1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women

The following is an excerpt from the Library and Archives Canada catalogue discussion of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW):

“In April 1963, when Judy LaMarsh became Minister of National Health and Welfare in the Pearson Administration, she indicated to the Prime Minister the need for a public inquiry on the status of women in Canada similar to one which President Kennedy had established in the United States … Although the subject was raised in the federal cabinet on 11 October 1965, according to LaMarsh, the Prime Minister did not respond because the press in Canada was very negative to the idea. LaMarsh, who became Secretary of State in December 1965, claimed that she would have been unable to convince the federal government to appoint a Commission on women’s rights without the assistance of Laura Sabia, then President of the Canadian Federation of University Women. On 18 April 1966, Sabia sent a letter to all established women’s organizations in Canada calling for a meeting to discuss the status of women. The meeting, held in Toronto on 3 May 1966, was attended by 50 women representing 32 organizations. It led to the establishment of the Committee on the Equality of Women in Canada (CEW) under Sabia’s leadership … Despite these initiatives, the government was hesitant. Early in January 1967, Sabia, the head of CEW, reacted by a veiled threat of a women’s march on Ottawa. In addition, Judy LaMarsh continued to exert pressure for action on women’s issues within the Cabinet. Finally, on 3 February 1967, the Prime Minister announced that the Government had decided to establish a royal commission … The Commission was mandated 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 the 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 … The commissioners were Florence Bayard Bird, Chairperson; Lola M. Lange, Jeanne Lapointe, Elsie Gregory MacGill, Doris Ogilvie, Jacques Henripin and Donald Gordon, Jr.”

The RCSW was a watershed for the women’s movement and a symbol of second-wave feminism. A critical juncture, it was described by Naomi Black as the “first success of the second wave of Canadian feminism.” As Black wrote in “The Canadian Women’s Movement,” “the key period for the second wave of the Canadian women’s movement was the years 1967-1970. The activities of the Royal Commission in this period resulted in a significant increase in public awareness of women’s situation. The same period produced women’s liberation and radical feminism in Canada. These latter groups, which drew substantial public attention, can take much of the credit for directing attention to such crucial women’s issues as equal pay, abortion, and violence against women.”

Published in 1970, the royal commission’s report became a rallying point for women, and it led to the formation of a new national federation of women’s organizations. As Joan Sangster argues in “Invoking Experience as Evidence,”

“Most scholars agree that pressure for a royal commission was related to a rapidly changing female labour force, as the number of wage-earning women, most significantly those with families, was increasing significantly: in 1941, just fewer than 4 per cent of married women worked outside the home, but by 1961, this was 22 per cent, and by the time of the RCSW, 30 per cent. In arguing for a royal commission, feminists not only drew on the prevailing political language of civil and human rights, they also pointed to the ‘new’ reality that women were lifelong, not temporary, members of the workforce – an argument used earlier in the 1950s in similar feminist lobbying for a federal women’s bureau.”

The RCSW report identified a plethora of discriminatory laws. According to the commissioners, “Canadian citizens have not been equal before the law or been treated equally in its application.” Some of the more obvious forms of sex discrimination listed in the report included the following:

  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police: Women were banned from joining the RCMP. Moreover, they were, in practice, restricted to certain low-level trades in the military, and those with children were released from service. They were not admitted to military colleges.
  • Minimum wage: British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia maintained separate minimum wage scales for men and women (the BC Industrial Relations Board began enforcing the same minimum wage for men and women only in 1971, and the separate wage scale for women was repealed in 1972).
  • National housing loan regulations: When lending institutions determined debt service for married couples, they assumed that the husband would own the property.
  • Passports: Federal law required a woman to secure a new passport when she married. Unless she requested that her maiden name be used, the passport would be in her husband’s name, and even if she did use her maiden name, his name had to appear on her passport. By contrast, her husband’s passport did not have to include her name.
  • Separate legal domiciles: In most provinces, including British Columbia, married women were not allowed to have a separate legal domicile. Following the passage of the Divorce Act in 1968, divorced women were permitted to do so.
  • Maintenance laws: Federal and provincial maintenance laws required fathers to support their wives and children. Only Alberta and Yukon imposed reciprocal obligations on wives for their husbands, and only British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec imposed equal obligations on wives to support children under the age of sixteen.
  • Citizenship: Until 1947, women who married a non-citizen and adopted his citizenship lost their Canadian citizenship. By 1970, wives of a non-citizen experienced long wait times to secure his citizenship; their children did not automatically receive citizenship; when families applied for citizenship for a minor, only the father’s citizenship was recognized; and adoptions favoured fathers in determining citizenship. When couples applied for citizenship, policies implemented under the Immigration Act presumed that the wife was a dependant and the husband was head of the household.
  • Jury duty: Quebec and Newfoundland banned women from serving on juries; Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick allowed them to opt out of service solely because of their gender (or required them to nominate themselves if they wished to be placed on the jury list).
  • Prisons: The federal Prisons and Reformatories Act discriminated on the basis of sex in determining age for sentencing, the type of immutable offences, and the length of sentence. In some provinces, a woman’s religion determined the type of institution in which she would serve her sentence.
  • Canada and Quebec pension plans: Under federal and Quebec pension plans, the husband and children of a female pension contributor were not entitled to her pension when she died unless she were disabled or declared a dependant. Under the federal civil service pension plan, a woman received benefits if her husband died, but the same did not apply to the husband of a deceased female civil servant.
  • Workmen’s compensation laws: The provincial workmen’s compensation laws applied to wives of deceased men but not to husbands of deceased women.
  • Unemployment insurance: The unemployment insurance program did not consider men as dependants. In addition, before they applied for unemployment insurance, pregnant women were required to work longer than ordinary applicants.

