We all know Canada as a democratic state. In a democratic state, women are equal to men. One necessity for citizens in any democracy is that they have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.
But, the ability to vote hasn’t always been granted equally to men and women. Before I begin, I would like to emphasize that people who were denied the right to vote in one singular province would also be denied the right to vote at the federal level. Now, let’s go back in time to see the evolution of voting rights in Canada, why these events unfolded in this order, and, most importantly, uncover the truth about discrimination in Canada during the 1900s.
Around this time, Abraham Lincoln became president in 1860. (Image Source: US News)
1867: Wealthy, white males who are landowners can vote at the federal level. Also, Aboriginal men who denied their Aboriginal heritage could vote at the federal level.
1902: Every Chinese, Japanese and Aboriginal living in the province of British Columbia is denied the right to vote at the provincial level.
1907: British Columbia also takes away the right to vote of Canadians from East India.
1908: Women who are Chinese Canadian, Japanese Canadian, Aboriginal, or of “Asiatic” descent (yes, this was actually a term used by the BC government) were denied the right to vote at the municipal level.
1909: Chinese Canadians cannot vote in Saskatchewan as well.
1910: Alberta grants the right to vote for unmarried women and widows, but not for married women.
1914 was the time when WWI began.
1914: Imposition of the War Measures Act. 8 500 men are interned in work camps because they are feared to be “enemy aliens,” meaning that the country of their heritage is fighting against the British empire in WWI.
Aboriginal soldiers in WWI (even if they still accept their Aboriginal identity) are allowed the right to vote, so long as they are fighting in the war. Saskatchewan and Ontario prohibits Chinese businesses from hiring white women.
1916: Women are allowed the right to vote in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, except for those who are excluded due to their ethnicity (ie. Chinese Canadians, Japanese Canadians, African Canadians and Aboriginal Peoples).
1917: British Columbia and Ontario give women the right to vote, so long as their ethnic group isn’t being excluded. The Wartime Elections Bill allows women to vote in federal elections, so long as they have a close relative in the army and they are British subjects.
Prime Minister Borden, leader of the Canadian government at the time of the 1917 Khaki election (Image Source: Vimy Ridge History)
1918: Aboriginal war veterans lose the right to vote. Women (so long as their ethnic group isn’t excluded) can vote at federal elections across Canada.
1918: The Year Women’s Suffrage Was Supposedly Achieved
So, now I bring you to 1918: the year where we all thought women’s suffrage was finally achieved. As you can see, voting rights from 1900 until 1918 were very unpredictable. One year, a group of people is being excluded systemically by our very own government, and the next they can vote freely. Instead of arguing that it is in 1918 where women’s suffrage was achieved, I would like to discuss why what happened in 1918 was only the very beginning.
While it is true that in 1918, a ruling was passed that had “women” and “vote” in the same sentence, it didn’t forget to include many limitations so that, in the end, there were very few women who could actually vote. Similarly to the men, the first women that could vote in 1918 were essentially white. All those of Asiatic backgrounds and all Aboriginal women still had no voting rights whatsoever. In fact, in the eyes of the law, women weren’t even officially recognized as “persons.” Obviously, there was still much work to be done.
In 1916, Emily Murphy was hearing her first case when an attorney told her that her ruling was not legitimate because she was not a “person” in the eyes of the law. She became incensed and decided that she would do whatever was in her power to change this outdated ruling. She partnered with four other like-minded women and, after 13 years, finally managed to have the ruling changed. In 1929, women were deemed “persons” once and for all. This ruling was essential in empowering women in the workplace. Now, being considered “legitimate persons”, women could apply for any job that a man could and, theoretically, would be equal to men in the workplace. Of course, with the jaw-dropping difference between men and women’s pay in the workplace even nowadays, it is clear that we still have work to do, but that is another story.
Emily Murphy (Image Source: My Hero Project)
We now know that women were considered “persons” in 1929, but what about the women who were excluded due to their ethnicities and the Aboriginal women? It wasn’t until 1948 when these women were finally allowed to vote.
You might ask why this ruling was passed so late (1948) after the first women were granted the right to vote? Well, this ruling wasn’t Canada’s idea. In fact, these women would have had to wait much longer if it wasn’t for WWII.
To prevent another war from ever occurring, the United Nations (UN), a collective group of hundreds of nations devoted to keeping global peace, created The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All the nations signing this document must ensure that they grant their citizens each and every one of these rights. One key element of it is that race is no longer a valid reason for denying the right to vote. As a result, all women can now vote.
But, it doesn’t even stop there. It took until 1960 for all Aboriginal men and women to gain the right to vote. Even after the Canadian government was urged by the UN to follow the rights expressed in the document, it still took 12 years for them to actually do what they had promised.
Furthermore, the Canadian Human Rights Act was not enacted until 1977, which was designed to protect victims of discrimination to ensure that every Canadian has equal opportunity in life.
In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was imposed to ensure that every Canadian citizen was entitled to fundamental rights.
Three Important Takeaways
Now, there are three important takeaways from Canada’s past in women’s voting and, ultimately, women’s rights. Firstly, the decisions made by the Canadian government in the past reflected those who were in power, not those who were voting. For example, the first women to be elected into provincial office, Louise McKinney and Roberta MacAdams, were a cornerstone in our history because they represented the wants and needs of half the population. Prior to this, only the demands of men would be met. Men would vote for men who would represent their beliefs in office and try to fulfill them.
Finally, when we, as humans, witness anything outside the norm that we are accustomed to seeing now, our first instinct, whether conscious or subconscious, is to say “wow, that is weird.” For example, when women were protesting to have the right to vote, male legislators and politicians would have most definitely posed this question to themselves, which is the root cause of conflict. The true mark of a successful nation is not to assimilate all citizens into one unchanging norm, but rather to be accepting of everyone’s differences and use diversity as an asset. With this approach, racism and sexism and any other ism currently present in society will be eliminated when we realize the value that each individual has.