Rights of women

Canada’s history has been shaped by countless determined women who worked to promote and uphold gender equality in Canada. Women championed a number of important human rights that have become core Canadian values — the right to vote in provincial and federal elections, the right to own property, the right to earn a fair wage, and finally, the right to be recognized as “persons” under the law.

Women are now protected from discrimination on the grounds of gender, age, marital status and more by the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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Protecting women’s rights

Women’s rights are human rights. Equality rights are of particular importance, given the unequal treatment women have experienced in Canada. A number of legal instruments exist in Canada to protect equality for women.

One is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which gives constitutional protection to individual human rights. It applies to relationships between an individual and government, while relationships between individuals are covered in certain areas by the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA), as well as provincial and territorial human rights legislation.

There are two key sections of the Charter to note with regards to equality: sections 15 and 28.

Section 15 ensures the equal protection and benefit of the law “without discrimination […] based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

Court decisions have expanded this list to prohibit discrimination on other grounds, such as citizenship, marital status and sexual orientation; decisions have also recognized that multiple grounds of discrimination may intersect in particular cases.

Section 28 guarantees that all rights covered in the Charter apply equally to men and women.

The Canadian Human Rights Act of 1977 states that all Canadians have the right to equality, equal opportunity, fair treatment, and an environment free of discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, marital status and family status. It protects Canadians from discrimination when they are employed by or receive services from:

  • the federal government;
  • First Nations governments; or
  • private companies that are regulated by the federal government like banks, trucking companies, broadcasters and telecommunications companies.

The CHRA created the Canadian Human Rights Commission to investigate and settle complaints of discrimination, and refer them to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for a decision or settlement.

Other legislative acts that are important to women and equality rights are the Employment Equity Act and the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act.

A brief history of women’s rights in Canada

Equality

One of the earliest steps toward equality for Canadian women was the legalization of married women’s property rights.

Starting in Ontario in 1884 and Manitoba in 1900, the Married Women's Property Act gave married women in these provinces the same legal rights as men, which allowed women to be able to enter into legal agreements and buy property. The rest of the provinces and territories followed slowly, with Quebec eventually signing the Married Women’s Property Act in 1964; the Civil Code of Québec was amended to give married women full legal and property rights.

Another important milestone for women’s rights was defining “persons” under the British North America Act, 1867. The Famous Five, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby, petitioned the government in 1928 to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to decide whether “persons” in the Act included women. The Supreme Court decided that it did not, for the following reasons:

  • The British North America Act in 1928 had to maintain the meaning “persons” would have been given by the courts when it was passed in 1867.
  • According to common law, women could not hold political office.
  • If the British Parliament had intended for women to be included as “qualified persons” under section 24 of the Act, it would have said so.

However, an appeal to the Privy Council was launched. In 1929, the Council decided the word “person” in itself was not clear, and would be better understood if the British North America Act was given a wider interpretation. Therefore, if the law was to exclude women specifically, it should have been clearly stated in the Act.

From this point on, women were considered “persons” under the law. Only one short year later, in 1930, Cairine Reay Wilson became the first woman appointed to the Senate.

Voting

At the beginning of the 20th century, women were denied the right to vote in provincial and federal elections.

This began to change in 1916 when women won the right to vote in provincial elections in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. British Columbia and Ontario granted women the right to vote in 1917.

That same year, Canada passed the War-time Elections Act, which gave women in the military and those who had male relatives fighting in World War I the right to vote. By 1918, all Caucasian women had the right to vote in federal elections. At this point, there were still many provinces in which women were not allowed to vote in provincial elections. In addition, many minority groups were denied the right to vote.

The last province to extend the right to vote in provincial elections to women was Quebec, in 1940. The Northwest Territories was the last territory, granting women the right to vote in 1951. Starting in 1947, the right to vote was extended to some minority groups, and in 1960, all Canadians were granted the right to vote, including Aboriginal men and women.

Labour

One of the first major steps toward equality between women and men in the workforce was the passing of the Fair Employment Practices Act and the Female Employees Fair Remuneration Act in Ontario, in 1951.

The Fair Employment Practices Act aimed to eliminate discrimination by implementing fines and creating a complaints system. The Female Employees Fair Remuneration Act was designed to provide women with equal pay for work of equal value. The rest of Canada’s provinces and territories quickly followed Ontario’s lead in adopting similar provincial acts to ensure equality in the workforce.

This also led to the federal government passing the following three acts:

  • the Canada Fair Employment Practices Act of 1953, which applied to the civil service;
  • the Female Employees Equal Pay Act of 1956, which made wage discrimination based on sex against the law; and
  • the Employment Equity Act of 1986, which applies to federally regulated employees and requires employers to identify and eliminate unnecessary barriers that limit employment opportunities.

International women’s rights

Canada has worked to make women’s human rights a strong focus of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and Human Rights Council.

It was one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which set international standards to eliminate gender discrimination. In 2002, Canada ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000.

As part of our nation’s commitment to this convention, Canada must submit a report to the United Nations every four years about how it has worked to further the rights of women.

Read more about Canada’s commitment to gender equality and the advancement of women’s rights internationally and Canada’s feminist international assistance policy.

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