Equal Under the Law
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Equal Under the Law
Canadian women fight for equality as the country creates a charter of rights
In 1973, an Alberta divorce case outraged women across the country because it revealed their unequal status in eyes of Canadian law. In the years to come, women would fight to guarantee their rights at the highest level in the country.
In 1981, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau drafted a new charter of rights to protect Canadians from unfair government action. The Charter would be entrenched in Canada's Constitution.
In 1981, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau drafted a new charter of rights to protect Canadians from unfair government action. The Charter would be entrenched in Canada's Constitution.

The Alberta case involved a farm wife named Irene Murdoch who claimed half the family cattle ranch in her divorce. For 25 years, alongside her husband, she'd worked their 480 acres in Turner Valley.

"I would do the haying, stacking, sweeping, running to town for repairs and gas and oil," Irene Murdoch said. "I just thought when you went into a marriage, it was a partnership basis, 50/50."

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it was her husbands farm. For a lifetime of work, Irene Murdoch was given just two hundred dollars a month. A later ruling gave her a lump settlement of $65,000 but ceased the monthly payments.

Throughout the 1970s, women became more conscious of the their lack of rights in Canadian society. Case after case seemed to testify to the inadequate legal guarantees against gender discrimination.

The same year as the Murdoch case was heard, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a section of the Indian Act was valid even though it denied native status to Indian women who married non-natives. (An Indian male did not lose his status by marrying a non-Indian.)

In 1980, women saw their biggest chance to change their legal standing. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau unveiled his plan for a new charter of rights, to protect Canadians from unfair government action. The new charter would be entrenched in Canada's constitution and would stipulate that any law that is inconsistent with the charter is invalid.

The drafting of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms became a crucial focal point for women. Doris Anderson, former editor of Chatelaine magazine, was the head of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women. She realized that the charter presented a crucial opportunity to advance womens rights and to guarantee full equality.

"It was clear a charter would profoundly affect women," Anderson said. "Its wording had to be strong, or we would be saddled with a bad and useless document for generations to come."

To prepare the legal case for a strong acknowledgment of womens rights in the charter, Anderson hired a lawyer name Mary Eberts, who had grown up in St. Thomas, Ontario, and studied constitutional law at Harvard.

Eberts had fought for women rights throughout her career and was ready for a battle.

"A famous revolution was once fought because of taxation without representation," Eberts argued. "If governments do not see our place and our voice in their assemblies, it is up to women to bring the point home. . . . We have a special historical relationship to the constitution, as we had to fight so hard for so long to be included in even its minimal provisions. Let us not stop now."

But the federal government cancelled a conference on the issue of womens rights in the new constitution with the assurance that "they would look after things."

Women's response was immediate and overwhelming. Anderson resigned her post as head of the Advisory Council on the Status of Women. And a handful of influential Canadian women organized their own conference in Ottawa, calling everyone they knew to attend.

More than a thousand determined women attended the impromptu conference demanding equality be written into the charter and forcing the government to pay attention.

"The next time a cabinet minister or the government tells women to go home and shut up, theyll think twice bout it," said Anderson.

For Eberts it was a monumental event in for Canadian women.

"The ad hoc committee was possibly one of the most important things to happen for the equality of Canadian women in the last fifteen or twenty years," Mary Eberts said. "It confirmed that the Constitution was a peoples instrument."

Eberts presented briefs to a Special House-Senate Joint Committee, arguing that the Charter had to include an endorsement of sexual equality, womens right to control reproduction, and other guarantees of womens rights

As a result, an "equality clause" was added. Section 28 read, "Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons."

But the section would be subject to an override, making it legally toothless. This sparked a national campaign on behalf of women to have the override removed. Support from across the country flowed in a show of solidarity that received a lot of media attention. Ultimately, the override was abandoned.

Canadian women were victorious. Equal rights were enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which came into force April 17, 1982. And the charter soon became an instrument for change:

In 1985, native women whod been denied equal rights under the Indian Act won full status under the charter.

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