Rights Revolution in Canada

The time between the end of the Second World War and the signing of the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in 1982 is often referred to as the “Rights Revolution” in Canada. During this period, awareness of and support for human rights increased across Canada. At the grassroots level, women, queer communities, Indigenous peoples, and disability activists pushed for greater inclusion and made significant rights gains. At the same time, both federal and provincial governments passed laws that prohibited discrimination and protected human rights for more people across Canada.

1945 to 1960

Before the Second World War, different marginalized groups in Canada pressed for such things as voting rights and the end of racial discrimination. (See Early Women’s Movements in Canada, Black Voting Rights in Canada). Although progress was uneven, human rights awareness and activism gradually increased in Canada. At the end of the Second World War, there was a greater push internationally to legislate human rights due to global efforts for peace and cooperation.

Politicians across Canada set to work. Ontario began this movement by passing The Racial Discrimination Act in 1944. This banned any publication or other display of discrimination against a person or peoples’ race or belief. But it was Saskatchewan’s 1947 Act to Protect Certain Civil Rights that introduced the first bill of rights in Canada. This act included freedoms of conscience, expression, association, and freedom from arbitrary imprisonment as well as rights to elections, employment, property, and education. Like Ontario’s act, Saskatchewan’s legislation also prohibited the publication or display of discriminatory restrictions based on someone’s race or belief. It went further, though, by including grounds of religion, colour, ethnicity, and nationality. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, many of the other provincial and territorial legislatures followed suit with their own human rights codes.

These national developments relate to Canada’s influence on the world stage at the time. After the horrors experienced during the Second World War, many in the international community shifted their focus to the prevention of violence and the protection of people. Canadian law professor John Peters Humphrey, for example, became director of the United Nations’ (UN) Division on Human Rights in 1946 and worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt, the United States of America’s representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights. Humphrey wrote the first draft of an international bill of rights that would eventually become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Although Canada nearly abstained from the vote, it joined other UN members in adopting the UDHR on 10 December 1948. (See John Humphrey, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

1960s and 1970s

In the 1960s and 1970s, people organized themselves into shared interest and/or identity groups to strengthen their political influence and improve their own lives by using the language of rights. Women’s rights continued to gain support with the rise of second-wave feminism. At the forefront of nuclear disarmament and anti-Vietnam War protests, women also rallied around issues of increased representation, employment and educational opportunities, and bodily autonomy.

During this era, limited rights gains were made by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, as well. Their efforts sought increased safety and acceptance for the queer community at large. This included the decriminalization of sexual relations between men over the age of 21 in 1969. In 1977, Quebec became the first province to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. (See Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights in Canada.)

Disability rights activists also sought more civil rights during this period. One of the key issues was opposition to their own institutionalization. The disability rights movement in Canada was also strengthened by the experience of veterans returning from war. Injured veterans received superior care and acceptance compared to their disabled civilian counterparts. This led disability activists and their supporters in the veterans’ movement to push for greater rights for all Canadians with disabilities.

Indigenous peoples also used human rights language to push for rights to resources, land, and self-government at this time. Indigenous peoples made increased political gains as provincial and federal governments became more receptive to claims made through the language of human rights. (See Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, The White Paper, 1969.)

Governments responded to this grassroots activism by writing laws that protected human rights. The first law to protect human rights at the federal level was introduced by Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1960. The Canadian Bill of Rights was ground-breaking, but limited, as it only applied to federal laws and government actions.

But provincial legislative initiatives were becoming more effective. In 1962, Ontario’s anti-discrimination laws were consolidated under the Ontario Human Rights Code. This provincial act also created the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Québec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms faced delays while the government sought separate language rights legislation, but it was eventually adopted in 1975.

At the federal level, the Canadian Human Rights Act passed in 1977. Most provinces and territories were governed by their own human rights legislation by this time, so this act only applied to employees or beneficiaries of the federal government, First Nations, and federally regulated private companies. With increased legal protections at both levels of government, human rights advocacy across the country made powerful gains.

1980s and Beyond: Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

In 1982, Canada’s Constitution was patriated. This meant that the Canadian Parliament could change the Constitution (previously known as the British North America Act) without approval from the British Parliament. The 1982 Constitution also contained the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. With this, the Charter became a permanent fixture in the highest law of the land. As a result, the human rights outlined within the Charter superseded the Canadian Bill of Rights. The Charter was a broader human rights law than the Bill of Rights and had more power, as it covered provincial as well as federal laws and actions. It influenced how courts made their decisions in rights cases and encouraged those who write laws and policies at all levels to abide by Charter rights in the first place. The Charter includes freedom of expression and religion, the right to a democratic government, the right to live and seek work anywhere in Canada, the legal rights of people accused of crimes, the right to equality, the right to use Canada’s official languages, and the right of French or English minorities to an education in their language.

Since 1982, individuals and groups have used the court system to further clarify the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Charter. While significant progress has been made, it continues to be slower for some groups than for others. Indigenous peoples, for example, continue to seek out equal rights including access to adequate housing, accessible education, and safe drinking water. (See Indigenous Rights.)

Further Reading

  • Jennifer Tunnicliffe, Resisting Rights: Canada and the International Bill of Rights, 1947 – 67 (2019)

  • David Goutor and Stephen Heathorn, Taking Liberties: A History of Human Rights in Canada (2013)

  • Pearl Eliadis, Speaking Out on Human Rights: Debating Canada’s Human Rights System (2014)

External Links