Discussion on Women’s Rights on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Canadian Bill of Rights

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Discussion on Women’s Rights on the Occasion of the
50th Anniversary of the Canadian Bill of Rights

Saskatoon, Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I could not ask for kinder or more fortifying protection than this beautiful shawl, which Ms. Greyes and Ms. Linklater have so graciously given me as I begin my address this morning.

It is a precious gift, and I thank you very much.

Since we are focussing on women’s rights, let me begin by honouring all the women who have made me the woman you see standing before you today, starting by my grandmother, a widow with five children.

Living in the poorest country in the Americas, Haiti, she made gaining self-sufficiency, obtaining financial independence and providing greater educational opportunities for her children key priorities.

Working tirelessly, day-in and day-out, behind a sowing machine to support her children, she was perhaps visionary in recognizing that the emancipation of women is inextricably linked to our ability to be self-sufficient and autonomous.

My mother inherited and lived this philosophy by leading an incessant struggle for human rights, freedom and justice in Haiti, as well as by promoting a literacy campaign throughout the beleaguered country.

Because of her resistance against dictatorship and oppression, she, along with my sister and I, was forced to flee to Canada, where she raised her own children alone by inculcating us with the power to never allow ourselves to be beaten down by the hard circumstances of life.

To have confidence in ourselves.

And most importantly, to recognize that education is the key to freedom, like her mother always told her.   

As a teenager and young adult, I too became socially engaged by joining the inspiring women of Quebec’s feminist movement—women of all backgrounds, educators, intellectuals, working class women, immigrant and refugee women, indigenous women—with whom I fought for the recognition of women’s rights. 

It was with them that I helped establish a network of over 150 emergency shelters in Quebec for battered women and their children. It was also from these women—women whom I accompanied in their efforts to escape domestic violence and to take back their lives with strength and vigour—that I learnt how to reflect and to take action.

Then, of course, there are all the women I met during my visits across Canada and abroad, in countries across Africa, across the Americas, across Europe, and in Afghanistan and China, women—all very courageous women—who are the pillars of the global struggle for justice, respect, and solidarity.

These are the women who made me who I am, and I am forever grateful.

The discussion that brings us together today, the theme of which is stated unhesitatingly, like an assertion, is one I have led all across the country and around the world over the last five years as Governor General of Canada.

This assertion, which stipulates that women’s rights and human rights are one in the same, is in fact one of my deepest convictions and, in my opinion, sine qua non to the advancement of our societies.

Therefore, I want to start by saying that human rights are inconceivable if they exclude over half the human population.

I have always believed that ignoring the plight of women is not only an inexcusable lack of responsibility, but also an unjustifiable crime against humanity.

This is a good, and much needed, opportunity for us to remember that as August 10 marks the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Canadian Bill of Rights by the government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who said at the time: “History shows that if you permit the rights of a citizen to be impinged upon, regardless of who the citizen may be, every other person is a step nearer to a loss of his rights.”

That is why, to continue Diefenbaker’s thought, we must extol above all the dignity and freedom of every human being; and it is an idea that contributed to the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

Driven by their conviction that human rights are inalienable, groups of women, Aboriginals, Francophones and Anglophones, ethnic and racial minorities, and people of different religions have all worked together to demand that the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Canadians be respected and protected without distinction.

Many groups encompassing women, men and youth—have told me that they believe this democratic principle cannot be dissociated from the Canada they love, the Canada they want to see shine on the world stage.

The relevance and vitality of our democracies depend on the full recognition of women’s rights.

When women demand more justice, it is so that society as a whole benefits from the contribution of every member.

When women fight against poverty, it is so that our children have enough food to eat and more decent living conditions.

When women stand up to violence—as we are so tragically reminded by the Pickton affair, which is dominating the headlines these days but also by the missing women of Saskatoon and the rest of the country and by ongoing trafficking of women, honour killings, and domestic violence—it is so that our families and communities can be a safe refuge, where individual dignity is respected.

When women fight to send their children—both girls and boys—to school, it is to move their families, their communities, their country and the entire world forward.

When women combat oppression and risk their lives to denounce it, it is so that every human being, man or woman, can live in freedom.

Empower women and you will see a decrease in inequality, misery, disease, barbarism, illiteracy and tyranny.

I never miss an opportunity to repeat this, so obvious this assertion seems to me. And I have seen it confirmed everywhere I have gone.

We must not forget that women’s rights—which we take for granted far too often these days—are a relatively new development in the history of our country, and are therefore still quite fragile.

Indeed, we must not forget that it was not until the beginning of the last century that we obtained the right to vote in Canada. In Quebec, it was not until 1940. And for Aboriginal women, it was not until 1960 . . .

As Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “To set oneself free is also to seek freedom for others.”

That, I believe, is the true meaning and the incredible power of discussions like the one we are having today.

This is the reason why I will be hosting in Ottawa, at Rideau Hall, on September 9, a two-day conference on the crucial issue of women and security.

The security of women is still an issue in this country today and there are still too many cases of violence that remain untold and unresolved.

Speaking out is refusing to close yourself off and live in sterile silence.

Speaking out is spreading all around us the freedom we hold so dear in Canada, freedom that is so cruelly lacking in too many places around the world.

Speaking out is adding another link to the chain of solidarity, rather than to the chain of subjugation.

That is why, dear friends, I cannot wait to hear from you, and why I too am delighted that the defence of women’s rights is no longer the concern of only a few, but is today the object of a mobilization that increasingly transcends genders, ages and cultures.

This, I believe, is a great sign of hope.

And now, the floor is yours!