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.

Do I have the right to vote? Letters from women to the Canadian government, 1918-1919

Canadian women received the federal right to vote in three waves of legislation. It began with Prime Minister Robert Borden initiating the Military Voters Act of 1917, which enabled Canadian women on active service to vote. Borden also implemented the Wartime Elections Act that same year, which extended the vote to Canadian women who were related to men in the military forces. Lastly, on May 24, 1918, royal assent was given to a bill extending the vote to Canadian women who met the same qualifications as voting men. These quick and successive formative events caused confusion for the public.

The collection of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds various letters written by Canadian women that demonstrate the impact of the vote and include questions about their own personal eligibility to cast a ballot. Seeking information directly from the source, women wrote to Prime Minister Robert Borden and other government officials.

In a letter dated December 1919, Mrs. King of Colonsay, Saskatchewan inquired if she was eligible to vote as a Canadian citizen married to an American citizen. Her inquiry was forwarded to the Department of Justice, which replied that she should be eligible to vote based on her information and enclosed a copy of the Act. They also noted that her inquiry was not typically an affair for the Department.

The confusion between the Dominion Elections Act and the temporary wartime voting measures is evident in a letter dated February 17, 1919 from Mrs. Lillian Dill of Oshawa, Ontario. Mrs. Dill requested a copy of the Act in order to understand its impact and her eligibility to vote. Continue reading