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École Polytechnique Tragedy (Montreal Massacre)

On 6 December 1989, a man entered a mechanical engineering classroom at Montreal’s École Polytechnique armed with a semi-automatic weapon. After separating the women from the men, he opened fire on the women while screaming, “You are all feminists.” Fourteen young women were murdered, and 13 other people were wounded. The shooter then turned the gun on himself. In his suicide note, he blamed feminists for ruining his life. The note contained a list of 19 “radical feminists” who he said would have been killed had he not run out of time. It included the names of well-known women in Quebec, including journalists, television personalities and union leaders.

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Robert Pickton Case

Between 1978 and 2001, at least 65 women disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Robert Pickton, who operated a pig farm in nearby Port Coquitlam, was charged with murdering 26 of the women. He was convicted on six charges and sentenced to life in prison. In a jail cell conversation with an undercover police officer, Pickton claimed to have murdered 49 women. The murders led to the largest serial killer investigation in Canadian history, and Pickton’s farm became the largest crime scene in Canadian history. The case became a flash point in the wider issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. In 2012, a provincial government inquiry into the case concluded that “blatant failures” by police — including inept criminal investigative work, compounded by police and societal prejudice against sex trade workers and Indigenous women ­— led to a “tragedy of epic proportions.”

Warning: This article contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all audiences.

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Patriation of the Constitution

In 1982, Canada fully broke from its colonial past and “patriated” its Constitution. It transferred the country’s highest law, the British North America Act (which was renamed the Constitution Act, 1867), from the authority of the British Parliament to Canada’s federal and provincial legislatures. The Constitution was also updated with a new amending formula and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These changes occurred after a fierce, 18-month political and legal struggle that dominated headlines and the agendas of every government in the country.

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Canadian Human Rights Act

The Canadian Human Rights Act, created in 1977, is designed to ensure equality of opportunity. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, age, sex and a variety of other categories. The Act produced two human rights bodies: the Canadian Human Rights Commission and, through a 1985 amendment, the Human Rights Tribunal Panel (it became the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 1998). Decisions of both the Commission and the Tribunal can be appealed to the Federal Court of Canada. Unlike the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which provides Canadians with a broad range of rights, the Canadian Human Rights Act covers only equality rights. It also governs only federal jurisdictions. Each province and territory in Canada has its own human rights legislation, which apply to local entities such as schools and hospitals.

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Marshall Case

The Marshall case is a landmark ruling in Indigenous treaty rights in Canada. The case centres on Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq man from Membertou, Nova Scotia. In August 1993, Marshall caught and sold 210 kg of eel with an illegal net and without a licence during closed-season times. He was arrested after being charged under the federal Fisheries Act and the Maritime Provinces Fishery Regulations. In Marshall’s court case, R. v. Marshall, he was found guilty on all three charges in provincial court (1996) and appeals court (1997). The Supreme Court of Canada reversed Marshall’s convictions in September 1999. The Supreme Court recognized the hunting and fishing rights promised in the Peace and Friendship Treaties. These treaties were signed between the British and the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Peskotomuhkati in 1760–61.

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The Indian Act

The Indian Act is the principal law through which the federal government administers Indian status, local First Nations governments and the management of reserve land and communal monies. The Indian Act does not include Métis or Inuit peoples. The Act came into power on 12 April 1876. It consolidated a number of earlier colonial laws that sought to control and assimilate Indigenous peoples into Euro-Canadian culture. The Indian Act has been amended many times over the years to do away with restrictive and oppressive laws. However, the Act has had historic and ongoing impacts on First Nations cultures, economies, politics and communities. It has also caused inter-generational trauma, particularly with regards to residential schools.

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Williams Treaties

The Williams Treaties were signed in October and November 1923 by the governments of Canada and Ontario and by seven First Nations of the Chippewa of Lake Simcoe (Beausoleil, Georgina Island and Rama) and the Mississauga of the north shore of Lake Ontario (Alderville, Curve Lake, Hiawatha and Scugog Island). As the last historic land cession treaties in Canada, these agreements transferred over 20,000 km2 of land in south central Ontario to the Crown; in exchange, Indigenous signatories received one-time cash payments. While Chippewa and Mississauga peoples argue that the Williams Treaties also guaranteed their right to hunt and fish on the territory, the federal and provincial governments have interpreted the treaty differently, resulting in legal disputes and negotiations between the three parties about land rights. In 2018, the Williams Treaties First Nations and the Governments of Ontario and Canada came to a final agreement, settling litigation about land surrenders and harvesting rights.

