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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.
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.
Canadian newspaper publisher Joseph Howe defends himself against a libel charge. His acquittal is a major advance for freedom of the press.
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 Canadian Criminal Code is amended to decriminalize homosexuality 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.
Canada’s first gay rights demonstration takes place on Parliament Hill.
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 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 Human Rights Tribunal gives women access to all jobs in the Canadian Forces, including combat roles.
The Canadian Human Rights Act is amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Canada is the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the only museum in the world solely devoted to human rights awareness and education, opens its doors.