Continuing the Conversation – Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in Canada

Speaking Notes

Marie-Claude Landry

Chief Commissioner 
Canadian Human Rights Commission 

“Continuing the Conversation – Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in Canada” 

Keynote Address
International Women’s Day Celebration at the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Ottawa, Ontario

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Good morning and thank you for the kind welcome.

My name is Marie-Claude Landry and I have the great privilege of working to promote human rights as the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

It is an honour and a pleasure to join all of you in celebrating International Women’s Day.

How wonderful it is to see such a diverse audience...

...women from all generations, from all walks of life, and from around the world.

Today, we join people all over the world as they recognize and celebrate “The social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.

But what do we mean by that – celebrating social, economic, cultural and political achievements?

Simply, I believe it is about celebrating the strength of women the world over.

It is about celebrating the important roles we play in our families, in our communities, in our countries, and in our society.

…as grandmothers, mothers, as daughters, and as sisters;

…as trailblazers, as leaders, and as nation-builders.

Today is about recognizing women’s accomplishments and affirming our equal place in society.

Here in Canada, our struggle for equality has shaped our nation.

The women’s movement breathed life into the values of respect, diversity and inclusion – values that have come to define Canada.

In 1921, Canadians elected their first women MP. A few years later, 5 courageous women from Alberta, called the “Famous Five,” devoted their energies to have the constitution changed so that women would be considered “persons.”


That change happened in 1929.

And like all social change and all advocacy, it began in small conversations between women and girls.

It began years ago at kitchen tables and in sitting rooms. 

Conversations between friends.

Women sharing and helping each other. Giving each other support and encouragement that progress could happen. That it could be better.

The discussions grew louder and soon filled larger rooms like this one.

They grew so loud that an entire generation of women were speaking up for their right to be treated as equal members of society.

Some would say that we have achieved gender equality. We have women leaders across the world. Half of our government Ministers are women.

We’ve made it! After all, it’s 2016!

But the truth is: This discussion needs to continue.

There is much left to talk about if we want to say that men and women are truly equal and given equal opportunities in Canada.

And so I am here today to encourage all of you to carry on these valuable conversations. 

These important discussions that need to continue so that equality becomes second-nature...

….. in our communities.

…. in our workplaces.

… and in our families and schools.
Before I go any further, I’d like to tell you a little bit about the organization I lead.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission is Canada’s human rights watchdog.

We operate at arm’s length from the Government.

We are the national voice on human rights and we speak out when these rights are threatened.

We are there to give a voice to those who have difficulty being heard – those most vulnerable in our country.  Because the fact is, many pressing human rights issues remain in Canada.

Many people in Canada continue to fight for equality in their everyday lives.

Persons with disabilities continue to live with discrimination and judgement.

Transgender Canadians often face hostility and violence, even when accessing essential services.

First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities are reeling from decades of neglect and inequality in receiving basic services.

Indigenous women and girls face disproportionate levels of violence and have tremendous difficulty accessing justice.

And some immigrants and refugees continue to face challenges as they build their lives and strive to contribute to Canadian society.
As Canada’s national human rights institution, we are speaking out on all these issues because we are committed to giving a voice to all people in vulnerable circumstances.

Women continue to bear the burden of many of these complex issues.

And for some women of colour, women with disabilities, or women of different faiths, the road is even more difficult because they may experience discrimination on more than one front.

This is why we need to continue these important discussions about human rights  and promoting gender equality for every woman and girl in Canada.

This last year I have travelled from one province and territory to the other – from one ocean to the other. What a privilege it was to be invited and included in these discussions, so many of which touching upon the barriers women face still today.

Barriers to equality.

Barriers to justice.

Barriers to employment.

I am here to tell you, it may be 2016, but there is still so much that needs to be done. And we can’t do it alone.

True gender equality in Canada will only happen when everyone is part of the discussion.

That is why the conversation about gender equality must continue in each of our communities.

