Christo­pher Moore

How a po­lit­i­cal trick dis­en­fran­chised a mil­lion women dur­ing the First World War.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - Christo­pher Moore com­ments in ev­ery is­sue of Canada’s His­tory.

Did Prime Min­is­ter Robert Bor­den ac­tu­ally strip the vote from a mil­lion women in 1917?

Did a mil­lion Canadian women lose the right to vote in 1917? A hun­dred years ago, in Jan­uary 1916, Man­i­toba be­came the first prov­ince to rec­og­nize women’s right to vote. By April 1917, On­tario and all the western prov­inces had fol­lowed Man­i­toba’s lead. But it is usu­ally re­ported that the first women able to vote in fed­eral elec­tions were the women then serv­ing in Canada’s armed forces, per­haps two thou­sand women in to­tal. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment gave them the vote in Au­gust 1917. In Septem­ber 1917, Par­lia­ment ex­tended the right to vote in fed­eral elec­tions to wives, wid­ows, mothers, sis­ters, and daugh­ters of serv­ing soldiers. Not un­til 1918, more than two years af­ter Man­i­toba, would Canada rec­og­nize a broad right of women’s suf­frage.

But in 1917, as the fe­male rel­a­tives of men serv­ing overseas got the vote, no less an au­thor­ity than for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Wil­frid Lau­rier was declar­ing that a mil­lion women who al­ready had the fed­eral vote were los­ing it.

Did this hap­pen? To sort out what was go­ing on re­quires a walk through some odd cor­ners of Canadian fed­er­al­ism.

In 1867, it had been agreed that, for the time be­ing, the vot­ing rules that ex­isted in the prov­inces of the new Do­min­ion of Canada would be used for fed­eral elec­tions as well. Any­one who could vote provin­cially could vote fed­er­ally.

Prime Min­is­ter John A. Mac­don­ald dis­liked that sys­tem. In 1885, his Elec­tions Act em­pow­ered the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to set its own rules. Wil­frid Lau­rier was a back­bencher in the op­po­si­tion then, and he protested; let­ting the prov­inces set fed­eral vot­ing re­quire­ments was part of the Con­fed­er­a­tion bar­gain, he said. In 1898, two years af­ter he be­came prime min­is­ter, Lau­rier abol­ished Mac­don­ald’s elec­tion rules. Pro­vin­cial rules would once more ap­ply in fed­eral elec­tions.

This was still the law of the land in 1916 and 1917. Thus, when Man­i­toba and four other prov­inces rec­og­nized women’s right to vote, women in each of those prov­inces got not just the pro­vin­cial vote but the fed­eral vote as well. Or so Lau­rier, once more in op­po­si­tion, de­clared.

“In five prov­inces — On­tario, Man­i­toba, Saskatchewan, Al­berta, and Bri­tish Columbia — women now have the fran­chise” for fed­eral elec­tions, Lau­rier told the House of Com­mons in Septem­ber 1917, “but un­der this [new] leg­is­la­tion, the women of those prov­inces, with the ex­cep­tion of those who hap­pen to be rel­a­tives of men who have en­listed, are de­prived of the fran­chise.” The gov­ern­ment’s new bill “dis­en­fran­chises about a mil­lion women who live be­tween the Ot­tawa River and the Pa­cific coast,” said an­other Lib­eral MP.

Or did it? In 1917, Robert Bor­den’s Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment des­per­ately wanted to keep the vote away from any­one who might not sup­port the war ef­fort — in­clud­ing women. Western Canadian women, many of them farm­ers’ wives and many of them im­mi­grants from cen­tral Europe, were dou­bly or triply sus­pect. In re­ply to Lau­rier, Bor­den flatly de­nied that any women had ever had the fed­eral vote.

The prime min­is­ter pre­sented a le­gal opin­ion, say­ing the fed­eral law that let prov­inces de­ter­mine who voted spoke of “per­sons” who could vote. “Per­sons” did not mean “women,” Bor­den said. For that rea­son, his lawyers now ad­vised that the pro­vin­cial right to vote had never en­ti­tled women to the fed­eral vote.

This was thin le­gal ice. But no court would get to rule on the mat­ter. Bor­den’s gov­ern­ment passed its bill giv­ing votes only to women with fam­ily mem­bers in uni­form. The right to vote that a mil­lion western women may have had — but never got to ex­er­cise — van­ished. Soon ev­ery­one for­got the whole de­bate had ever hap­pened.

Dis­en­fran­chis­ing Cana­di­ans? It’s a bad idea with a long his­tory.

Canadian nurses at Or­p­ing­ton Hos­pi­tal in Bri­tain vote in 1917.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.