Inequality and Rights: A Feminist Perspective

Part I of II

“We can supply a beautiful life for everyone, that is possible” – Elsie Dean

In honour of Rosemary Brown, the SFU Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and the Rosemary Brown Award Committee hosted a conference last weekend titled, “Inequality and Rights: A Feminist Perspective.”

The half day event consisted of two panels of women, whose discussion topics included; Aboriginal, LGBTQ and migrant workers rights (to name a few). Speakers included activists, a lawyer, professor, and social workers, amongst other notable professions and interest groups.

The celebration of Rosemary Brown was attended by her friends, family, fellow co-workers and students interested in women’s rights and social justice. It was an inspiring day, reminding all attendees of the importance of activism, perseverance, and solidarity.

Rosemary Brown’s (1903-2003) lists of accomplishments are extraordinary, which include: the first black woman to be elected to the Canadian legislature, working as a professor with the Women Studies Department at Simon Fraser University and serving as Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Below are highlights from the presenters at the conference:

Margot Young, Faculty of Law UBC


Young commenced her presentation with a quote from Rosemary Brown, “Until all of us have made it, none of us have made it,” which can be found engraved at the UBC campus. Young’s speech argued that the Canadian courts have failed the most marginalized; especially those with multiple identities. Her talked asked, “who has a voice in Canada’s legal system?”

Young argued that the state’s understanding of the neoliberal individual assumes that everyone is sturdy and self reliant. Accordingly, the government has a reduced role in the social services of the state. Young’s presentation suggested that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been especially unsatisfactory in ensuring rights under section 7, and section 15 and that there remains a gap between the “liberal promise of equality and liberty” (See footnote). Importantly, Young encouraged attendees to remain critical, and especially, to be aware of the disadvantages faced by minorities in Canada, who continue to face various levels oppression due to the incapacities of the legal system to recognize the disadvantages that they still face.

Habibia Zaman, GSWS, SFU

Zaman’s presentation emphasized the racialized aspects of poverty and job security. For instance, 22% of racialized persons live below the poverty line (in comparison to 9% non-racialized). In Canada’s current economy, there is a lack of work security for racialized migrants. Work is often short, temporary and precarious. Instead of addressing work place concerns, migrant workers (often women), regularly resorting to “job hopping”. Habibia’s present was especially compelling in highlighting what Young first introduced, the disadvantages faced by individuals with multiple identities (women, immigrants, and workers).

Marcy Cohen, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC


Cohen’s presentation emphasized that support for seniors ought to focus on social, not purely medical support. Her presentation explained that many of today’s seniors suffer from loneliness, which often results in biomedical implications (as seen in the “Failure to Thrive” diagnosis – which is manifested in decreased appetite, poor nutrition, depression, dehydration, etc), sometimes resulting in mortality). The most vulnerable and at risk seniors are single women who live alone. In Vancouver, 3/5 of these women live on less than $25,000 a year. In 2006, they spent 50% of their income on accommodation. Due to decrease in social services, the charitable sector has stepped in to help fulfil the increasing need for senior home support. However, as Mary emphasizes – “We (seniors) aren’t charity.” The reluctance of the governmental to ensure the most basic human rights for our seniors is a critical human rights issue that Mary and other advocates for seniors rights are continually pressing for.

Saylesh Wesley, GSWS PHD Candidate, SFU, and Chilliwack Field Centre Coordinator NTEP, UBC

In her personal account of the colonial effects of assimilation on the “two spirited” aboriginal identity, Wesley described the “gendercide” that her culture has faced since European colonial rule. “Gendercide,” refers to the elimination of the third gender role that had characterized many aboriginal identities throughout history. In her narrative, outlining the quest to reclaim this title for her people and to gain acceptance from her grandmother, Saylesh highlighted the transphobia that dominates Canadian society as remnants from the Catholic Church and the Residential School System. Saylesh’s personal story emphasized not the pitfalls, but the success’ of her journey, advocating for a decolonization process in our understanding of the two-spirited person in contemporary aboriginal discourse.

Part II of the conference, will follow later this week.

Section 7. Life, liberty and security of person
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

Section 15. Equality before and under law and equal protection and benefit of law
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.
Affirmative action programs
(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. (84)