A greater sisterhood: the Women’s Rights struggle in Canada

“Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has ever known.” Nellie McClung, 1916

The year 2016 marks an important commemorative milestone for women’s rights: the 100th Anniversary of Women first obtaining the right to vote in Canada. To highlight this egalitarian achievement and many other barriers overcome by Canadian women over the past century, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), working in partnership with Canadian Heritage, will launch an outdoor exhibition titled A Greater Sisterhood: The Women’s Rights Struggle in Canada.

Following on from LAC‘s Let Them Howl: 100 Years of Women’s Suffragea display of portraits  this past winter on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa and at Fort Gibraltar in Winnipeg—this new exhibition features reproductions of portraits and documentary photographs of significant and influential persons and groups of women. The women featured in this exhibit broke through barriers to achieve full participation in the economic, political, and social life of Canada, helping to make it a more inclusive and democratic country.

A black-and-white photograph showing a group of nursing sisters waiting in line to cast their votes at an outdoor polling station. Four male officers oversee the proceedings while one sister casts her vote behind a screen. In the background are encampment tents.

Canada’s Nursing Sisters at a Canadian hospital casting their votes in the Canadian federal election, December 1917 (MIKAN 3194224)

During the First World War, more than 2,000 nurses, supervised by matron-in-chief Margaret Macdonald, served overseas as members of the Canadian Army. The Military Voters Act, 1917, gave all military personnel, including nurses, the right to vote in federal elections, paving the way to the expansion of women’s voting rights in 1918.

Madeleine Parent, a Quebec labour union activist and a founding member of the Confederation of Canadian Unions, led efforts to achieve better working conditions for women in the textile industry. As a co-founder of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Parent also supported Aboriginal women’s rights.

A black-and-white photograph showing a woman walking down a street; behind, there is a man with a sign that says “L’union fait la force” [Unity makes strength]

Madeleine Parent walking in the May Day Parade in Valleyfield, Quebec, ca. 1949 (MIKAN 3257043)

Throughout her fifty-year career as a singer-songwriter, Buffy Sainte-Marie has focused on issues facing Indigenous peoples. She has won recognition and countless awards for her music and her work as an activist and educator. In 1997, she founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project, which helps create core teaching curricula based on Indigenous perspectives.

A black-and-white photo portrait of a woman with long dark hair looking directly at the photographer.

Buffy Sainte-Marie. Photograph taken by Robert Taillefer, 1975 ©Robert Taillefer (MIKAN 4167090)

Be sure to visit the outdoor exhibition, A Greater Sisterhood: The Women’s Rights Struggle in Canada, on display on Plaza Bridge, directly opposite the Hotel Château Laurier on Rideau Street in Ottawa, which runs until Thanksgiving weekend.

Learn more about Women First Obtaining the Right to Vote in Canada or read about our other blog articles on the topic.

Hiding in Plain Sight: Discovering the Métis Nation in the Collection of Library and Archives Canada

Who Are the Métis?

The Métis Nation emerged as a distinct people during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. They are the second largest of the three Aboriginal peoples of Canada and are the descendants of First Nations peoples and Europeans involved in the fur trade.

Métis communities are found widely in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories, with a smaller number in British Columbia, Ontario, Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a great variety of archival documents pertaining to the Métis Nation (including textual records, photographs, artwork, maps, stamps and sound recordings); however, finding these records can be a challenge.

Challenges in Researching Métis Content in the Art and Photographic Collections

While there are easily identifiable portraits of well-known leaders and politicians, including these portraits of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, images depicting less famous Métis are difficult to find. Original titles betray historical weaknesses when it comes to describing Métis content.

In many cases, the Métis have gone unrecognized or were mistaken for European or First Nations groups—such as the people in this photograph entitled “Chippewa Indians with Red River Carts at Dufferin.”

Black and white photograph of a man, on the left, wearing European clothing and standing in front of a Red River cart, and a group of First Nations men, women and children wearing First Nations-style clothing and standing in front of another Red River cart, on the right.

