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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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The Canadian government enacts the national Medical Care Act, protecting the health and well-being of all Canadians.
The Official Languages Act is instituted. French and English are recognized as Canada’s two official languages.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
A referendum is held in Quebec on whether the province should assert its right to self-determination and become an independent nation.
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.
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.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the only museum in the world solely devoted to human rights awareness and education, opens its doors.