The RCSW’s study of criminal law was especially revealing. Women were most commonly convicted for theft, prostitution or keeping a bawdy house, abortion or attempted abortion, infanticide, concealing the body of a child, and child neglect. Their convictions for narcotics offences, vagrancy, and attempted suicide disproportionately outnumbered those for other crimes. The Criminal Code did not consider them capable of committing sexual offences except incest, buggery, indecent assault on another female, and gross indecency (the latter was added in 1954). They could not sexually assault or seduce men, or be charged for having illegal sex with a male under a certain age. A man who was convicted of indecently assaulting another man could go to jail for ten years, but a woman who committed the same crime against a woman could be sentenced to only five years in prison. For incest, men could be sentenced to whipping, a penalty that did not apply to women, who could be exonerated if they proved that the offence was committed under restraint, duress, or fear. Moreover, the law did not consider that males under the age of fourteen were capable of incest, but because it did not refer specifically to girls, a thirteen-year-old girl could be tried for incest. Only males were capable of seduction, a crime that was defined solely in terms of age: if the boy was under eighteen or the girl was older than eighteen, seduction was not an offence. The basis of several offences continued to rest on a woman’s “previously chaste character”; if she was younger than twenty-one, the burden was on the accused to prove that she was unchaste. For instance, sexual intercourse with a girl under age fourteen was a criminal offence, but a man who had sex with a girl between fourteen and sixteen committed no offence if he could show that she was not of previously chaste character. And criminal law simply did not entertain the possibility that sexual abuse in a marriage could be construed as rape.

The RCSW submitted 167 recommendations for legislative reform. The federal government responded with wide-ranging reforms, most notably the 1974 Statute Law (Status of Women) Amendment Act. The legislation amended ten federal statutes that dealt with immigration, the military, unemployment insurance, pensions, elections, and the public service. The Criminal Code was amended to recognize a spouse’s (rather than a husband’s) responsibility to provide necessities of life, and the Citizenship Act was changed to apply equally to men and women. Other legal reforms soon followed. From 1974 onward, women were permitted to enlist in the RCMP and could enrol in military colleges after 1979. In 1972, vagrancy laws directed at prostitution were changed to focus on solicitation, and the new law applied equally to men and women, though, in practice, women remained the primary target for arrest. In 1983, Parliament repealed the section of the Unemployment Insurance Act that denied benefits to pregnant women. In the same year, rape was removed from the Criminal Code and replaced with gender-neutral sexual assault provisions. Marital rape became a crime. And in 1986, Parliament passed the Employment Equity Act to enhance the representation of women and minorities in any federally regulated industry with more than a hundred employees.

  • Adamson, Nancy, Linda Briskin, and Margaret McPhail. Feminist Organizing for Change: The Contemporary Women’s Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.
  • Black, Naomi. “The Canadian Women’s Movement: The Second Wave.” In Changing Patterns: Women in Canada, 2nd ed., ed. Sandra Burt, Lorraine Code, and Lindsay Dorney, 80-102. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993.
  • Clément, Dominique. Equality Deferred: Sex Discrimination and British Columbia’s Human Rights State, 1953-84. Vancouver: UBC Press/Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 2014.
  • Sangster, Joan. “Invoking Experience as Evidence.” Canadian Historical Review 92, 1 (2011): 135-163.

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