Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada
The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (RCSW), instituted by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson on 3 February 1967, was launched as a direct response to a six-month campaign mounted by a coalition of 32 women's organizations and led by Ontario activist Laura Sabia, then president of the Canadian Federation of University Women.
The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (RCSW), instituted by Prime Minister Lester B. PEARSON on 3 February 1967, was launched as a direct response to a six-month campaign mounted by a coalition of 32 women's organizations and led by Ontario activist Laura Sabia, then president of the Canadian Federation of University Women. Sabia called a meeting of the coalition in Toronto in May 1966 to discuss concerns surrounding the status of women in Canada. As a result of the coalition’s lobbying efforts, mounting pressure in the media and a threat from Sabia to lead a women’s march on Parliament Hill, Prime Minister Pearson established the Commission. The mandate of the RCSW was to investigate and report on the status of women and to make specific recommendations to the federal government to ensure equality for women in all aspects of society. The Commission was launched at a time when the women's movement was actively organizing and other governments worldwide were pursuing similar initiatives.
The Commission's Investigation
Five women and two men sat on the Commission with Florence BIRD, an Ottawa journalist and broadcaster, appointed as chairwoman. This was to be the first Canadian royal commission chaired by a woman. The other commissioners were Jacques Henripin, professor of demography, Montréal; John HUMPHREY, professor of law, Montréal; Lola Lange, farmer and community activist, Claresholm, Alberta; Jeanne Lapointe, professor of literature, Québec City; Elsie Gregory MACGILL, aeronautical engineer, Toronto; and Doris Ogilvie, judge, Fredericton, New Brunswick.
The Commission's public investigation began in the spring of 1968, and for six months, public hearings were held across Canada. The Commission attracted extensive public interest, hearing 468 briefs, receiving 1,000 letters of opinion and additional testimony, which confirmed widespread problems experienced by women across Canadian society.
The RCSW produced a 488-page report containing 167 recommendations to the federal government on such matters as equal pay for work of equal value, maternity leave, DAY CARE, BIRTH CONTROL, FAMILY LAW, the INDIAN ACT,, educational opportunities, access of women to managerial positions, part-time work and PENSIONS. The recommendations were based on the fundamental principle that equality of opportunity for Canadian men and women was possible, desirable and ethically necessary. The Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada was tabled in the House of Commons on 7 December 1970. The RCSW played a major role in defining the STATUS OF WOMEN as a legitimate social problem to be addressed collectively rather than on an individual basis. It focused attention on women's grievances, recommended changes to eliminate sexual inequality by means of social policy, and served to mobilize women’s organizations around common goals. The largest conglomeration of feminist groups in Canada, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, was formed with the aim to lobby the government to enact the Commission’s recommendations.
Upon a recommendation from the report of the RCSW, the Office of the Status of Women was established in 1971 and the cabinet position of Minister responsible for the Status of Women was created. The Office was initially overseen by the Privy Council Office, but became a departmental agency in 1976.
By the 1980s, most of the report’s 167 recommendations had been either partially or fully implemented. Several controversial recommendations, however, had not been acted upon by the federal government. A widespread societal problem that was virtually unrecognized by the commission’s report was VIOLENCE against women, but by the 1980s, public awareness and advocacy around gender-based violence was growing. On 6 December 1989, 14 young women attending L'ÉCOLE POLYTECHNIQUE DE MONTRÉAL were murdered by Marc Lépine in a gender-motivated attack. This tragedy became a key moment for awareness-raising around the issue of violence against women. To mark the anniversary, Parliament established 6 December as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in 1991.
Since 1947, Canada has participated in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW). In 1999, the United Nations enacted 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Annually, 8 March is celebrated globally as International Women's Day to recognize and reflect on the progress that has been made to achieve gender equality and to honour the contributions of women.
Today, the Office for the Status of Women Canada works to advance equality for women and girls by working with federal and provincial programs to promote economic security, women's leadership and democratic participation, and to end violence against women.
Many have cast a critical eye on the implementation of the RCSW's recommendations. The most glaring gaps are in the establishment of a national affordable child care policy as well as the alleviation of poverty — which disproportionately affects single mothers and their children — through a guaranteed income policy. Violence against women remains a serious issue, with women's shelters overflowing across the country. Moreover, issues that the Commission did not address, particularly those facing lesbians and transgender women have only recently begun to be examined.
Despite these failings, the RCSW was undeniably a catalyst for change. It united Canadian women to a greater extent than ever before and allowed them to speak out to shape gendered policies, leading to victories such as equal minimum wage and maternity leave, as well as a greater awareness of women’s rights.
Advisory Council on the Status of Women, Ten Years Later (1979); S. Burt, L. Code, L.Dorney, eds., Changing Patterns: Women in Canada, 2nd ed. (1993), N. Griffiths, Penelope's Web (1976); Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (1970); B. Freeman, The Satellite Sex ( 2001).