The truth is: women continue to face discrimination in our own neighbourhoods.

Women in vulnerable circumstances often do not have the means or the support to stand up for their rights.

For example, a single mother may put up with unwanted sexual advances from her boss because she’s afraid she’ll lose her job.

A woman of faith wearing a face covering may isolate herself from her community for fear of judgement or harassment.

No one should have to fight for their equal rights alone.

John F. Kennedy once said “In giving rights to others which belong to them, we give rights to ourselves.” Even when someone’s situation doesn’t appear to impact us, it does.

The strength and health of a community depends on the well-being of every single member of that community.

The same can be said for our workplaces.

The conversations must continue in our workplaces.

More than ever in history, women are valuable and essential members of the Canadian workforce.

We are doctors and lawyers.

Clerks and cleaners.

Waitresses and teachers. 

Scientists and soldiers. 

But we must change the culture in our workplaces to keep pace with the new reality. 

The issue of work-life balance has never been more important.

Despite the fact that for many, gender equality is a given, women are still the primary caregivers in most families. 

This means that women face serious challenges when it comes to balancing their work and family obligations.

I must tell you, this is an issue that I understand very well—as an employer, a daughter, a mother, and a grandmother.

The good news is that this conversation is happening in some of the most influential workplaces in Canada.

Our Prime Minister has made it clear that it is an important issue for him.

The Honourable Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, has said that when she leaves the office each evening at 5:30 p.m. she turns off her phone and spends time with her family.

Such a simple action...yet it made the news!

Bringing attention to these day to day struggles – for time, money, and respect in the workplace – will hopefully make it easier for everyone to balance their work and home obligations.

It will add fuel to a discussion on work-life balance that will, I believe, contribute to culture change.

...a culture change that will bring more women around the decision-making table, and result in a more inclusive workplace.

Studies have shown that when a workplace is more inclusive and provides options to its workers, including flexible work arrangements, everyone wins.

Being flexible is about working differently, not working less.  And ensuring that women feel supported in meeting their family obligations is just better business.

It’s better for productivity...

…for the employer...

…for the economy...

…for society…

…for our children.

This brings me to my final observation.

We need to continue this conversation with our children in our homes and schools.

A quote from Nelson Mandela came to mind when thinking of this:  “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

I believe that young boys and girls are receiving mixed messages.

On the one hand, we tell them that men and women are equal.

They learn in school that women’s rights have been won in Canada. It’s in their history books.

On the other hand, they hear news of girls fighting to go to school in countries that seem so far away.

Videos, music and magazines continue to influence, often negatively, how girls see themselves and their place in the world.

Now more than ever, inclusion, equality and respect are values that should guide us in all aspects of our daily lives.

We need to talk to our children about these issues.  We must nurture these human rights values in our homes and schools so that our children learn to live with them in a seamless way as they grow up.

We need to teach them, so that when this generation grows up, they can finish what the previous generation started.
As I mentioned earlier, International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate our achievements as women. 
We have come a long way in a very short amount of time.
And while there is still work to do, we do have momentum.
The conversation about gender equality that began in kitchens and sitting rooms….
… is now part of the national conversation.

I am encouraged that gender equality and the importance of work-life balance figure prominently in the first months of this new government.

And that it is committed to upholding many of the values we cherish as Canadians.

Many of the most pressing human rights issues facing Canada today have become top priorities.

But this does not mean our work is done.

These conversations and discussions must continue because human rights are not static.  While they are universal, they are still new and fragile. They will continue to evolve.

Which means it is time to be bold and outspoken.  To work together in the spirit of mutual respect and dignity for all.

Now is the time to make sure that every voice is heard.

Now is the time to teach our children so that human rights, and gender equality, become part of who they are and how they will live.

Our lives are better thanks to the efforts of the women who came before us.

If we are to honour their legacy and our daughters’ futures, we must continue the fight for gender equality in our communities, our workplaces, our schools and our homes. 

Thank you.