Today is Equality Day: the 35th birthday of the equality rights protections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These provisions were included in the Charter thanks to the relentless leadership of feminists.

Today, we thank and celebrate those who pushed for meaningful, broad protection from discrimination to be built into Canada’s constitution.

The introduction of equality rights in the Charter was a hard-won victory. Opponents argued that provincial human rights legislation was already adequate for preventing discriminatory laws, policies, and government action.

April 17, 1985 was an exciting day for all those who believed otherwise. That’s when sections 15 and 28 of the Charter, which deal with equality rights, came into force. These protections took effect three years after other sections of the Charter. The gap gave governments time to make sure that their laws did not discriminate.

Around the same time as the equality rights protections of the Charter came into force, a group of feminist lawyers, academics, and activists founded West Coast LEAF in Vancouver. Our founders saw great potential in constitutionally-protected equality rights. At the same time, they knew they had to work hard to make sure that the new legal rights would actually improve people’s lives and make society more just.

The work our founders started in 1985 remains just as urgent today.

The Charter is supposed to protect what’s called substantive equality: a vision of equality that recognizes that identical treatment is not enough for justice, because people’s needs differ and our society is deeply unequal. However, the courts have struggled to interpret equality rights in a strong and inclusive way.

This is why West Coast LEAF continues to push the Canadian legal system to respond more meaningfully to the harms faced by marginalized communities.

Laws and policies still perpetuate injustices across society. During times of upheaval like the COVID-19 pandemic, we see this happen even more vividly than usual. The impacts of the pandemic are gendered in many ways: who is at risk of illness; who is at the frontlines of caregiving; who is providing essential services; who is keeping our spaces clean and free from disease.

As we celebrate Equality Day and 35 years of equality protections in the Charter, we also reflect on the need to keep challenging colonial laws, policies, and government actions. We see the gendered harms they cause, and we commit to fighting them. We hope you’ll join us.

For ways you can support our most marginalized communities during the COVID-19 emergency, read our round-up of calls for solidarity on our FThis! blog.