Labour Views: Women’s Rights are Human Rights

By Jack Bourassa 

Imagine being told you’re not a person. Imagine being stripped of your rights. Imagine being banned from participating in public and political life. 

Less than a century ago, women were not recognized as “persons” in Canada. On October 18, we’ll mark Person’s Day in Canada. It’s the day in 1929 when the highest court of appeal included women in the legal definition of “persons.” Let’s learn from our history while honouring those who strived to pave the way for women’s participation in public and political life.  

The Famous Five, Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Henrietta Muir Edwards, launched a historic legal challenge asking the Supreme Court of Canada: “does the word ‘person’ include female persons? The answer was no.

They didn’t give up and took their fight to Canada’s highest court of appeal. And on October 18, 1929 the decision was: “The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. And to those who would ask why the word ‘person’ should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?”

Sadly, at the time, this decision did not include all women. Many Indigenous and racially visible women were not included yet. In this world rights are won through struggles. Decades later, we owe it to brave women and men who fought for gender equality. The only way to thank those who have come before us is to ensure that we never compromise our rights. We must not take their struggles for granted.

I’m writing as an ally hoping that there will be many of us seeking to be on the frontline in the battle for women’s rights. What can we do?

Be aware of any threats coming from misogynist groups or individuals. Although social media is a good tool for progressive activists, it’s also a tool used by misogynists and hate groups to influence our youth. We must work together to ensure that our communities are safe. By using the tools we have, awareness is the first step. Taking action is now easier than ever with the technology most of us have. Let’s ensure that misogyny has no place in our workplaces, schools and communities.

It makes no sense to state the obvious “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” However, women in Canada and around the world continue to face injustices. It’s 2020, and families of missing and murdered Indigenous women are still awaiting justice. It’s 2020 and politicians in developed nations such as Canada and United States still argue whether women have the right of autonomy over their bodies or not. It’s 2020 and the burden of unpaid labour remains to be, mostly, on the shoulders of women. It’s 2020 and 1 in 3 women in Canada are subjected to unwanted sexual behaviour while in public places.

It’s 2020 and I have hope. I believe that we’re better than what we used to be a decade ago. But our task is not done yet. Having more women in decision making professional and political positions will make our communities and nation diverse, fair and moving towards real and sustainable social justice. Women don’t need help to break the glass ceiling and be where they aspire to be. But our role, as allies, is to ensure that there are no obstacles on the bases of gender.

If you’re a man, close your eyes and imagine being on a race competing against a woman. Picture yourself running smoothly with nothing stopping you, while she has to go through obstacle course racing to win. Ask yourself if this is fair. The only fair competition is when you both have the same or no obstacles. Don’t be the obstacle, but rather, remove those obstacles. And if you ever witness discrimination and injustice in your community, workplace, or school, speak up. Always be an ally. Let’s mark Persons Day by taking a pledge to combat gender-based discrimination.

“We must open the doors and we must see to it they remain open, so that others can pass through.” ~ Rosemary Brown. 

This column appeared in the Yellowknifer on October 14.