The year 2020 will be the 50th Anniversary of the report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. The release of the report in 1970 marks a milestone in Canadian feminism. The Commission was both a product of feminist activism and a catalyst for it. Even today, the Commission’s report serves as a reference point for evaluations of “second wave” feminism, both by its supporters and its critics (Arscott, 2010; Williams, 1990).
Origins and Work of the Royal Commission
Laura Sabia, then President of the Canadian Federation of University Women, is credited with proposing the idea of a Royal Commission. Her efforts led to the creation in June 1966 of the Committee for the Equality of Women (CEW), a coalition of women’s organizations created to press the Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson to appoint a Commission. A delegation representing the CEW presented its demand for a Royal Commission to the federal government in a brief endorsed by thirty-five organizations on November 10, 1966. A reluctant government gave into the demand after Laura Sabia, who had become the CEW Chair, declared she would bring two million women onto Parliament Hill in protest if the government failed to act. The lone woman in the Pearson cabinet, Judy Lamarche, supported the efforts of the women’s organizations (Morris, 2006; 2016).
The Royal Commission was appointed on February 16, 1967, with an overall mandate “to inquire into and report upon the status of women in Canada, and to recommend what steps might be taken by the Federal Government to ensure for women equal opportunities with men in all aspects of Canadian society” (Canada, RCSW, vii-viii). Florence Bird, a well-known journalist and broadcaster, chaired the Commission; the other Commissioners were two male academics (Jacques Henripin, professor of demography at the Université de Montréal, and John Humphrey, law professor at McGill University) and three women (Lola Lanage an Alberta farmer and community activist; Jeanne Lapointe, a Quebec academic; Else Gregory MacGill, a Toronto aeronautical engineer; and Doris Oglivie, a Fredericton juvenile court judge). It was a sign of the times that Florence Bird used her married name instead of her professional name of Ann Francis and the official Cabinet document establishing the Commission refers to her as Mrs. John Bird (RCSW, viii).
The Commissioners began their work at a time of growing activism by a wide spectrum of feminist organizations: liberal, radical and socialist. The cross-Canada consultations by the Commissioners, extensively covered by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and other media outlets, provided a focus for the demands and aspirations of an emerging feminist movement. The Commission designed a remarkably democratic consultation process, distributing brochures in supermarkets, libraries and through associations and mass media with the question “what do you have to say about the status of women” and holding 37 days of public hearings in locations and at times convenient to women. A total of 890 witnesses appeared before the Commission in public hearings held in fourteen cities in all ten provinces. These events were supplemented by visits of the Chair and one other Commissioner to Whitehorse and Yellowknife and group discussions and interviews in four settlements in the Keewatin District and in Churchill, Manitoba. The Commission received 468 briefs and 1000 letters (Canada, RCSW: ix-x).
Participants in the consultations raised issues not originally within the Commission’s mandate and not exclusively within federal jurisdiction, most notably child care (Timpson, 1990). In addition to the consultations, the Commission initiated a program of research in the form of a series of short studies on topics such as “manpower” utilization in department stores and chartered banks, taxation of the incomes of married women, the attitude of union workers to women in industry, and day care as an investment in people (Canada, RCSW, 1970). The research and consultations informed the analysis and the 167 recommendations in the final report of the Royal Commission.
The Commission’s recommendations covered topics ranging from the discrimination against married women in obtaining credit, restrictions on the employment of married women, the legally sanctioned lower pay for women than men doing the same job, the sex segregation in occupations, the under representation of women in higher education, the absence of women in the upper levels of decision-making in business and government, the assumption in immigration policy that women immigrants enter Canada as dependents, the high levels of poverty among the mainly female lone parents and elderly women, the treatment of women in the criminal justice system, the discrimination against Indigenous women who marry non-Indigenous men when it comes to passing on their Indian status to their children, the situation of paid household workers, women’s access to abortion and birth control and many more.
Achievements of the Royal Commission
By today’s standards, the recommendations of the Commission may seem quite moderate, framed as they are by the liberal feminist values of the Commissioners. But they were greeted by some commentators as radical, with one headline in the Toronto Star describing the report as “more explosive than any terrorist’s time bomb”. (Arscott, 2010). The report provided a critique of the existing state of gender relations (the “status of women”), emphasizing the social attitudes and government policies that supported it. Specifically, the Commission criticized what feminist scholars today describe as the “male breadwinner model” in which married women were expected to be economically dependent on their husbands and exit the paid labour force to be full-time wives and mothers. This model was institutionalized in public and private sector practices. As an alternative, the Commission advocated choice for women to decide between a career in the paid labour force or in the home. Many of its recommendations centred on the elimination of the obstacles to women’s labour market participation and included measures such as government supported child care to facilitate this participation and temporary special measures to reverse past discrimination.
The Commission’s hearing, research and report served to enlarge the public space for feminist political mobilization. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) was formed in 1971 with the specific purpose of advocating for the implementation of the recommendations of the report. From its beginnings as a small coalition of thirty member groups, NAC grew to become a powerful voice for Canadian women with a membership of over 700 organizations by the early 1990s. These organizations reflected a range of approaches to achieving women’s equality and varied in size from small local women’s service organizations to large national organizations. As governments implemented some of the early recommendations of the Royal Commission, the feminist agenda expanded to include new or previously ignored issues, such as male violence against women, oppression of sexual minorities, new reproductive technologies, constitutional reform and trade issues.
