A sweet memory of the Canadian ‘Valentine Day Revolution’

Elsie Hambrook, Thursday February 17th, 2011

The first Chairperson of the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, Madeleine Delaney LeBlanc, sent around a note recently reflecting on the 30th anniversary this week of the “Valentine Day Revolution.”

On Feb. 14, 1981, more than 1,300 Canadian women from sea to sea descended on Parliament Hill, spontaneously and most of them on their own dime, to get the attention of the Trudeau government which was discussing – without women – changes to the Canadian Constitution.

That was “the prelude to a long and hard quest that resulted in Section 15 and 28 being included in the Charter of Rights and Liberties in the Canadian Constitution” as Madeleine remembers well, having played a role in that long struggle, as well as being one of the co-chairs of the Valentine Day conference.

She urges us to remind all and especially younger women that it did not happen easily.

It definitely did not happen easily – books have been written about that fight – and as Madeleine points out, what rights were won are no longer easily enforceable since the abolition by the Harper government of the Court Challenges Program of Canada, which had been set up to provide financial assistance for important court cases that advance equality rights guaranteed under Canada’s Constitution.

It is cold comfort to know that rights in the Charter are at least guaranteed to those who can afford to go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. That’s not equality and it’s not what the feminists were aiming for.

The Trudeau government had cancelled a planned conference on women and the Constitution, seemingly because the government feared women would want something added to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – and they were busy enough.

Women were angry. The president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, Doris Anderson, resigned in protest.

Inspired by Ms. Anderson’s action, a group of women – called the Ad-Hockers – decided to organize a constitutional conference. They hoped for 200 and attracted 1,300.

They were told they could not meet in the Parliament. They obtained the use of three rooms, including one reserved for the Senate Committee on the Constitution.

The media expected confused talk about rights. The women wowed them with their knowledge of the intricacies of constitutional rights – and with their defiance of the traditional political parties who were pushing women to ask for certain things – or to be quiet.

So Canada took notice.

It is described by some as the first time that women’s issues were taken seriously by the big boys in politics and the media. Not that the change was permanent.

As Doris Anderson said, this was happening at a time when women were a rarity in the House of Commons, “like giraffes in Ottawa.” Not that this has changed much even today – we’re maybe like eastern cougars now.

At the conference, the 1,300 women decided that a separate, over-arching statement was needed in the Charter stating that the rights and freedoms in there were guaranteed equally to women and men.

Canadian women spent the rest of 1981 lobbying recalcitrant premiers with telegrams (!) and signs “Take your paws off my clause” – the new clause that simply said that everyone is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination.

I’ve included the following story before in my column, but it is a favourite that gives the flavour of those heady times.

Premier Richard Hatfield was a key national player in the Charter negotiations and also the minister responsible for the status of women. He and Madeleine Delaney LeBlanc were in constant contact. In her book, The Taking of 28, Penney Kome says that, “the indefatigable Madeleine LeBlanc, who reports directly to Hatfield . . . lobbied him constantly.”

Ms. LeBlanc remembers that Hatfield “was giving me reports regularly. At one point, he called and said, ‘At 4 o’clock you were equal, but at 4:40 you were not’.”

Since the coming into force of the Charter, some judges and some governments have seen to it that the gains have been more limited than many had hoped. But Canadian women are still better off for having insisted on entrenched rights, better off than most women around the world. Openly discriminatory laws were changed.

That is half the battle.

Thank you to those women who were there when it mattered. Thank you to those who made them angry.

* Elsie Hambrook is Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Her column on women’s issues appears in the Times & Transcript every Thursday. She may be reached via e-mail at [email protected]