- Equality Deferred: Sex Discrimination and British Columbia’s Human Rights State, 1953–1984 by Dominique Clément
Equality Deferred provides an important and compelling account of the origins of human rights legislation in British Columbia, the first Canadian jurisdiction to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Utilizing previously undisclosed records of British Columbia’s human rights commission, Clément documents not only egregious acts of discrimination by individuals, but also the courage of women who pioneered claims for human rights and the challenges and limitations of the human rights regime. Ultimately, the book illustrates the entrenched nature of sex-based discrimination and the need to understand inequality beyond its definition in human rights legislation as acts of individual discrimination.
Clément places his study in the context of the limited scholarship on human rights in Canada and asserts that British Columbia provides an ideal test case for the study of human rights, not only because the province was the first to prohibit sex-based discrimination, but also because human rights were highly politicized in the province. British Columbia had the most highly developed women’s movement in the country, but human rights developments were deeply contested. The New Democrat Party advocated, and for a time oversaw, the nation’s most progressive human rights regime at the time, only to see their work decimated by the Social Credit Party (the Socreds) in 1984. The reforms of 1984 prompted debate throughout Canada, making British Columbia “the epicentre of a conflict on the nature and legitimacy of the human rights state.” (21)
To set the stage for his examination of human rights legislation, Clément illustrates the entrenched nature of gender inequality in Canadian law. He documents the failure of labour organizations and Jewish activists – who campaigned relentlessly to ban discrimination on the bases of race, religion, and ethnicity – to understand the problem of sex discrimination. He then explores the 1953 Equal Pay Act, the first equality-based legislation in the province to deal with women, and acts banning discrimination in employment and accommodation. These reforms were largely ineffective, as was the symbolic inclusion of sex as a prohibited ground of discrimination in the Socred’s Human Rights Act of 1969. Thus was the stage set for the ndp’s 1973 Human Rights Code.
The bulk of Equality Deferred explores the origins and implementation of this ground-breaking and progressive Human Rights Code. Clément provides unprecedented detail about the development of the Human Rights Branch – a separate agency intended to deal with complaints – and the work performed under the leadership of Kathleen Ruff, who hired the province’s first human rights investigators and developed procedures for investigating complaints. Ruff, with a long history of work in the feminist movement, brought an advocacy approach to the Branch and relied upon her connections with progressive social movements in the province to recruit committed investigators and to promote the human rights regime. The Branch received complaints from women who had been fired when pregnant, had been paid unequal wages for work the same as that performed by men, or had been subjected to sexual harassment. Precedents established under [End Page 226] the Code “profoundly challenged the entrenched male culture of many workplaces.” (117) As Clément notes, however, human rights laws had limited reach; the women who utilized the Code were overwhelmingly white and while a wide range of women “undoubtedly experienced discrimination,” they did not “engage with human rights law.” (7) Nonetheless, the courage and dedication of the women and men who worked in the Branch, and the tenacity of the women who made complaints, make for inspiring reading. The unrepentant vulgarity of discriminators is equally instructive. The Branch flourished, innovated, and expanded across the province under the ndp, but the election of the Socreds in 1975 brought increasing challenges for the human rights regime. Clément describes the government as “dominated by men whose policies demonstrated little understanding of sex discrimination” (185) and details the myriad ways in which government officials worked to...