On March 2nd 2007 Canada lost a brave and noble woman.
Doris Anderson gave voice to those who were afraid to speak, didn’t know what to say or had no one to listen.
She did not sit back and imagine that so called nuanced responses were the way to achieve equality for women. She said what needed to be said, did what needed to be done and encouraged others to do the same.
In 1981 Doris was instrumental in ensuring that women’s equality would be enshrined in the Charter.
Anderson vs. Axworthy
1981: Canada is gripped by an identity crisis after Prime Minister Trudeau says he will add a charter of rights to the country’s constitution.
Women were worried about the Charter, says Anderson: the leaders behind it were all men, and men had a dismal record of defending women’s rights. As chair of the independent federal advisory committee on the status of women, she had already planned a conference that February so women’s groups could collaborate to critique the Charter.
But in January, then Employment Minister Axworthy pressed the committee to delay the conference until June. As reported at the time in the Toronto Star, he said a February conference could embarrass the government since it would be holding its last debate on the Charter at the same time.
Anderson was outraged. She said the committee would lose all credibility as an independent body if the government could manipulate it like this. Also, women had been waiting for months for this chance to influence the debate on the Charter. Delaying the conference until after that debate was finished would make it pointless.
Anderson and five other committee members decided to resign in protest. The conference was cancelled.
The Ad-Hockers assemble
Inspired by Anderson’s protest, a group of about 30 women known as the “Ad-Hockers” decided to hold their own constitutional conference.
Anderson’s committee had been working on the original conference for four months. The Ad-Hockers organized their own in two weeks.
On February 14, 1,300 people from across Canada packed three conference rooms on Parliament Hill to debate the Charter.
“It was an amazing event,” says Beverley Baines, one of the Ad-Hockers’ main legal scholars. “What was so astounding for me was the level of interest and knowledge of the women there.”
Constitutional rights usually aren’t in the front of people’s minds, she says, yet here were over a thousand of them in one place, wanting to be heard.
“They were angry when they arrived,” Anderson recalls of the attendees, “very angry.” Political machinations were everywhere: some women tried to convince delegates to denounce the Charter, while others argued they should embrace and strengthen it.
“It was exciting because they knew what was at stake and they were determined [the Charter] was going to be better — and it was.”
Out of the conference came a call for a stronger Equality Rights clause in the Charter (Section 15) and a specific guarantee for gender equality rights (Section 28). Both reforms made it into the final version of the Charter. The Charter has since been used in many ways to improve women’s rights in areas of child support, workplace discrimination, and sexual harassment, Anderson says.
Fighting for equality was never off the table for Ms. Anderson. She was an active member of Fair Vote and of Equal Voice.
From Equal Voice
Doris was generous with her friendship and support for members of Equal Voice’s Founding Chapter in Toronto, which she joined six years ago and spoke at our founding meeting to the inspiration of all.
With her joyous laugh, crown of white hair, and strong personal presence, she was one of our most popular speakers.
She used to say she felt as though she’d been pushing a heavy boulder up a hill all her life, only to have it keep rolling back. But she seldom let discouragement show, reminding us all that conditions for women in Canada had greatly improved since her girlhood. From her many decades of work for the advancement of women, she was convinced that the best way to achieve lasting equality was through the election of women to a partnership with men in helping run the country.
Individually we may not have Doris’ indomitable spirit nor her ability to organize, but collectively we can take on the struggle and move toward a truly equitable society.
Our greatest tribute to Doris Anderson is to take on that boulder and push it over the other side.