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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.
Anti-slavery activists help thousands of people escape bondage through the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses.
Canadian newspaper publisher Joseph Howe defends himself against a libel charge. His acquittal is a major advance for freedom of the press.
A Toronto printers’ strike prompts the federal government to pass the Trade Union Act. The Act legalizes unions in Canada.
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.
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 Canadian Government passes the Female Employees Equal Pay Act, making discrimination in wages on account of gender against the law. Women are entitled to be paid the same wage as men for similar work.
The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) is founded. Today it brings together three million union workers in national and international unions to advocate for labour and human rights in the workplace and in retirement.
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 Royal Commission on the Status of Women works to advance equality for women in all areas of their lives in Canada.
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 International Convention on the Rights of the Child is ratified by the United Nations to recognize children as human beings with their own rights. Canada becomes a signatory in 1990.
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.
Human trafficking (modern slavery) becomes part of the Criminal Code.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the only museum in the world solely devoted to human rights awareness and education, opens its doors.