Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case

March 30, 2023

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Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe people who have lived on and cared for this land for thousands of years.

I am very happy to be with you here today.

I am pleased to be here to celebrate all the recipients of the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case.

More than 90 years ago, Canada’s highest court of appeal officially recognized women as “persons.” This was a significant step forward, though it did not benefit all Canadian women equally. Indigenous women, for instance, and those of Asian descent, didn’t get universal suffrage until after the end of the Second World War.

This decision was just the beginning of women’s increased participation in public and political life, removing a significant legal barrier to gender equality in Canada.  Since then, we have broken through glass ceilings, entered male-dominated fields and careers, advocated for greater supports for women and mothers balancing work and families, and pushed to make space for all our stories, identities and diversity.

Yet, over time, new barriers began to appear, as misogyny and racism spread from the board room to the chat room.

I have always welcomed constructive criticism about the work that I do, but in recent months the comments we received over social media were anything but constructive or respectful. Every day, we were bombarded with harmful words—attacks against my identity

as a woman,

as a woman of a certain age, and

as an Indigenous woman,

as an Inuk.

These words have devastating impacts to civic engagement, confidence and mental health, and can limit women’s professional pursuits. It influences women participating in public and political life. This is in addition to the verbal and physical threats women endure in their daily lives.

When we saw that trend, when we saw what was happening, I knew I had to speak up.

We took the step of shutting down the comments section on all our social media platforms. And a few weeks ago, on International Women’s Day, we hosted many women—heads of mission, journalists, public servants and more—to talk about this issue of online vitriol against women.

The venue and volume may have shifted, but the words and attitudes are not new. After all, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This issue needs to be discussed openly, and we need allies, including men, to be involved in raising awareness and finding solutions.

This is not simply a women’s issue, after all. This is a human issue. And it’s an issue that our children will face even more as technology and communication evolve. This is why I am using my voice to say things that perhaps others could not. I think a lot of women and girls need leaders to speak the truth about what they’re experiencing. That’s where women like you are leading the change.

Change will not come quickly, but there is hope when we all work together.

And I have great hope when I see exceptional women, like all of you, who are raising awareness of women’s rights and who are devoting their lives to making sure women are safe, empowered and thriving.

Dr. Lynn Gehl, Dr. Shimi Kang, Farrah Khan, Dr. Sylvia Maracle, Judy White and Ishita Aggarwal—like the Famous Five who inspired this award, you inspire us with your courage, integrity and hard work. You have done much to make sure Black women, Indigenous women, women of colour, and women of all ages and backgrounds, are in a better position to make decisions and discoveries that impact our daily lives.

When I started my career, I was sometimes the only woman in the room. Today, I’m so happy and proud to see women and girls, in growing numbers, taking opportunities in Canada’s economic, social, democratic and cultural life.

There are still challenges ahead, but your stories have shown us that change is possible. It’s possible when we never give up on the dream of a fairer, more equal country and world for women.

To the recipients: thank you for your many contributions in your communities and congratulations on this well-deserved honour.

Incredible women like you—those who are making a difference every day—continue to motivate me. 

And to everyone in attendance, I appreciate your support, both for these awards and for the cause of equality.

Let’s commit to protecting women’s rights and amplifying women’s voices.

And let’s work together to build a Canada where every young girl grows up believing and seeing that women can and do play leading roles in every corner of our society.

Thank you.