April 17 anniversary of Charter of Rights and Freedoms orth remembering
A couple of weeks ago I watched comedian Louis CK give the opening monologue on “Saturday Night Live.”
His commentary included this trenchant observation: “Women didn’t get the vote until 1920. That means American democracy is 94 years old. There are three people in my building older than American democracy.”
It made me think about Canada and its track record on women’s suffrage. The earliest women could vote was 1916 in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, followed by B.C. and Ontario in 1917, Nova Scotia in 1918, New Brunswick and Yukon in 1919, P.E.I. in 1922, and Newfoundland in 1925. Quebec didn’t offer the vote to women until 1940 and the Northwest Territories were the last in 1951.
Using CK’s model, Canada hasn’t been a democracy all that long, not even reaching three score and 10 as a measure, if we go by the NWT.
Another measure of democracy though is our Charter. Though Canada was always legally constituted through the British North America Act, many people look to the repatriation of the Constitution and its new Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 as the premier sign of countryship.
In fact, you could argue that if suffrage marks the true implementation of democracy, then the signing of the Charter of Rights in Canada is the implementation of equality for all, not just women.
Next week marks the 32nd anniversary of the Charter, and I am old enough to remember the attempts to derail women’s involvement in the Constitution debate and to have been a part of the subsequent activism undertaken across the country to ensure equality rights would be included.
Two years ago, the Canadian government came under fire for treating April 17 as a day like any other. It bothered me then, and it bothers me now, that such a significant date seems unremarkable to our federal government when it marks such an important step in equality and human rights.
Without the Charter, we would still likely have the domestic minimum wage, where an employer could legally pay a women half the minimum wage for providing childcare and housework services. Abortion would not be available and aboriginal women would lose their aboriginal status if they married non-aboriginal men. (Note: aboriginal men could marry whomever they pleased and not risk their rights, or those of their children, at all.)
Lest you think Charter challenges have been only focused on women, there have also been successful cases addressing equality issues generally: for example, in B.C., the Eldridge case focused on deaf people’s right to access interpreters when receiving health care.
Life without the Charter would not necessarily mean living in a dystopian world, like the one depicted in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
However, the fact that we have a Charter means we can look carefully at legislation, regulations, policies and programs to assess them on equality, discrimination and differentiated grounds.
That measure of protection was hard fought for, and it’s one to celebrate. Take time April 17 to think about what the Charter means to you.
As for me, I will think about the women who challenged the thinking of the day and made sure equality, and not repatriation, was the key consideration of Canada’s constitutional reform process.
Martha Muzychka is a writer and
consultant living and working in St. John’s. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org.