Human rights organizations and feminists rose to support a movement that forced all the men involved in the Charter drafting to back down. At the time, federal ministers Monique Bégin and Judy Erola led the charge.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on April 25, 2022.
OTTAWA—As the 40th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was celebrated last week, much was written about the effect of the new law on Canada.
Some great ideas on Charter improvements, including multiple suggestions on how to tighten up the notwithstanding clause, open the door for a new constitutional debate.
But there were two elements of the Charter battle that got little attention.
The first was the role played by women politicians of all parties to save the equality clause in the Charter.
Back in 1982, I was the sole woman in the Opposition Ontario Liberal caucus. We were six women altogether representing three parties in the 125-seat assembly.
The fight for Charter equality was the first and only time that we all got together to strategize for a Charter change to fully protect women’s rights.
At the time of the initial Charter agreement, the rights of women, articulated in Sec. 28 of the agreement, were supposed to be subject to the Sec. 33 notwithstanding clause.
What that meant was that if any government wanted to ignore equality rights, all it had to do was invoke the charter to bypass women’s right to equal pay, right to access housing, healthcare, etc.
The charter of inequality had been signed by all first ministers except Quebec, so male politicians were loath to reopen with the document.
Women across the country were livid, and Canada witnessed a female political consensus the likes of which it has never experienced before or since.
Human rights organizations and feminists rose to support a movement that forced all the men involved in the Charter drafting to back down.
At the time, federal ministers Monique Bégin and Judy Erola led the charge. They reached out to female legislators across the country from all political parties, organizing a movement to force all parliaments to support a Charter amendment that would remove the notwithstanding clause from any oversight of women’s rights.
Bégin would later become beloved for her work in the creation of the Canada Health Act. Well-known as the mother of medicare, in 1984, Bégin implemented the legislative framework for hospital care across the country. That legislation secured universal access for all which has remained in place to this day.
Erola, the first female minister of mines, was equally capable, reaching out to legislators across party lines in an effort to secure women’s equality.
The pair organized a group of female politicians across the country, determined to amend the proposed Charter.
We were fighting an uphill battle.
Some premiers were adamant that there could be no changes to the initial document that had been agreed to by all provinces except Quebec.
Since any new change might prevent the Canadian Constitution from being repatriated from Westminster, the federal cabinet did not want to rock the boat.
The notwithstanding clause had already covered other groups, like francophone minorities outside Quebec, so there was a belief that any change, including full equality for women could cause the whole house of cards to collapse.
But the ferocity of women’s anger could not be ignored. Premiers across the country quickly backed down when they saw how women had united in favour of our equality.
The proposed Charter was amended and women’s rights were fully protected before the document was repatriated in April 1982.
The second element of the charter which received little attention but prompted huge social change was the section which proffered rights to all Canadians in both official languages.
Until the Charter was drawn up to protect minority linguistic rights, most francophones outside Quebec had little access to schooling in their language.
They were undereducated and poorly paid, making up the lowest earning group in the country.
As the Charter took hold, and provinces were forced by law to start offering minority language services, that situation turned around.
With robust French-language education available for francophones across the country, the level of education catapulted quickly.
Within twenty years, the poorly-paid, undereducated francophones became the best-educated, and most highly paid group in the country.
Unlike women’s rights, minority language rights were subject to the notwithstanding clause, causing Ottawa Liberal Member of Parliament Jean-Robert Gauthier to vote against the Charter repatriation.
Gauthier did not secure institutional bilingualism for all provinces, nor did the Charter enshrine French-language school boards and education. But the result of the Charter was that every province was eventually cajoled or sued into guaranteeing minority language rights in education.
Women and francophones were the real Charter winners.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.