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Crawford Purchase

The Crawford Purchase of 1783 is one of the oldest land agreements between British authorities and Indigenous peoples in Upper Canada (later Ontario). It resulted in a large tract of territory along the north shore of the upper St. Lawrence River and the eastern end of Lake Ontario being opened for settlement by displaced Loyalists and Indigenous peoples who fought for and supported Britain during the American Revolution. The Crawford Purchase is one of many agreements made during the late 18th and 19th centuries, known collectively as the Upper Canada Land Surrenders. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)

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Covenant Chain

The Covenant Chain is the name given to the complex system of alliances between the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Six Nations and Iroquois League) and Anglo-American colonies originating in the early 17th century. The first alliances were most likely between New York and the Kanyen'kehà:ka (Mohawk). These early agreements were referred to figuratively as chains because they bound multiple parties together in alliance. Today the Covenant Chain represents the long tradition of diplomatic relations in North America, and is often invoked when discussing contemporary affairs between the state and Indigenous peoples. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)

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Murray Treaty of Longueuil (1760)

On 5 September 1760, three days before the Capitulation of Montreal, the chief of the Huron-Wendat of Lorette, who had accompanied the retreating French army from Quebec to the Montreal region, approached General James Murray at Longueuil. A treaty of peace — known as the Murray Treaty of Longueuil or simply, the Murray Treaty — was concluded whereby the Huron-Wendat came under British protection. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)

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Indigenous Treaties in Canada

Indigenous treaties in Canada are constitutionally recognized agreements between the Crown and Indigenous peoples. Most of these agreements describe exchanges where Indigenous nations agree to share some of their interests in their ancestral lands in return for various payments and promises. On a deeper level, treaties are sometimes understood, particularly by Indigenous people, as sacred covenants between nations that establish a relationship between those for whom Canada is an ancient homeland and those whose family roots lie in other countries. Treaties therefore form the constitutional and moral basis of alliance between Indigenous peoples and Canada.

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Upper Canada Land Surrenders

The Upper Canada Land Surrenders (sometimes known as the Upper Canada Treaties) is a title given to a series of agreements made between Indigenous peoples and the Crown. These agreements were made during the late 18th century and into the 19th century before Confederation and the creation of the province of Ontario. The agreements surrendered Indigenous lands to the colonial government for a variety of purposes, including settlement and development. The Upper Canada Land Surrenders cover much of what is now southwestern Ontario. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)

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Easton Treaty

The Easton Treaty (or Treaty of Easton) is an agreement between British and Indigenous peoples, established at the forks of the Delaware River in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1758. The treaty was signed after a conference between British colonial officials and more than 500 chiefs, representing 15 Woodland Indigenous peoples in October 1758. Through the Easton Treaty and several others, the British successfully neutralized the French-Indigenous alliance in the Ohio Valley during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) by guaranteeing the protection of Indigenous lands from Anglo-American colonists. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)

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Pennefather Treaties

In the summer of 1859, Superintendent General of the Indian Department Richard T. Pennefather signed three separate but essentially identical treaties with Batchewana First Nation (Treaty 91 [A]), Garden River First Nation (Treaty 91 [B]) and Thessalon First Nation (Treaty 91 [C]). The three treaties were part of a series of land surrenders that occurred after the 1850 Robinson Treaties. The Pennefather treaties opened additional acres for settlement and resource exploitation. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)

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Peace and Friendship Treaties

Between 1725 and 1779, Britain signed a series of treaties with various Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), Abenaki, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy peoples living in parts of what are now the Maritimes and Gaspé region in Canada and the northeastern United States. Commonly known as the Peace and Friendship Treaties, these agreements were chiefly designed to prevent war between enemies and to facilitate trade. While these treaties contained no monetary or land transfer provisions, they guaranteed hunting, fishing and land-use rights for the descendants of the Indigenous signatories. The Peace and Friendship Treaties remain in effect today.

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Massey Commission

The Massey Commission was formally known as the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences. It was officially appointed by Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent on 8 April 1949. Its purpose was to investigate the state of arts and culture in Canada. Vincent Massey chaired the Commission. It issued its landmark report, the Massey Report, on 1 June 1951. The report advocated for the federal funding of a wide range of cultural activities. It also made a series of recommendations that resulted in the founding of the National Library of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada), the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts, federal aid for universities, and the conservation of Canada’s historic places, among other initiatives. The recommendations that were made by the Massey Report, and enacted by the federal government, are generally seen as the first major steps to nurture, preserve and promote Canadian culture.

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Notwithstanding Clause

Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is known as the notwithstanding clause. Also known as the override clause, it is part of the Constitution of Canada. The clause allows federal, provincial or territorial governments to temporarily override, or bypass, certain Charter rights. These overrides are subject to renewal after five years. Although the clause is available to governments, its use is politically difficult and therefore rare. It is known colloquially as the “nuclear option,” because its use is considered extremely severe. Since the Constitution was patriated in 1982, the clause has been used only a handful of times by various provinces. The federal government has never invoked the clause.