Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the women of Canada were not even persons in the eyes of the law. It was just 50 years ago, in fact, that five Alberta women, led by judge Emily Murphy, managed to convince the judicial minds of Britain’s Privy Council that the reference to “persons” in the British North America Act meant females as well as males. Last
week the anniversary of their victory was marked by a reception at Government House and the presentation of a brand-new set of Governor-General’s Awards to seven Canadian women (see box).
That the “Persons Case” will become an annual celebration on the agenda of Government House is a source of some satisfaction to Maureen O’Neil, co-ordinator of the government’s Status of Women office. But there are other sources of satisfaction for O’Neil, whose
job involves not just planning parties but “influencing policy at both cabinet and federal-provincial levels.” That’s good bureaucratic talk from a young woman who has become something of a bureaucratic star, honing her skills through a 10-year career including directorships in Ottawa and Manitoba. At 36, she is a committed feminist and, most unusual in Sine the Slasher’s Ottawa, a happy civil servant.
When she took her present job last September, she was warned by fellow bureaucrats that “women’s work” in the government was a place for beginners or second-raters but no place for stars. However, since she cancelled an early summer holiday in Greece to stay in Ottawa and test the new political winds, O’Neil and her staff of 13 have been disproving those warnings. They have now personally briefed key ministers and advisers such as Robert de Cotret, Ron Atkey, James Gillies and Flora MacDonald. O’Neil’s own minister, David MacDonald, comes to her for a two-hour session each week. With such ministers providing ammunition, she is able to lobby cabinet committee meetings and send male-oriented bureaucratic planners back to the drawing boards. Results so far: Treasury Board and Finance officials are reworking a report on pensions which they had submitted with virtually no mention of women, and Justice officials are reviewing their legislation on sexual assault.
On taking over, O’Neil scrapped a goody-two-shoes newsletter which dated from the “Why Not?” days of International Women’s Year and put the money into new staff. She hired a lawyer, an economist, and an MA in social work, all tough young professionals who have worked their way through the ranks of the women’s movement. “They have to have made that commitment,”
O’Neil says. “I won’t have women who say to me ‘I’m not a feminist but...!’”
They have their work cut out, starting with a massive Women’s Employment Strategy which requires meddling in every key government department. With David MacDonald’s support, they have already asked half a dozen departments to take a second look at “what it really means to integrate women into policy.” O’Neil and staff are also following efforts of the Human Rights Commission to introduce the concept of “equal pay for work of equal value,” which involves figuring out how to pay secretaries at the same level as, say, truck drivers, a concept as alien to unions as management.
Says O’Neil: “I want to establish that we are not some special-interest group lumped in with the lame, the halt and the blind. I want our concerns part of social and economic policy at the highest levels.” If she has her way, 1979 may mark more than just the 50th anniversary of women becoming persons. It may mark the first year they became “an agenda item.” Elizabeth Gray
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