Reflecting on the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women
Amber J. Fletcher, Assistant Professor,
University of Regina
Alana Cattapan, PhD Candidate, York University
From April 16-19, 2015, a group of feminist activists and academics met at York University to reflect on the legacy of the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Entitled Shifting Paradigms,Enduring Legacies: Reflections on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women at 50, the symposium provided an opportunity to reflect on the effects of the Royal Commission in Canadian society prior to its 50th anniversary in 2020. A number of keynote speeches and panels were held over the four days to recognize the work of the Commission and the ongoing experiences of marginalization that many women in Canada face today.
The Royal Commission, which began in 1967 and released its report in 1970, was the product of extensive participatory consultation on issues affecting Canadian women. Public consultations across the country, along with 468 briefs and 1,000 letters from citizens, informed the work of the Commission and were reflected in the 167 recommendations made in its report to the Government of Canada. Almost fifty years later, some of the Commissions’ recommendations – such as equal pay legislation and matrimonial property rights – have been (at least formally) addressed. Many others, particularly those related to substantive equality, are yet to be realized.
Symposium participants were asked both to reflect on these legacies of the Commission, as well as to envision future priorities and directions for gender equality in Canada. In the contributions and the conversations that ensued, a number of important themes emerged.
One of the key themes of the symposium was nostalgia. A number of speakers reflected on how the Royal Commission affected their lives and how it inspired their work. Several speakers described the consultation processes of the Commission, describing how its hearings were a critical moment of engagement for many women across Canada, that is, a means for women to be heard and recognized by the state in a way that may not have occurred otherwise. Some speakers also spoke of nostalgia for the sense of possibility and the public engagement that occurred at the time of the Commission, and this was repeated by younger scholars reflecting on a time that they did not themselves know. The lament for a time when change seemed more possible was apparent throughout the symposium, that is, a time when a strong relationship between feminists and the state was seen as an inroad to improvements in the material conditions of women’s lives.
In a majority of the presentations, a sense of nostalgia and loss was tied to the ascendance of a neoliberal paradigm that focuses on the privatization of once-public services and an individualization of once-collective concerns. The decline of the Keynesian welfare state and the related changes to economic and social relations has also come with a neo-conservative politics committed to the home as the site of social reproduction and a re-inscribing of traditional gender roles and “family values.” At the same time, the neoliberal paradigm has brought an increasing internationalization of care work, a trend profoundly shaped by globalized and racialized forms of inequality. In her presentation, for example, Meg Luxton spoke of the “Global Care Crisis,” in which Canadian women’s increased participation in waged labour, combined with their ongoing disproportionate responsibility for unwaged work, and the lack of social services (including a national child care policy) has led to increased dependence on paid care services provided by women as precarious temporary workers.
Indeed, a common thread throughout the symposium was the impact of internationalization on Canadian public policy in the years since the Commission. While some participants highlighted the negative implications of transnational policy regimes like free trade, others had used transnational mechanisms strategically to create positive change. Shelagh Day, for example, discussed how the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) has used international law to hold the Canadian state accountable for missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The Women’s Movement in Canada
The symposium also brought an opportunity for critical reflection and analysis of the Commission’s relationship with the Canadian women’s movement, both then and now. Many participants felt that the Commission had strengthened the feminist voice inside the federal government, as evidenced in the subsequent creation of the Status of Women Canada (SWC), and in civil society through the creation of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). However, others contested this view, debating whether the Commission’s achievements have been exaggerated or romanticized by some activists over the past five decades. In a keynote address, Monique Bégin (who was Executive Secretary of the Royal Commission and went on to serve as a Liberal MP and cabinet minister) shared her critique of the Commission report, noting that despite the changes it inspired, the Commission failed to consider some areas critical to enabling women’s equality, including violence against women. In general, however, most participants agreed that the Commission’s legacy for the Canadian women’s movement has far outweighed its shortcomings.
The name of the symposium—Shifting Paradigms, Enduring Legacies—suggests both that the Royal Commission altered the direction of the women’s movement in Canada, and that another paradigm shift is needed. Participants presented a number of concrete steps and specific solutions for Canadian social and fiscal policy, but running throughout the discussion was the role of the state: what is the future role of the Canadian state for gender equality in Canada? Can the currently neoliberal state be reclaimed as an equality seeking mechanism? Should it be reclaimed?
In general, participants agreed that the state as a mechanism remains useful and that “the state” should not simply be conflated with the governing party. The diverse presentations showed the usefulness of multiple levels of government, including provincial and transnational levels, as sites for feminist action. Despite the variety of lenses they brought to the question of the ideal future state – lens that include human rights, intersectionality, decolonization, and social justice – symposium participants presented a vision for a more gender-equitable Canada over the next fifty years.
The authors would like to acknowledge the symposium’s organizer, Professor Barbara Cameron of York University, whose hard work made this successful symposium possible. The symposium was organized through the York Centre for Feminist Research and was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
Amber J. Fletcher is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Studies at the University of Regina. Her research examines the interaction of gender, climate change, and public policy with a particular focus on women in agriculture.
Alana Cattapan is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at York University and a research associate at Novel Tech Ethics at Dalhousie University. Her work interrogates the relationships between citizenship, social policy, bioethics, and gender. @arcattapan