Chippewa Indians with Red River Carts at [Fort] Dufferin” Manitoba, 1873 (MIKAN 3368366)

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“The Complete Set”: Some fascinating examples in Library and Archives Canada’s portrait collection

The Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holdings include one-of-a-kind historical artifacts that relate directly to specific portraits in the collection.

In some cases, items that were separated over the years were reunited at LAC. In others, LAC was fortunate to take over the custodianship of a carefully preserved ‘set.’ In all cases, these somewhat unexpected holdings provide invaluable context for better understanding the portraits they are associated with.

Copper plate image showing Captain George Cartwright checking his fox traps during the winter in Labrador. He wears snowshoes, carries a gun over one shoulder and has a dog on a leash, tethered to his belt.

Captain Cartwright visiting his fox traps (MIKAN 3986048)

This copper plate, for example, was created as a means of ‘publishing’ the evocative oil portrait of Captain George Cartwright (1739–1819), a retired army officer who set up trade as a trapper and fur trader in Labrador.

Oil painting showing Captain George Cartwright checking his fox traps during the winter in Labrador. He wears snowshoes, carries a gun over one shoulder and has a dog on a leash, tethered to his belt.

Captain Cartwright visiting his fox traps (MIKAN 3964571)

It illustrates one process that was used, before the development of photography, to “translate” paintings into a printable format, so that they could appear in books. The painted portrait was created specifically to provide a frontispiece image for Cartwright’s important Memoir, A journal of transactions and events, during a residence of nearly sixteen years on the coast of Labrador… (1792).

The same image as above, except in printed form, published in a first edition of the 1792 book.

Frontispiece from Captain George Cartwright’s Memoir (AMICUS 4728079)

Special Notes on the Frontispiece, compiled by Cartwright, underline the significance he attached to every one of the painting’s details. Like the Memoir, the painting reads like a primer for would-be adventurers—including innovative, Aboriginal-inspired solutions for survival, such as wearing snowshoes when checking traplines in winter.

Copper is a soft metal that allowed engravers to faithfully reproduce these details, as well as something of the feel of the original oil painting. Here, for example, the soft-edged atmospheric landscape of winter was created by protecting some areas of the plate with wax, while allowing acid to wash over other exposed areas.

It’s rare for any institution to hold a painting, its copper plate and a first-edition copy of the resulting book, but LAC’s collection includes all of these items.

Another example: LAC’s collection includes this pendant and earrings.

Colour photograph of two gold earrings with a stylized spiral pattern and a matching pendant.

Marie-Louise Aurélie Girard’s earrings and pendant (MIKAN 3994256)

This was the actual jewellery that Marie-Louise Aurélie Girard (ca. 1868–?) wore when she sat to have her portrait painted by the distinguished Montreal artist, Alfred Boisseau (1823–1901):

Oil painting showing a woman in a black dress looking straight at the viewer. She is wearing the same pendant and earrings as shown in the previous photograph.

Marie-Louise Aurélie Girard (MIKAN 3993116)

These precious items remind us of the human process behind historical portrait painting. Prominent and wealthy sitters would often deliberate over which items to wear or include in a portrait, not only for sentimental reasons, but also to convey social status. In this case, the sitter was the wife of a former Premier of Manitoba.

Library and Archives Canada’s “false” portraits

A false portrait is an imaginary portrait, usually of a well-known or famous person. The portrait is usually not based on a true likeness and is often created long after the person’s death.

Extremely significant historical figures often did not sit for portraits during their lifetimes. Yet, there has always been a demand for “true” portraits of them.

False portraits were not necessarily attempting to trick or fool people—in many cases, those who created or promoted them did so for very public-spirited reasons. From the 19th century onwards, this famous false portrait of Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec City, served an important commemorative and educational role.

Lithograph attributed to Louis-César-Joseph Ducornet, 1854. It shows an image of a man facing slightly away from the viewer. He wears a black doublet with sleeves that reveal a white shirt underneath. In the background is a view of Quebec City.

