Symposium continues exploration of women’s status in Canada

Academics and community-based researchers gathered at York University last week to explore the impact of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women on Canadian society and to prepare for its 50th anniversary in five years.

Those involved in public policy research and gender and gender-related issues gathered at Shifting Paradigms, Enduring Legacies: Reflections on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women at 50 symposium from April 16 to 19 to brainstorm projects that can extend the work the Royal Commission started with its 1970 report. The three-year Royal Commission studied the status of women and recommended ways in which the federal government could promote equal opportunities among women and men throughout Canada.

Barbara Cameron
Barbara Cameron

“The purpose of this symposium is to get an assessment on the legacy of the Royal Commission, but also to stimulate research projects for 2020,” says York University political science Professor Barbara Cameron. “The Royal Commission wasn’t just an abstract moment in Canadian public policy. It actually transformed the lives of many women.”

The symposium was funded by a connection grant from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, York University, the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies. Speakers from York included professors and PhD candidates from the Department of Political Science, the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, the Department of Equity Studies and Osgoode Hall Law School.

Cameron, who organized the event with the support of York’s Centre for Feminist Research, says it has had two main outcomes thus far, the first being to provide a networking forum, bringing together people who can assist in advancing one another’s gender and public policy goals.

“People are hearing each other in a way they wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for this symposium,” she says. “The second outcome is a more traditional, academic one where people will write slightly longer pieces to be posted on a website to make the contributions of symposium participants publicly available. And we have a committee and some regional sub-committees talking about developing a larger research project that we’ll seek funding for.”

Cameron credits her early career path to the opportunities for women created by the commission. Just after the commission reported, she graduated with an Honours BA in political science and was hired as the women’s organizer for the Ontario union of students. From there she became part of a collective of women who created and then taught the first women’s studies course for credit at the University of Toronto.

Monique Bégin
Monique Bégin

“Then it occurred to me that since they let me be a course director, maybe they would let me into graduate school. So I got my masters and my doctorate from the University of Toronto,” she says. “I hadn’t been that focused on a career before because that wasn’t necessarily what our mothers were doing and we didn’t know many women who had full time careers. It wasn’t until I started thinking about this symposium that I started to realize the direct impact of the Royal Commission on my own life.”

Executive director of the Royal Commission, Officer of the Order of Canada and former federal Minister of Health Monique Bégin was on hand to deliver the opening keynote speech and to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the commission.

“Women in Canada, because of the public hearings (during the commission) where they participated massively, most of them had never heard the word feminist, but they knew there was something wrong concerning the place and status of women in Canada. They were very, very active and it forced a lot of changes in the country,” Bégin says.

This prompted a unity among women. “The Anglophone and the Francophone women of Canada decided to work together,” and “women lawyers would be supportive of women in a poor community,” she adds.

What still needs to be addressed are all forms of violence against women— including sexual violence— the re-unification of women, the awareness that there are multiple paths to social change, the need for national daycare and the need for younger women to address patriarchy in the power structure, notes Bégin.

“The biggest challenge I see is for younger, educated women of today who will finally say, ‘oh yes, I think I’m a feminist.’ They have never made for themselves an analysis of patriarchy… in the structures of power in business, in universities, in politics. They have not analyzed that. And until that is addressed, we won’t have more changes,” says Bégin.