Skip to main content
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thousands of Aboriginal children are taken from their families by the Canadian government and adopted out — a practice known as the Sixties Scoop.
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 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women is ratified by the United Nations.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is enacted as part of the Constitution. It protects human rights for every person in Canada.
The Employment Equity Act requires employers to create workplace equality for women, Indigenous people, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the only museum in the world solely devoted to human rights awareness and education, opens its doors.