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A checkered history of Canadian feminism

There’s plenty to celebrate on Canada Day — we’re a nation of manycultures, many opinions; a vanguard for human rights — so what bettertime to celebrate (or rethink) what Canadians fought for in the name offeminism.

There’s plenty to celebrate on Canada Day — we’re a nation of many cultures, many opinions; a vanguard for human rights — so what better time to celebrate (or rethink) what Canadians fought for in the name of feminism.

Nellie McClung, one of Canada’s earliest feminists, successfully campaigned for the vote in Manitoba. Clever, articulate and quotable (she famously said, “Never retreat, never explain, never apologize — get the thing done and let them howl”), she saw a link between human rights and women’s rights, but that belief wasn’t absolute: McClung supported eugenics and believed “young, simple-minded girls” should be sterilized under a 1928 bill in Alberta.

Her peers shared her views, including fellow Famous Fiver Emily Murphy. Murphy, under the pen name Janey Canuck, also argued for immigration control — “black and yellow races may yet obtain the ascendancy,” she wrote in Maclean’s, threatening to “wrest the leadership of the world from the British.”

Alongside the black spots in our history are silly ones. Singer Rita MacNeil, now more matronly than incendiary, wrote women’s lib songs in the 1970s. The male-dominated RCMP deemed MacNeil and her feminist ilk dangerous enough to spy on. While the force fretted about The Red Peril, massive social change was happening under its nose.

Celebrate the history-makers. Henry Morgentaler began performing illegal abortions in 1968, when the procedure was legal only to mothers facing health risks, and Stephen Lewis works tirelessly to improve the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. A new breed is making its mark, too: Lesbian and Muslim Irshad Manji writes about how to reform Islam, and Herizons and Shameless magazines shine in feminist media.

Still, there are great tragedies. It’s estimated 520 native women have gone missing or been murdered since 1970. Last fall, the UN appealed to the federal government to investigate why the system failed to protect these women.

Systemically, the laws still reflect inequity. Recommendations from 1967’s Royal Commission on the Status of Women are still unaddressed today: Daycare, wage equality, effective family law. And new issues pose great challenges: Discrimination based on sexual orientation or race, and violence against women.

There’s much to celebrate, but we must learn from our checkered history, from racist policies to missing women — because, to borrow a phrase from Nellie McClung, “No nation rises higher than its women.”

 
 
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