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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.
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 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.
A group of 46 unions form the Canadian Labour Union, the first national labour federation for workers’ rights.
The Chinese Immigration Act is passed containing a head tax to discourage Chinese people from entering Canada.
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.
Manitoba is the first province in Canada to grant women the right to vote in provincial elections.
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.
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.
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 Bill of Rights is Canada’s first national law to protect human rights.
The Royal Commission on the Status of Women works to advance equality for women in all areas of their lives in Canada.
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.
The Canadian Human Rights Act is passed with the goal of ensuring equal opportunity to groups who may be subject to discrimination.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is enacted as part of the Constitution. It protects human rights for every person in Canada.
To help end apartheid, the Canadian government applies sanctions against South Africa. The apartheid system is dismantled in 1994.
The Employment Equity Act requires employers to create workplace equality for women, Indigenous people, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities.
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 Supreme Court of Canada recognizes battered woman syndrome as a murder defence. It sets a legal precedent for women’s rights to self-defence.
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 Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the only museum in the world solely devoted to human rights awareness and education, opens its doors.