than the 500 that CACSW had expected.

But organizers were floored when more than 1,000 women had registered by 9 am on Saturday morning. The meeting overflowed the meeting room, into not one but two quickly organized rooms with giant screen TVs and two-way audio connections.

Coat racks lined the corridors; women’s voices echoed in the marble halls; men’s washrooms were liberated right away. By the end of the day, some 1,300 women had registered, and donated almost $6,000 towards expenses. They also worked their way through a very substantial agenda of legal considerations detailed in CACSW research papers.

Among the resolutions adopted by the meeting were demands for:

  • the appointment of more women to all boards and commissions;
  • equal access to social services for all Canadians in all provinces;
  • revocation of section 12 (1) (b) of the Indian Act, which stripped Indian women of band status if they married non-status men, but allowed Indian men to confer status on non-Indian women by marriage.

Perhaps the most significant resolution required that, “clause one [of the Charter] be a statement of purpose, that all rights are guaranteed equally to men and women, with no limitations.”

Whether to support entrenchment was the question that caused the hottest and longest discussions. Before the Charter, Canadian courts could not strike down laws, but only recommend that Parliament or the provincial legislature change them.

This tradition was called “Parliamentary Supremacy” and not easily abandoned. It was intended, however, that under the Charter the courts would have the power to strike down laws directly – the Charter was to be “entrenched.”

After a committee of volunteers debated entrenchment into the wee hours of the morning, and then again at a breakfast meeting, they brought a resolution to the Sunday meeting that the conference would support entrenchment if, and only if, Parliament accepted their other resolutions and amended the Charter accordingly. The meeting adopted this resolution.

On Sunday evening, after most of the participants had left, conference organizers realized they had a list of powerful resolutions, and no plan for implementing them. Although they were exhausted, they knew they had to push hard while the issue was hot.

CBC TV played the conference as its top story over the weekend. MPs Pauline Jewett (NDP) and Flora MacDonald (PC) took turns advancing the cause during Question Period.

The following weekend, the National Association of Women and Law biennial general meeting passed resolutions almost identical to the conference’s. A month later, so did the National Action Committee on the Status of Women’s annual general meeting.

A prolonged Tory filibuster gave Ad Hoc Committee members time to lobby MPs and to send out a questionnaire nationally for individual women to quiz their MPs on women’s Charter rights.

On March 18, 1981, four members of the Ad Hoc legal team went into a meeting with two Justice Department officials. Out of that meeting came a new clause spelling out equality between “male and female persons” – not part of Clause One, as the conference insisted, but a new Clause 28. Placed towards the end of the Charter, with clauses intended to guide the courts in interpreting Charter rights, it was the first “Notwithstanding” clause in the new constitution. This meant that it was to apply to every clause of the Charter, in spite of what the clause might say or appear to say.

On April 23, the three parties in Parliament adopted some amendments to the constitution, including Section 28, and declared the package complete. As MPs entered the Chamber to vote, Ad Hoc committee members handed them “invitations” sealed with a butterfly, urging them to support further work to strengthen women's rights in the Charter.

Then the Ad Hoc committee members finally went home, relieved that their job was done. But far from being finished, their work had just begun – and that work continues to this day.

more to consider

We read about Supreme Court rulings under the Charter all the time. It’s surprising to realize that such cases have only been heard for about 20 years. Actually, not even that. The equality sections were under moratorium for the first 3 years (governments were given 3 years to change statues that were discriminatory), so they only came into effect on April 17 1985. That day is now called equality day in Canada.

It would be a very different story if the women of Canada had not taken such a tough stance about the most fundamental law that governs us and our equality.

The Conference results were strengthened when national women’s organizations endorsed them. The National Association of Women and Law, at its biennial meeting the very next weekend, passed almost identical resolutions. So did the National Action Committee on the Status of Women at its annual meeting in mid-March, although at some cost. Quebec women did not support patriation of the constitution at all, never mind entrenching a Charter of Rights. The Federation des Femmes du Quebec walked out of NAC. It eventually rejoined two or three years later.

resources for this story
  • The Taking of Twenty-Eight: Women Challenge the Constitution, by PENNEY KOME, Women’s Educational Press | 1982
  • In These Times, by PENNEY KOME, in Women of Influence: Canadian Women and Politics, Doubleday Canada | 1985
  • And Nobody Cheered: Federalism, Democracy and The Constitution Act, by KEITH BANTING and RICHARD SIMEON, eds., see especially Chaviva Hosek’s chapter. Methuen Publications | 1983
  • Visit LEAF to learn about the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, the organization that was founded in 1985 to undertake constitutional equality litigation for women and girls in Canada.
  • The Charter of Rights and Freedoms

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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