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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.
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.
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 Hague Conventions are drafted, establishing international humanitarian laws for the treatment of civilians, prisoners of war and war-wounded personnel.
The steamship Komagata Maru enters Vancouver Harbour with 376 immigrants from India. Most of them are denied entry into the country.
The Ottoman Empire attempts to eradicate its Armenian Christian minority. This is later recognized as genocide by Canada’s Parliament.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Bill of Rights is Canada’s first national law to protect human rights.
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.
The Canadian Human Rights Act is passed with the goal of ensuring equal opportunity to groups who may be subject to discrimination.
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 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 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.
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.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the only museum in the world solely devoted to human rights awareness and education, opens its doors.