Introducing the Commission
The Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW) was established in 1967, amidst a rising feminist movement in Canada. A year before, Laura Sabia, then-president of the Canadian Federation of University Women, had collaborated to create a coalition of 32 women’s organizations known as the Committee for the Equality of Women (CEW). The coalition developed a campaign to call for the creation of a Royal Commission— an official inquiry conducted by the federal government into matters of national concern–designed to study and make recommendations to advance the status of women in Canada. The coalition’s campaign converged with pressure from the media, Laura Sabia’s threat of bringing two million women to march on Parliament Hill in protest and the work of Judy LaMarsh (then-secretary of State who called for a Commission within government), impelling Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to establish the RCSW in 1967.
The Commission’s Research, Work, and Report
Pearson’s government appointed seven commissioners to oversee the RCSW’s work. The commissioners included:
- Chairperson Florence Bird (the RCSW is often referred to as the Bird Commission);
- Elsie MacGill, a well-known engineer and advocate for women in engineering;
- Lola M. Lange, an expert on education in farming and rural communities from Alberta;
- Jeanne Lapointe, a professor of literature from Laval University;
- Doris Ogilvie, a judge and activist working on the rights of women and children;
- Jacques Henripin, an academic demographer working at the University of Montreal and;
- John Humphrey, a legal scholar and a director for the United Nations Division of Human Rights.
The commissioners conducted an extensive Canada-wide consultation in which they distributed brochures asking women for written submissions about their experiences and advertising the work of the Commission. The Committee also travelled across the country to engage in public hearings in which women could voice their opinions and articulate their experiences. This consultation process was broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and there was extensive media coverage of the Commission’s work.
The RCSW report was tabled in 1970 and described the status of women in Canada, relying on the extensive research it conducted. It also provided 167 recommendations that gave governments, business, and civil society a plan to bring about change. The Commission’s work was divided into eight sections including: “women in the economy, education, women in the family, taxation and childcare allowances, poverty, participation of women in public life, immigration and citizenship, criminal law and women offenders.”
The RCSW report was based on the principle that everyone should have the same opportunities as others to live freely without being oppressed by their gender. To address gender equality, the report aimed to improve women’s autonomy and well-being, eliminate the wage gap between men and women, and substantially include women in society by giving them real opportunities to engage in the public and political sphere. Despite the scope and range of its work, the RCSW has been critiqued for analyses which did not adequately address the inequities experienced among women, including privileging the experiences of White women with limited attention to the experiences of “Indigenous, immigrant and racialized women”.
The Commission’s Legacy
By the 1980s, a number of the report’s 167 recommendations had been either partially or fully implemented. Still, there are many challenges that persist today in terms of the status of women; three pressing issues are highlighted here:
- The first is the reconciliation of work and family life. Significantly, one of the recommendations contained in the report, which has not yet been implemented, is the creation of a national childcare program. A demand for this program appears in the report under the principles that childcare is a shared responsibility between mothers, fathers, and society. Canadian women still find it difficult to combine work and family life, partly due to limited childcare provision and stereotypical family pattern in terms of gender roles, with women generally taking the major share of the housework and family responsibilities like educational tasks. The report also failed to address widespread issues such as the alleviation of poverty, which disproportionately affects single mothers and their children.
- The second recommendation that has not been fully implemented is the wage gap. It is illegal to pay less or refuse to hire based on gender but, the gender pay gap still exists. The Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC) states that there is currently a 20 percent pay gap throughout the world. EPIC works towards equal pay for work of equal value using gender-neutral criteria. There are currently coalitions in place at the federal and provincial level that work to ensure equal pay for men and women. However, much more needs to be done to advance equal pay between genders in Canada to fulfill the recommendation of the RCSW.
- The third widespread problem that persists despite advancements made in the wake of the RCSW. Before the establishment of the Commission, a man could not be charged with certain sexual offences unless the female victim was of “previously chaste character.” The Commission recommended the removal of this phrase in law, and it eventually was removed. Still, gender-based violence, sexual violence, partner abuse, and emotional abuse are prevalent in Canada and on average, “a woman is killed by her partner every six days.”.
- This video summarizes the RCSW during its creation and present day.
- These archives provide more information about the Status of Women in Canada through various radio broadcasts.
- This documentary discusses the unfinished business of feminism in Canada.
Contributors: Kayla Bunde, Isabela Zeberio, Yasemin Ozturk