Many of the specific recommendations of the Royal Commission were implemented, although the problems they identified did not necessarily disappear. In general, government acted on recommendations that involved the elimination of overtly discriminatory treatment and that were not opposed by powerful social interests or did not require the expenditure of significant amounts of government money. Certain crucial recommendations were not implemented.
- Even with majority popular support, no federal government has ever brought in legislation acting on the Commission’s recommendation that “the Criminal Code be amended to permit abortion by a qualified medical practitioner on the sole request of any woman who has been pregnant for 12 weeks or less”. Instead, ongoing mobilization by feminists in support of legal strategies was necessary before the Supreme Court struck down the abortion provisions of the Criminal Code criticized by the Royal Commission.
- Despite continuous campaigning by child care advocacy organizations and many election promises, no federal government has brought in a national Day-Care Act as a framework for substantial federal financial support for the capital and operating costs of provincial child care services.
- The Commission’s recommendation that the federal government introduce a Guaranteed Annual Income for sole support parents has not been implemented.
- Not until 1985 when the equality provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect did the federal government amend the Indian Act to eliminate some but not all the discrimination against Indigenous women who marry non-Indigenous men. That fight for formal equality continues in 2017 against a still intransigent federal government.
The shifting context
The Royal Commission was appointed and its report appeared at the height of Canada’s post-World War Two welfare state. The second half of the 1960s and first years of the 1970s saw the introduction of Medicare, the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan, the Canada Assistance Plan (with national standards for welfare assistance), as well as measures to increase Old Age Security and Family Allowance benefits when the cost of living rises, and a very significant expansion of coverage under the Unemployment Insurance program. It was a period of rising living standards and optimism about the possibilities for social progress. Many working class men experienced an expansion of their social rights and an increase in their standard of living. The Commission’s recommendations were focused on achieving for women the social rights enjoyed by these men including access to good jobs and related benefits. Not all strata of society benefited equally from the economic expansion of the post-World War Two era. The Commission has been criticized for minimizing the extent of the differences among women and ignoring the links between the inequality experienced by Indigenous, immigrant and racialized women and broader patterns of social inequality facing their communities (Arscott, 2010; Williams, 1990).
The period of welfare state expansion was short-lived. By the middle of the 1970s, the attacks by business and the retreat by governments had begun, gaining momentum over the following decades. A primary goal of the Royal Commission, the entry of married women into the labour force, has been more than achieved. Most adult women are in the paid labour force, although less as a matter of choice as envisaged by the Commissioners than necessity, and without the child care and other supports needed to ensure women’s equality. In 1970 39.8% of women were in the paid labour force compared to 82% in 2015; in 1976, 32.1% of women with children under 6 were in the paid labour force (both part-time and full-time) compared to 69.5% in 2015. (Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey). Furthermore, since the mid 1970s, a range of government policies – from trade policies to the weakening of employment standards and social programs – has led to the erosion of social rights for many men. Since 1970, the divergence of opportunities along lines of class, race, ethnicity, immigration status, and ability – including among women – has widened significantly.
The need for a new gender justice agenda
The realization of many but not all of the Royal Commission’s recommendations, the emergence of new or previously ignored issues, and the changed context of the fight for women’s equality all point to the need for the renewal of a gender justice agenda in Canada. Central to such an agenda is the recognition of the diversity of women’s experiences and the complex intersections of gender, class, race, disability, immigrant status, sexual identity and age.
The Policy4Women site reports on the work of a three-stage initiative organized around the 50th anniversary of the report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, which will occur in 2020. The first stage, a 2015 Symposium on Shifting Paradigms, Enduring Legacies: Reflections on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women at 50, evaluated the Commission in light of changes over the past almost fifty years. (Download the agenda for the Symposium).
The current stage of the initiative, Engendering Public Engagement, Democratizing Public Space, is inspired by the democratic consultation methods of the Royal Commission and is organized around five pilot public engagement exercises (described elsewhere on the Policy4Women site). These exercises are in preparation for a larger consultation in 2020. The Canada-wide consultation, combined with the creation of an ongoing electronic public space for a Gender Policy Network, will mark the third stage of the Royal commission project.
References and resources
Arscott, Jane. (2010). ‘More explosive than any terrorist’s time bomb: the RCSW then and now”, paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Concordia University, Montreal, June 2, 2010.
Morris, Cerise. (2006; 2016). Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Canadian Encyclopedia. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/
Timpson, Annis May. (1990). Royal Commissions as sites of resistance: women’s challenges on child care in the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. International Journal of Canadian Studies 20 (Fall): 123-148.
Williams, Toni. (1990). Re-forming ‘Women’s” Truth: A critique of the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Ottawa Law Review 22 (3): 725-759.
Rise Up! A digital feminist archive. http://riseupfeministarchive.ca.
CBC. Digital Archives. Equality First: the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. http://www.cbc.ca/archives/topic/equality-first-the-royal-commission-on-the-status-of-women. Includes recordings of a few of the presentations to the Commission.