False portrait of Samuel de Champlain (MIKAN 2919672)

A false portrait often tells us a lot more about the society that created it than about the historical figure that it is meant to represent. It has been suggested that this pious-looking image made the perfect frontispiece to 19th-century histories of New France, developed by historian-churchmen. It doesn’t seem to have mattered that the portrait is actually copied from a 17th-century engraving of a French civil servant, whose morality was dubious (in French only).

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds other intriguing false portraits in its collections. For example, LAC acquired this rare miniature wax portrait, one of very few portraits in this fragile medium to survive.

Wax miniature, by an anonymous artist, early 19th century. This rather generic wax miniature shows a man in profile wearing a red British coat embellished with gold trimming, a white cravat and a blue waistcoat. He has long white hair, tied back. The miniature is quite sculptural.

Wax portrait of General James Wolfe (MIKAN 3793977)

Though labelled a portrait of General James Wolfe, famous for his role during the decisive Battle of Quebec (1759), the miniature does not reproduce any of Wolfe’s known physical features. Yet several near identical wax miniatures exist in other collections—each of these also labelled, in the past, as Wolfe portraits. It’s possible to speculate that many casts of this portrait must have been made, for so many fragile examples to have survived.

Wax was cheap and easy to produce in multiple copies. The portrait was likely created as a kind of mass-produced celebrity image, in response to a vast appetite for portraits of “Wolfe the Hero” that arose among the general public during the 19th century. Probably created long after Wolfe’s death by an anonymous entrepreneur, it presents an idealized and heroic-looking profile view of a young officer—exactly the kind of image guaranteed to satisfy the public imagination.

Library and Archives Canada Announces the Opening of Two Exhibitions

Library and Archives Canada continues to display the richness and diversity of its collections with the opening of two exhibitions.

In Saskatchewan, the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon is hosting the I Know You by Heart: Portrait Miniatures exhibition until June 2, 2013. The exhibition highlights the intimate, personal nature of portrait miniatures, and the reasons that such images are commissioned and created. Find out more about the conservation of these portraits on Library and Archives Canada’s YouTube video.

In Quebec, the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau is presenting the exhibition Double Take: Portraits of Intriguing Canadians until October 14, 2013. Discover portraits of Canadians who have left—and are still leaving—their mark on our country and our culture. Tune in to Library and Archives Canada’s podcast for an overview of the featured works and the stories behind them.

By presenting exhibitions such as these, Library and Archives Canada is able to make original works of documentary heritage accessible in galleries, museums and other community venues to Canadians across the country.

Keep following this blog to stay informed about upcoming events.

Library and Archives Canada’s Travelling Exhibitions

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is on the road! With four travelling exhibitions on display in different venues across Canada, including one in the
National Capital Region, LAC is showcasing the richness and diversity of its collections. This is an excellent example of LAC’s commitment to making the
country’s heritage and history accessible to all Canadians—regardless of where they live.

The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, in British Columbia, is hosting the exhibition Beyond Likeness: Contemporary Works from Library and Archives Canada until January 6, 2013. Through the works of 23 contemporary artists, the exhibition explores the evolving concept of portraiture from more traditional representations of likeness to works that challenge the conventions of the genre.

The New Brunswick Museum in Saint John is presenting the exhibition I Know You by Heart: Portrait Miniatures until December 31, 2012. Showcasing 35 recently restored portraits, the exhibition highlights the intimate, personal nature of portrait miniatures, and the reasons that such images are commissioned, created and carried. In March 2013, the exhibition will make its way to the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon.
Find out more about the conservation of these portraits in LAC’s YouTube video.

The McMichael Art Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario, is showcasing LAC’s most recent exhibition Double Take: Portraits of Intriguing Canadians until January 20, 2013.Double Take presents 50 Canadians who have left—and are leaving—their mark on our country and our culture. Tune in to LAC’s podcast for an overview of the featured works and the stories behind them.

Finally, the exhibition Faces of 1812 is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa until January 6, 2013. A commemorative exhibition, Faces of 1812 presents some of the men and women who experienced the War of 1812. LAC’s curatorial YouTube video and Faces of 1812 podcast will introduce you to the selected
works that document this significant historical event.

Keep following this blog to find out where these exhibitions will travel next. It could be your hometown!

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!