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Defenders for Human Rights

Moments in Time

The term “human rights” is relatively new, but it is not a new idea. Throughout history and across cultures, people have talked about how we should treat one another and what freedoms we ought to have. These important conversations tell the global story of human rights. This list offers 100 selected moments from the advances and setbacks in the human rights journey, with an emphasis on Canada.

English Reflection questions for students: Human Rights Over Time – an ongoing dialogue

1792–1750 BCE
Babylonian King Hammurabi enacts one of the earliest written codes of law to enforce justice and promote the public good.
Around 570 BCE
King Cyrus of Persia draws up a Charter recognizing rights to liberty, security, property, freedom of movement and economic and social rights.
King John I signs the Magna Carta (The Great Charter) which limits royal power and affirms rights to justice and a fair trial.
Gayanashagowa (The Great Law of Peace) becomes the founding constitution of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and, later, Tuscarora Nations.
Around 1600–1617
Mathieu Da Costa is the first recorded free Black person in what is now Canada. He acts as a translator and interpreter for European explorers and First Nations peoples.
The Habeas Corpus Act in Britain gives anyone who is detained the right to a fair trial within a certain amount of time.
Britain’s Bill of Rights upholds the supremacy of Parliament over the King and provides freedom of speech, the right to bail, freedom from torture, free elections and trials by jury.
British authorities expel the French-speaking colonists of Acadia because they are reluctant to take a British oath of allegiance.
Britain conquers New France changing life conditions for French-speaking inhabitants and indigenous peoples.
Britain issues a Royal Proclamation when it takes control of New France. Certain rights and freedoms are granted to French-speaking inhabitants and indigenous peoples.
The United States Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal” and establishes America’s independence from the British Empire.
The Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) is adopted during the French Revolution which overthrows the monarchy.
Anti-slavery activists help thousands of people escape bondage through the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses.
The residential school system is set up to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society.
Canadian newspaper publisher Joseph Howe defends himself against a libel charge. His acquittal is a major advance for freedom of the press.
Sick and war-wounded soldiers receive the right to care and protection in The Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Armies in the Field (the First Geneva Convention).
The British North America Act provides for the use of English and French in Canada’s Parliament.
The Provisional Governing Council of the Métis Nation draws up a Bill of Rights with conditions for the entry of Manitoba as a province into the Dominion of Canada.
Ontario is the first province in Canada to introduce laws making it compulsory for children to attend school. Children between the ages of 7 and 12 are obliged to attend school at least four months a year.
Eleven Numbered Treaties are negotiated with First Nations between 1871 and 1921 as the Canadian government expands settlement across western and northern Canada.
A Toronto printers’ strike prompts the federal government to pass the Trade Union Act. The Act legalizes unions in Canada.
A group of 46 unions form the Canadian Labour Union, the first national labour federation for workers’ rights.
The Indian Act is enacted, influencing all aspects of the lives of First Nations peoples. It gives the federal government authority over status, land, resources, education and band administration.
The Chinese Immigration Act is passed containing a head tax to discourage Chinese people from entering Canada.
The Hague Conventions are drafted, establishing international humanitarian laws for the treatment of civilians, prisoners of war and war-wounded personnel.
Sprinter John Armstrong Howard becomes Canada’s first Black Olympic athlete. At the games in Sweden, he is barred from the dining room and hotel used by the other athletes.
The steamship Komagata Maru enters Vancouver Harbour with 376 immigrants from India. Most of them are denied entry into the country.
Canada passes the War Measures Act after entering the First World War in 1914. The Act suspends civil liberties during wartime and is used again during the Second World War.
The Ottoman Empire attempts to eradicate its Armenian Christian minority. This is later recognized as genocide by Canada’s Parliament.
Manitoba is the first province in Canada to grant women the right to vote in provincial elections.
The Treaty of Versailles establishes the League of Nations — which includes Canada as a founding member — and the International Labour Organization to improve working conditions and promote social justice.
Canada’s Dominion Elections Act extends the federal franchise to all eligible women and men. Its terms exclude Indigenous peoples and groups of Asian descent.
To guarantee a minimum standard of living for elderly Canadians, the first Old Age Pensions Act is introduced, followed in 1952 by the Old Age Security Act and in 1964 by the Canada Pension Plan.
The Famous Five — a group of women’s rights activists — mount a court challenge to have women recognized as “persons” under the law. After much opposition, they win their case.
Joseph Stalin orchestrates a famine known as the Holodomor in Ukraine. It is later recognized as genocide by Canada’s Parliament.
The Nazis pass laws that discriminate against Jewish people. This persecution escalates into the Holocaust — the annihilation of millions of Jewish people — and targeted attacks against many other groups. This is later recognized as genocide by Canada’s Parliament.
When the Second World War begins in September 1939, Canada joins the allied forces to liberate Europe from Nazism and fascism.
The MS St. Louis ocean liner, carrying 915 Jewish refugees from Germany, is denied entry to Canada, the United States and Cuba. The ship is forced to return to Europe.
The Canadian government passes the Unemployment Insurance Act, leading to a national insurance program for unemployed people.
For decades, the Government of Canada required Inuit people to wear an identity disk at all times as proof of identity, denying them the right to a name.
During the Second World War, Canada rounded up thousands of Japanese Canadians from the West Coast, seized their belongings and relocated them to isolated internment camps.
The allied forces establish the International Military Tribunal to prosecute Nazi war criminals during the Nuremberg trials of 1945 and 1946.
Canada is one of the founding members of the United Nations. The United Nations’ Charter sets forth the UN’s goals, functions and responsibilities — to foster global peace and prevent conflict.
Viola Desmond, a Black business woman from Nova Scotia, refuses to leave the whites-only section of a theatre. Her action helps inspire a civil rights movement in Canada.
The United Nations adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, based on the first draft written by Canadian lawyer John Humphrey.
