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When Ottawa was forced to change its Changing of the Guard ceremony

From the time the ceremonial guard became a tourist attraction on Ottawa's Parliament Hill in 1959, it was a men-only preserve, until women won a human rights ruling in 1979 and they were allowed to join in.

In 1979, women joined the pomp and circumstance for daily summertime ceremony on Parliament Hill

In 1959 a ceremonial changing of the guard on Parliament Hill began July 2, and happened through Aug. 14. 1:14

This summer, as they have since 1959, tourists visiting Ottawa can observe the pomp and pageantry of a ceremony like the one at Buckingham Palace, by showing up on Parliament Hill for Canada's own Changing of the Guard.

When CBC Newsmagazine visited Parliament Hill in the summer of '59, host Norman DePoe said it was apparent that "the newest tourist attraction in the Commonwealth has scored a smash hit," drawing 2,000 to 3,000 spectators every day.

At that time, the commander of the ceremony told DePoe that the guard was made up of young men.

It was not a sure thing that the show would go on past mid-August, but popularity won out.

A young guardsman on duty, under the hot sun and a five-pound bearskin hat in 1959. (Network Newsmagazine/CBC Archives)

A complaint, then change

Twenty years later, as CBC's The National reported, there had to be some changes made to bring the show into line with modern expectations.

"In Canada," CBC's George McLean said in the introduction to a June 25, 1979 report, "many traditionally male domains have in recent years opened their doors to women."

And as he explained further, one such group "that held out" until forced to change was the group of guards involved in the daily summer ceremony on Parliament Hill.

The male-only rule was lifted and women were allowed to join the guard. 1:46

It took a complaint to the Human Rights Commission the summer before and a compromise from the Defence Department to do it, but the ceremony from the summer of 1979 would include women.  

"This year," reported Bruce Cameron, "underneath those furry busbies are 11 women."

Because the guard was made up of "potential combat troops," allowing women to fill the summer jobs was impossible, because women were not then allowed to serve in combat.

Enter the compromise, which saw the changing of the guards to a "purely ceremonial unit," which could include men from militia units and women who would serve only in the ceremonial guards.