The Taking Of 28

In 1980, Ottawa was excited by Prime Minister Trudeau’s proposal to repatriate the Canadian Constitution from Great Britain and create a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Women were determined that the new Charter would contain a separate section affirming the equality of men and women. A Senate-Commons Committee was formed to hear public comment on the proposed Charter. Doris Anderson, then Chair of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, called a conference to debate the proposal for an Equality clause. But suddenly, Lloyd Axworthy, Minister for the Status of Women in the federal government, cancelled the conference. This so enraged Canadian women that a spontaneous call went out for women to gather in Ottawa the following weekend, even without government support. Women MPs made their offices available to telephone women across the country urging them to come to Ottawa.

The next weekend, a thousand angry women from all over the country, including me, converged on the city. Meeting rooms in the West Block of the Parliament buildings were made available. TVs were set up to accommodate the over-flowing crowd. Led by several knowledgeable women lawyers, by the end of the two-day meeting, an Equality Clause, Section 28, had been hammered out and forwarded to the Senate/Commons Committee. Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.

Though it appeared that we had won the battle, there was one last glitch. Since the Charter needed the approval of the Provinces to become law, the last-minute refusal of Alan Blakeney, Premier of Saskatchewan, to support the Equality clause, calling it ‘unnecessary’, caused another storm. Again women MPs opened their offices to allow us to telephone women across the country. “Lobby your MP.” “Tell them we will have our Equality clause.” The women of Canada completely overwhelmed the Bell telephone system for two days.

After an exhausting weekend of telephone calls, I sat with a dozen women in the office of Judy Erola, Minister of Immigration. Finally, around five o’clock, Jean Chretien, Minister of Justice, strode into the room, grinning delightedly. “You’ve won. Blackeney has backed down. The Equality clause will be enshrined in the Charter.” Hurray! Canadian women now have their own equal rights amendment.