The Supreme Court of Canada becomes the final court of appeal in the justice system and the highest authority on the protection and interpretation of human rights.
Canada passes the Fair Employment Practices Act to prevent discrimination in hiring practices and in the workplace.
The Canadian Government passes the Female Employees Equal Pay Act, making discrimination in wages on account of gender against the law. Women are entitled to be paid the same wage as men for similar work.
The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) is founded. Today it brings together three million union workers in national and international unions to advocate for labour and human rights in the workplace and in retirement.
Lester B. Pearson becomes the first Canadian to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve the Suez Canal crisis in Egypt.
The Bill of Rights is Canada’s first national law to protect human rights.
The Quiet Revolution ushers in political and social changes in Quebec, leading to the separation between state and church.
Thousands of Aboriginal children are taken from their families by the Canadian government and adopted out — a practice known as the Sixties Scoop.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are ratified by the United Nations. Along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they complete the International Bill of Human Rights.
The Canadian government enacts the national Medical Care Act, protecting the health and well-being of all Canadians.
The Royal Commission on the Status of Women works to advance equality for women in all areas of their lives in Canada.
The Canadian Criminal Code is amended to decriminalize homosexuality in Canada.
The Official Languages Act is instituted. French and English are recognized as Canada’s two official languages.
The October Crisis is triggered when a diplomat and cabinet minister are kidnapped. The federal government suspends all civil liberties, leading to the arrest of more than 400 innocent people.
Canada is the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy. The policy affirmed the dignity of all citizens regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation.
Canada’s first gay rights demonstration takes place on Parliament Hill.
The Nisga’a Nation in British Columbia wins a landmark case that becomes the basis for contemporary Aboriginal law in Canada.
Regarded as Canada’s first modern treaties, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and the Northeastern Quebec Agreement protect rights and interests of the James Bay Cree, Inuit of Nunavik, and Naskapi Band of Quebec in their traditional territories.
Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms is adopted. The inclusion of important social and economic rights makes it a broad-reaching human rights document.
Capital punishment in Canada is abolished.
The Canadian Human Rights Act is passed with the goal of ensuring equal opportunity to groups who may be subject to discrimination.
Quebec becomes the first Canadian jurisdiction to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women is ratified by the United Nations.
Quebec passes its Election Act, becoming the first province to extend inmates the right to vote.
Due to the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia, Canada sponsors 26,000 refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Canadian citizens sponsor an additional 34,000 refugees.
The Manitoba Metis Federation wins a Supreme Court case acknowledging that Canada failed to implement the land grant for the Manitoba Métis, known as scrip, promised in the Manitoba Act of 1870.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is enacted as part of the Constitution. It protects human rights for every person in Canada.
The International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is ratified by the United Nations.
The Musqueam Band in British Columbia wins an important case confirming the Canadian government’s obligation to act in the best interests of First Nations.
To help end apartheid, the Canadian government applies sanctions against South Africa. The apartheid system is dismantled in 1994.
The Canadian government passes Bill C-31 to abolish discrimination related to the Indian Act of 1876.
The Employment Equity Act requires employers to create workplace equality for women, Indigenous people, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities.
Canada is the first country to receive the Nansen Award from the United Nations for extraordinary and dedicated service in sheltering refugees.
The International Convention on the Rights of the Child is ratified by the United Nations to recognize children as human beings with their own rights. Canada becomes a signatory in 1990.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal gives women access to all jobs in the Canadian Forces, including combat roles.
Sikh members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police achieve the right to wear their turbans while on active duty.
The Sparrow Case confirms that Aboriginal rights existing at the time of the 1982 Constitution Act cannot be infringed without justification.
During the Oka Crisis, Kanesatake First Nation protesters block access to ancestral land slated for development. The standoff lasts 77 days, drawing global attention to Indigenous land rights.
The Supreme Court of Canada recognizes battered woman syndrome as a murder defence. It sets a legal precedent for women’s rights to self-defence.
Serbian forces massacre Muslim (Bosniak) men and boys in the area of Srebrenica in Bosnia. This is later recognized as genocide by Canada’s Parliament.
In Rwanda, extremist Hutus attempt an all-out slaughter of the minority Tutsis. This is later recognized as genocide by Canada’s Parliament.
A referendum is held in Quebec on whether the province should assert its right to self-determination and become an independent nation.
The Canadian Human Rights Act is amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Leilani Muir wins a lawsuit against the Alberta government who had her sterilized without her knowledge. The case has national impact for the rights of persons with disabilities.
The Marshall decision of the Supreme Court affirms treaty rights of Mi’kmaq to fish commercially.
Nunavut becomes Canada’s newest territory after Inuit assert their rights to land and to self-government.
Canada is the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.
Human trafficking (modern slavery) becomes part of the Criminal Code.
Canada helps draft the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ratifies the Convention the day it opens for signatures.
The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is adopted by the United Nations and signed by Canada in 2010.
The Canadian government delivers an apology to Indigenous people who were forced to live in residential schools and establishes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
First Nations are allowed to file complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. In 2011, they receive full protection under the Human Rights Act.
Elections Canada makes policy changes ensuring voters with disabilities have barrier-free access to polling stations.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the only museum in the world solely devoted to human rights awareness and education, opens its doors.
The Supreme Court rules in favour of the right to die with dignity, based on principles expressed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.