Thursday, 28 January 2016
The First Women in Canada to Get the Vote
One hundred years ago today on January 28, 1916, women in my home province of Manitoba became the first in Canada to obtain the right to vote. I like knowing that my grandmother and great-grandmother were legally enfranchised on this date. No longer were Manitoba women classified along with "children, idiots and criminals" as legally incompetent to exercise the central right of citizenship -- the right to vote.
Led by the Political Equality League of Manitoba, a long campaign for female suffrage had been waged throughout the province. But unlike the violence of the British suffrage movement, the vote in Manitoba was won through peaceful means -- pamphlets, lobbying, petitions, public debates and satirical mocking of anti-suffrage arguments.
The long-time Conservative premier of Manitoba, Sir Rodmond Roblin, consistently refused to enact female suffrage, saying it was supported only "by short-haired women and long-haired men." Homophobic slurs have a long history in the fight against feminists and their allies! But once Premier Roblin was turfed from office in a corruption scandal, his Liberal successor Premier Norris promised to enact votes for women if a petition with 20,000 signatures could be produced. The Political Equality League presented him with a petition of 40,000 names and the deed was done.
One of the most prominent members of the Political Equality League of Manitoba was Nellie McClung, a popular author of the time. She later moved to Alberta and became one of the "Famous Five" group of women who successfully sued to have women recognized as "persons" under Canadian law, equal to men.
Saskatchewan and Alberta followed close behind Manitoba in extending suffrage in 1916. It is thought that the prairie provinces were more open to the idea because men understood perfectly well the central role that pioneer women had played in homesteading and settling the west. It was harder to portray women as too inherently weak to engage in society's issues.
Canadian women obtained full voting rights in federal elections in 1918. Quebec women had to wait the longest for the right to vote -- until 1940 -- because of the conservative Catholic Church's unyielding grip on Quebec society.
First Nations women and men could vote only if they legally surrendered their treaty status and rights under the federal Indian Act. This fundamentally unjust condition was not removed until 1960.
And what about "children, idiots and criminals," the other categories of people who were all forbidden to vote a hundred years ago? Following the 1982 enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, our courts recognized the voting rights of people living in mental institutions in 1988 and of prisoners in penitentiaries in 2002. So today, only children under the age of majority still remain on the list of those citizens who are legally disentitled to vote.