What is substantive equality?


This module will address the distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘substantive’ equality. This distinction is crucial to advance feminist law reform. 

Formal equality generally means that laws and policies treat everyone the same. A formal equality analysis focuses on the form of the law (whether it provides identical treatment) and its intention (whether it intends to discriminate or not). For example, a formal equal analysis would not expose what is wrong with a policy that requires everyone to take the stairs to access a building: that it disadvantages people who use wheelchairs.

In contrast, substantive equality demands equal outcomes in terms of how laws and policies play out in the real world. A substantive equality analysis asks whether a law offers equal protection and benefit to everyone. It recognizes that a facially neutral law can, despite good intentions, have adverse effects for specific groups of people. A substantive equality analysis makes it clear, for example, that a policy that assumes everyone should take the stairs discriminates against some people with disabilities.

Sections 15 and 28 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantee substantive rather than merely formal equality. This is important in the fight to ensure women live free from discrimination in all spheres of their lives — whether social, cultural, economic or political. In sum, when engaging in feminist law reform, it is important to think through the impacts of reforms for different group of women, to ensure substantive equality is being promoted and achieved. 

"By formal equality, I mean an understanding of equal treatment as requiring simply the same treatment – that individuals are treated identically with no eye to the different contextual (social, historical, economic, or cultural) factors that distinguish each individual and that may mean that the effect of such ‘equal’ treatment will vary across individuals. An approach characterized, conversely, by an insistence on a substantively equal outcome will look to contextual factors, to how the treatment in question affects each individual in light of pre-existing individual and group characteristics, circumstances, and history. Under a substantive approach, equality may very well demand different treatment; equality in substance is determined by an assessment of the effects and outcome of the treatment in question."

Margot Young

in Why Rights Now? Law and Desperation” in Margot Young et al., eds., Poverty: Rights, Social Citizenship, and Legal Activism (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 2007) 317 at 319-20.158 Eldridge v. British Columbia (Attorney General), (1992), 75 B.C.L.R. (2d) 68, [1992]

The Canadian Charter and Women's Equality Rights

Before diving into the readings, learn about the sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that work to advance and protect women's equality rights.


Readings on substantive equality

Of Promise and Peril: The Court and Equality Rights

Jena McGill & Daphne Gilbert

(2017) LexisNexis Canada. First published in The Supreme Court Law Review, Second Series, Volume 78. Reprinted with Permission at 235 - 257.

Rethinking Baker: A Critical Race Feminist Theory of Disability

Alyssa Clutterbuck

IS everyone equal under the law? Using the legal system to fight gender discrimination

Jonnette Watson Hamilton, Jennifer Koshan and Dr. Dianne Gereluk

We like to think Canada is a country built on the principle of equality for all, but many forms of gender discrimination are deeply embedded in our social and cultural practices — despite what the laws say.

The Elephant in the Room and Straw Men on Fire

Fay Faraday

 A great unacknowledged challenge in litigating systemic discrimination claims under the section 15 equality guarantee of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms1 is that claimants bear a double burden. Like all litigants, they must meet the burden of proving the elements of their legal claim. But, before they can do that, equality claimants must often first meet the extraordinary burden of dislodging judges’ phenomenological anchoring in worldviews shaped by privilege. Where judges lack lived experience of systemic oppression, claimants must convince them that oppression exists. This gulf between lived experiences — what I call the reality gap — is the elephant in the room in many section 15 cases. 


Videos on what is substantive equality


The Meta Edition (The Women’s Court of Canada)

Stare Indecisis

This is a special episode of Stare Indecisis. Rather than feature our Appeal authors, it includes interviews with two legal scholars, Raji Mangat and Jennifer Koshan, who tell us about section 15 of the Charter as it is reconfigured at the Women’s Court of Canada (WCC). The WCC is a fictional, feminist court that has re-written real equality cases as though they were on appeal from the Supreme Court of Canada.

Length:48 minutes

Engage & Discuss

Can you think of examples of formally equal laws or policies that affect the women you work with? How would they need to be reformed to promote women’s substantive equality?  

Can you think of a law, bill or case that was meant to promote women’s equality, but negatively affected some groups of women’s substantive equality? How do you think this can be avoided or remedied?

Is the “intention” behind a law important in the context of the Canadian Charter? Why or why not? What does this mean in practice when engaging in feminist law reform? 

Additional Resources

Addressing Gendered Violence against Inuit Women: A review of police policies and practices in Inuit Nunangat

Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada

Also available in Inuktitut.

The Fight for Substantive Equality: Women's Activism and Section 15 Of The Charter of Rights

Mary Eberts

This article discusses the role of women’s groups in the development of section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Charter’s principal equality rights guarantee, entrenched in the Constitution in 1981. Thanks to the leadership of Doris Anderson, submissions to the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution from the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women (CACSW), the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), and the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL) were instrumental in securing changes to section 15. However, the version in the entrenched Charter still fell short of women’s aspirations.

LEAF Intervener Factum Fraser v Canada (Attorney General) to Advocate for Pension Equality

Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)