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.

Martha Louise Black: First Lady of the Yukon

By Katie Cholette

A signed and matted black-and-white photograph of a woman smiling, dated 1932.

Martha Louise Black, 1932. Photographer: Pierre Brunet (e011154526)

Hidden among the millions of items in the collection of Library and Archives Canada are a set of 10 floral postcards. Unassuming in size, and modest in subject matter, they were produced by an exceptional and adventurous woman named Martha Louise Black. Dubbed “First Lady of the Yukon,” and the second woman elected to Canada’s House of Commons, Martha Black was an astute businesswoman, an expert on the wildflowers of the Yukon and British Columbia, an author and lecturer, and the recipient of several honours. February 24, 2016 marks the 150th anniversary of her birth.

A colour reproduction of a plant with four purple flowers and one that has turned to seed. Centred at the bottom are the initials MLB and GB, and it is dated 1955.

“Pasque Flower” by Martha Louise Black. Photomechanical print, 1955. (e011154530)

When Martha was born in Chicago, Illinois, no one could have predicted what an exciting life she would lead. In 1898, at the age of 23, she left behind the comforts of her home in Chicago (and her first husband) to follow the Gold Rush to the Yukon. Financed by family money, Martha and her brother George crossed the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon River. They continued to the Klondike where she staked gold mining claims. Her first stay in the Yukon lasted just over a year, but Martha had been bitten by the bug of the North. When she returned in 1901 she staked more claims, opened a successful sawmill and married her second husband, George Black. She would spend a large portion of the rest of her life living in the Yukon.

A colour reproduction of a plant with three yellow flowers with wide leafy bases. It is initialed MB and dated 1930.

“Cyprepedium, Large Yellow Lady Slipper” by Martha Louise Black. Photomechanical reproduction, 1955 (e011154531)

Martha and George built a life for themselves in the Yukon, where she raised three sons from her first marriage. George, a lawyer by profession, became the 7th Commissioner of the Yukon in 1912. Together, the Blacks played a central role in Dawson and later Whitehorse.

A colour reproduction showing a plant with small purple flowers and wide, deeply lobed leaves. It is initialed MB and dated 1930.

“Crane’s Bill – Wild Geranium” by Martha Louise Black. Photomechanical reproduction (e011154532)

Martha’s lifelong interest in botany flourished in the north. In 1909 she began collecting and pressing wildflowers, filling in the backgrounds with watercolour—a practice she called ‘artistic botany.’ Her works garnered praise, and over the next two summers she was commissioned to collect and mount wildflowers from the Rocky Mountains for exhibition at Canadian Pacific Railway stations and hotels. A series of her works were subsequently published as postcards, and she was made a fellow of the Royal
Geographical Society.

A colour reproduction showing a plant with long woody stems, closely clustered tiny pink flowers and small leaves. The print is initialed MB and dated 1920.

“Heather” by Martha Louise Black. Photomechanical reproduction (e011154538)

In 1935, at the age of 69, Martha was elected to the House of Commons. She served as Member of Parliament for the Yukon until 1940. In 1948 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to Yukon servicemen. Martha died in Whitehorse on October 31, 1957 at the age of 91.

Learn more about her life and work:

Written by Katie Cholette