Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Royal Investigation into Changing Times by ELSIE HAMBROOK

This week in 1967, Prime Minister Lester Pearson created the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, having been pressured to do so by a coalition of women's groups across Canada and having resisted doing it partly because the press was "very negative to the idea".

The Commission's work over the next three years, as much as its famous final report in 1970, contributed to legitimizing women's issues - though the press made sure it was greeted with derision, suggesting it would be a wailing wall "for every scatterbrain, malcontent and frustrated pope in a skirt" and would wind up its business in an afternoon, since women had nothing to complain about.

Among the seven commissioners were Chairman "Mrs. John Bird" of Ottawa and St. Andrews, New Brunswick and "Mrs. Robert Ogilvie" of Fredericton. They would later sign the final report as "Florence Bird" and "Doris Ogilvie".

John Humphrey of Hampton, New Brunswick, who had famously contributed to the writing of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was also appointed to the Commission, but more later about what he thought of it all.

By the time the Commission held hearings in the Maritimes in the fall of 1968, the times they were a-changing. Pressure for women's "liberation" was felt in most homes and by governments. The media was making less fun of women and the Commission. Yet it still required bravery to appear before the Commission at its hearing in New Brunswick. In an effort to hear from ordinary women, the Commission had released a how-to pamphlet on preparing a presentation and holding kitchen meetings.

The final report - published 40 years ago this year - sold out in three days. It seemed that every woman had her copy. The report, and the three-year process, "woke up Canadian women to the inequities in the system". Actually, it woke up the country. There was no going back.

Commissioners said they were amazed how similar the issues and the women were across Canada. The stories women told were commonplace, at least to many women, but they made
media headlines. Discrimination on the job, sexism in schools, in school textbooks and in school sports, back-room abortions; lack of childcare, of child support enforcement, of supports for women reentering the labour force and of access to birth control information.

"I remember one young woman who travelled 500 miles to make a single point with the commissioners: that a 13-year-old girl should not be forced into marriage simply because she was pregnant", remarked former journalist and Senator Joan Fraser recently.

Mary Two-Axe Early, a Mohawk from Quebec, galvanized the Commission and the nation with her presentation against the sex discrimination in the Indian Act; the Royal Commission recommended the repeal of that section of the Act.

The Commission's 167 recommendations proposed guaranteed annual incomes for single parents and for pensioners, fairer tax laws; admission of women to the RCMP; provisions for maternity leave. It wanted sex discrimination in employment to be prohibited and more female judges and Senators appointed.

For years afterwards, the report was the blueprint for Canadian women's activism. The famous NAC - the National Action Committee on the Status of Women - was originally formed precisely to monitor government's implementation of the Commission's recommendations.

Government advisory bodies on women's issues were created. Canadian governments became known for innovation in advancing gender equality. There was even a time when federal election campaigns included a leaders' debate on women's issues. Funds were made available to challenge discriminatory laws, because it was thought it was good to flush those out.

Evidently times have changed again - before women's equality was ever reached. But that's another story. For now, more about the Commissioners.

Commission Chair Florence Bird was better known to Canadians as broadcaster Anne Francis, a pen name she borrowed from a great grandmother "to avoid embarrassing her husband with her feminist ideas". In an interview on her 90th birthday, she said, "I am an unrepentant feminist. I can't imagine what else a thinking person could be".

Commissioner John Humphrey dissociated himself from the final report of the Commission and wrote his own "minority report". Among the reasons was that he thought the Report was "unfair to the married woman at home". He thought paid maternity leave would discriminate against childless women and non working women. He did not agree with pay equity for civil servants, nor increased funding for daycares or family allowances. He did not see the need for a Status of Women Council since the functions could be performed by the Human Rights Commission. He did not agree with measures to help women since he thought with all the changes happening, "the destiny of women is in their own hands".

Doris Ogilvie signed the final report but wrote a separate statement because she did not agree with women having the choice of abortion.

Commissioner Jeanne Lapointe said she read 50 books in three months for the Commission and became a feminist as a result, which she had not been before.

The only Commissioner who thought of herself as feminist before her appointment to the Commission was Elsie Gregory MacGill, the world's first female aircraft designer who was dubbed "Queen of the Hurricanes" in comic books, but whose greatest achievement might be to have openly embraced feminist goals while pursuing a successful career in engineering for 40 years.

Elsie Hambrook is Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. She may be reached via e-mail at

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