150 years of progress: Legal milestones show changing society

By Beverley Spencer Spring 2017

I grew up in the suburbs of Montreal’s West Island in the 1970s. I attended a solidly middle-class high school where the students were predominantly white Protestants and the closest we came to poverty was collecting canned food for the needy.

But outside our insular world, things were starting to change for those who didn’t share our privilege. In the 1970s, the Canadian Human Rights Act was passed to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, age and gender and the federal government started funding legal aid so the poor could have equal access to legal representation. The steady drumbeat of progress continued through the next four decades as some historic injustices were redressed and the law reflected social change.

Our feature on legal milestones leading up to Canada’s 150th birthday offers a fascinating glimpse into how progress builds on incremental change in laws and attitudes.

Until 1968, for example, homosexual behaviour between adults was illegal;
by 2005, same-sex couples had the right to marry. The modern mind boggles at the fact that until 1948, people in Canada could be excluded from voting in federal elections on the basis of race. Or that not all of our indigenous people could vote until 1960.

Today, we worry about protecting the gains we’ve made, especially in light of events south of the border. The world is a better place than it was 40 years ago and the prospect of turning back the clock is frightening. But it’s a reminder that complacency is not an option.

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