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October 20, 2012 / Man in the Mirror

The Vancouver Sun: Women’s rights still imperfect

By Laura Track

October 18 is Persons Day, the anniversary of the day in 1929 when five Canadian women changed the legal world forever. Their victory in court that day won them recognition as “persons,” and thus eligible for appointment to the Senate. However, the benefits of legal victories are rarely evenly shared – Aboriginal, Asian and other women of colour remained ineligible because of their race, and it would be another 30 years before Aboriginal women were extended the right to vote.

Cecilia Kell is an Aboriginal woman from the Northwest Territories, where today she is recognized as a “person” entitled to the same rights as everyone else. However, when she filed a court case against her abusive partner and the territorial government to protect her housing rights, her case was dismissed because she could not afford the legal fees. Her inability to assert her rights in court made those rights essentially meaningless. What good are tenancy laws or equality protections when those whose rights have been violated lack access to the means to enforce them?

Arguably, no laws remain on Canada’s books today that so obviously discriminate against women as the pre-1929 personhood law. Laws that prevented women from working certain jobs, denied married women rights equal to those of their husbands, and criminalized women for making their own reproductive choices have all been slowly chipped away. It can be tempting, then, to think that the work of creating an equal society is done, that women’s equality has been achieved, and that Canada can hold itself out as a beacon of women’s rights to the rest of the world. To be sure, women’s rights are much better protected here than in many other places, but a superficial look at the form our laws take, rather than the substantive impacts they have and the outcomes they produce, masks the reality of women’s inequality in Canada. Laws were there to protect Kell from violence, but the reality for her was that, despite her best efforts to utilize those laws, they provided her no relief.

Every Persons Day, West Coast LEAF, a non-profit legal organization dedicated to advancing women’s equality, publishes a report card measuring B.C.’s compliance with the internationally protected human rights of women and girls enshrined in the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The Convention requires states to take steps to ensure the full development and advancement of women, and to guarantee them the exercise and enjoyment of their human rights on a basis of equality with men. Importantly, CEDAW doesn’t simply require states to remove obvious examples of discrimination against women, such as the personhood law, and implement gender-neutral provisions in their stead. Rather, the Convention demands that states strive toward equality of results for women, by recognizing women’s historic disadvantage and seeking to undo some of the damage caused by laws, like the personhood law, that have perpetuated women’s inequality.

Our assessment of the B.C. government’s actions – in particular its failure to invest in legal aid, raise social assistance rates to adequate levels, or provide for meaningful community participation in the Missing Women’s Inquiry – resulted in a number of failing grades in the report card this year. Even in categories where some improvement was noted, such as the new Family Law Act and its focus on violence against women, work remains to be done to ensure B.C. is living up to its international human rights obligations.

Denied justice in Canada, Kell took her case to the United Nations CEDAW committee, which ruled earlier this year that she was discriminated against because of her aboriginality and her sex, and that Canada failed to take necessary steps to protect Aboriginal women who face violence. This case shows the connections between male violence, loss of housing, and unequal access to justice, and highlights the ways in which the failure to invest in legal aid has a disproportionate effect on already marginalized individuals. It reminds us that, while women may indeed be equal “persons,” entitled to the same protections and benefits of the law as men, not all women enjoy their personhood equally. While much has changed for women since 1929, one constant remains: We have much work to do to achieve true, meaningful equality for all women in Canada.

Laura Track is legal director of the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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