March 1 marks the official opening of a new exhibition of photographs at the St. Catharines Museum: “Leading the Way: Pioneering Women of St. Catharines”. As part of this exhibition, we’ll be highlighting women’s history topics here on the blog. To meet the remarkable local women featured in the exhibition, visit the St. Catharines Museum, open daily 9am to 5pm. Admission is by donation.
The exhibition, “Leading the Way: Pioneering Women of St. Catharines” was initially conceived as an exhibit to examine and commemorate the upcoming 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Ontario. While the fascinating people and incredible achievements I uncovered during the course of my research took the exhibit in a somewhat different direction, the long, arduous and uneven journey to equal voting rights for women and minority populations in Canada is certainly a worthy topic for an albeit, brief discussion here.
Women in Canada who were British subjects and at least 21 years of age were granted the right to vote in federal elections in 1918, due in large part to wartime measures, but this was by no means a universal victory and is only one part of the larger voting rights story.
“Widows and spinsters” were the first women in Canada to be granted the vote, typically only in school board and municipal elections. In Ontario, these women could vote in municipal elections in 1884 – but there was a catch – in order to cast a ballot, a widow or spinster had to own property.
The provincial franchise was granted to selected groups of women in a rather checkered way, with women in the Prairie Provinces leading the way. Manitoba was the first province to enfranchise its women when they were given the vote on 28 January, 1916. Alberta and Saskatchewan followed within that same year and Ontario and British Columbia in 1917. Women in Quebec had a long wait – they were not granted the provincial vote until 1940, while their sisters in the Northwest Territories had to wait until 1951.
Many minority groups and Aboriginal populations were left out of the expansion of voting rights for an alarmingly long time – Indo-Canadians and Chinese Canadians couldn’t vote universally until 1947, while Japanese-Canadians had to wait until 1948 to be granted the franchise. Inuit people weren’t granted the vote until 1950 and Aboriginal people living on reserves did not receive an unfettered right to vote until 1960.
We’ve come a long way, but as we mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in our province in 2017, it’s important to remember the many struggles and women and minority populations endured to get that all-important right to cast a ballot.
Meredith Leonard is the Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.