“No Dogs or Women.” “Ladies and Escorts.” Two doors, two signs, on a downtown Edmonton hotel. Seared into my memory in early childhood in the 1960’s, as I walked past the hotel with my father.
“We don’t take girls.” Dismissal by a Canadian Air Force recruiting officer, on careers day at my high school in Yellowknife, 1970s. No matter that at age 15 I’d already paid my own way to complete ground school and 12 hours of flight in a Cessna, and was just waiting for my 16th birthday to fly my first solo. No penis, no prospect.
“You have two kids to look after.” Several of my Globe and Mail editors, and one Canadian Press senior editor, responding to career applications. (The Canadian Press did hire me, the Globe threw me some peanuts.)
“You need your husband to co-sign.” CIBC (male) bank manager on my equipment loan application, for a small business in Halifax, 1990. No matter that I co-owned a house, had two kids, and at that moment in time made more peanuts than my husband.
BUT but but but …. wait.
I was able to tell the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce to screw itself, and walk across the street to the Royal Bank where a (female) manager instantly gave me a loan (and also a business credit card).
BECAUSE, in 1982, Canada was forever changed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms:
CONSTITUTION ACT, sections 15 and 28, 1982.
Section 15 ensures the equal protection and benefit of the law “without discrimination […] based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”
Section 28 guarantees that all rights covered in the Charter apply equally to men and women.
Happy International Women’s Day.
Canada was not the first country to enshrine women’s rights in its constitution – but, in 1982, it was early. Unfortunately, constitutional protection of gender equality is still rare: the World Bank reported last year that just eight countries scored 100 in legislating equal rights for men and women. Cheers for Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Sweden. Darts for other wealthy countries, notably the United States, that are still tragically debating basics – like the U.S. Equal Rights Amendment. No words suffice for other benighted places, where female populations are treated with unspeakable discrimination.
Canada is far less than perfect, notwithstanding the laws praised by the World Bank. The rule of law goes only so far, given economic, cultural, and social realities, and especially the rampant discrimination embedded in child care issues. Every woman has stories – binders full of stories, some of them horror stories.
But effective use of politics, government, and the rule of law, is how things change – and Canadians have used those tools. Change is slow, too slow – but a glance back shows that we’ve come a very long way. Our ancestors fought to secure women’s voting rights. Today’s generations fight on, in sometimes-pitched battles, over things small (the right to enter a pub) and huge, like reproductive rights and salary equality. Many of the battles have been won, at least in Canada, and in my own short lifetime. Dogs are still banned, but women enter pubs all the time. Institutions like the air force technically include women. Laws with sharp teeth apply to overt discrimination in loan and job applications. Some wins are symbolic, others greatly matter.
And there’s hope for the future. We’ve come so very far that in my circles, at least, fabulous young people – and it’s important that all genders are involved – regularly hit the streets to support rights. I expect they’d simply burn down any hotel that had a sign, “No dogs or women.”
Which brings me to the achievement of which I’m most proud: raising sons who not only respect women (and anyone else who is not exactly like them), but who actively work for change and, equally important, respect themselves enough to be comfortable in any role in life.
*Image of charter: Richard Foot, cc BY-SA, Creative Commons, via Wikimedia