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