The Former Home of a Feminist Senator Was a Meeting Place for Women's Groups

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The Former Home of a Feminist Senator Was a Meeting Place for Women’s Groups

Women gathered at this address organizing to make sure gender equality was in the constitution.

Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.

The house at 184 Roxborough Drive. Photo by Wayne Adam from torontoplaques.com.

The house at 184 Roxborough Drive. Photo by Wayne Adam from torontoplaques.com.

Former senator Nancy Ruth owned the house at 184 Roxborough Drive for only 16 years, from 1980 to 1996. But in those years, the house became a meeting place for women’s groups who helped usher in a more equitable future for women in Canada.

As the Canadian government in the early 80s was preparing to repatriate the constitution and drafting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, not everyone was ready to sign on (Quebec is a notable example). Women gathered at Nancy Ruth’s house on Roxborough to plan a strategy to make sure women were included in the constitution.

The Ad Hoc Committee of Canadian Women on the Constitution formed at Nancy Ruth’s house in January 1981 after a planned meeting on the status of women in the constitution was scrapped. The Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women had planned a conference for February 14, 1981. At the time, the council reported directly to Lloyd Axworthy, the minister of employment and immigration at the time. He was accused of pressuring the council to delay the conference because it might embarrass the government (he said in the House of Commons that he only suggested the conference could be moved), and almost 20 members of the council resigned in less than two days, including the president, Dora Anderson.

While the Opposition was demanding his resignation, a group of women were meeting at Nancy Ruth’s house to continue planning a conference in Ottawa for Valentine’s Day. They had around two weeks to plan.

Laura Sabia, a prominent feminist activist, told the Globe and Mail in January 1981, “Women are damned angry. Even the women who don’t understand what the constitution is all about.”

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Activist and Toronto alderman Laura Sabia tells the Commission that attitudes towards women must change in this CBC clip.

Around 1,200 women arrived on Parliament Hill on February 14, some apparently getting involved in politics for the first time. Some wore butterfly pins, to represent how they were coming out of their cocoon.

The conference ended with a number of suggestions to amend the proposed Charter to better protect equality.

The following year, after a long and bitter fight with the government, Section 28 guaranteeing equal rights to “male and female persons” was included in the Charter when the constitution was brought home in April 1982.

However, Section 15 (Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability) was put on hold for three years to allow governments to change discriminatory laws.

The committee continued to get involved in constitutional debates, and it opposed both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords over concerns that it would undermine the equality protections in the Charter.

Women also gathered to help lawyer Mary Eberts with the Native Women’s Association of Canada‘s court case against the government for leaving the group out of the discussions that led to the Charlottetown Accord. Both the accord and the court challenge were unsuccessful. That association has also been involved with court battles to end discrimination in the Indian Act. Although some women were able to regain Indian status after it was unfairly taken from them, the fight to end gendered discrimination in the act continues to this day.

Among other prominent women’s activist groups and charities, the Women’s Legal Action Fund (LEAF) was also founded on Roxborough Drive in 1985, just as Section 15 came into effect.

A plaque in a granite stone now sits outside 184 Roxborough Drive. Part of the text says that that Ontario granite was chosen because it’s “as tough and enduring as the women it commemorates.”


 

The first week of July is Canada History Week.

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