Women's suffrage in Canada

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Presentation of petition by Political Equality League for enfranchisement of women, Winnipeg, 23 December 1915
Political cartoon commenting on women's voting rights in Quebec

Women's suffrage in Canada occurred at different times in different jurisdictions and at different times to different demographics of women. Women's right to vote began in the three prairie provinces. In 1916, suffrage was given to women in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. The federal government granted limited war-time suffrage to some women in 1917, and followed with full suffrage in 1918. By the close of 1922, all the Canadian provinces, except Quebec, had granted full suffrage to white and black women. Newfoundland, at that time a separate country, granted women suffrage in 1925. Women in Quebec did not receive full suffrage until 1940.[1]

Municipal suffrage was granted in 1884 to property-owning widows and spinsters in the provinces of Quebec and Ontario; in 1886, in the province of New Brunswick, to all property-owning women except those whose husbands were voters; in Nova Scotia, in 1886; and in Prince Edward Island, in 1888, to property-owning widows and spinsters. [2]

Asian women (and men) were not granted suffrage until after World War II in 1948, Inuit women (and men) were not granted suffrage until 1950 and it was not until 1960 that suffrage was extended to First Nations women (and men) without requiring them to give up their treaty status.

Early history[edit]

The cause of women's suffrage began in 1876, when Dr. Emily Stowe came to Toronto to practice medicine.[3] She was the first, and for many years the sole woman physician in Canada. Stowe, vitally interested in all matters relating to women, at once came before the public as a lecturer upon topics then somewhat new, "Woman's Sphere" and "Women in the Professions," being her subjects. She lectured not only in Toronto, but, under the auspices of various Mechanics' Institutes, in Ottawa, Whitby, and Bradford. After attending a meeting of the American Society for the Advancement of Women, in Cleveland in 1877, and meeting many women of the United States, Stowe, on returning home, felt that the time had arrived for some similar union among Canadian women. Talking it over with her friend, Helen Archibald, they decided that it would not be politic to attempt at once a suffrage association but, in November 1877, organized what was known as "The Toronto Woman's Literary Club".[4]

At the beginning suffragists were typically middle-class white women. These women advocated for suffrage for the sole purpose of boosting their social status resulting in a better society. However, Black abolitionists, unionists, socialists, and temperance activists supported them.[5]

The Toronto Woman's Literary Club[edit]

During the next five years, this club had phenomenal growth, adding to its ranks such woman as Mary McDonell (WCTU), Mrs. W. B. Hamilton, Mrs. W. I. Mackenzie, Mrs. J. Austin Shaw, and others. It also elicited a surprising amount of attention from the press. Among the most able assistants from its very inception was Sarah Anne Curzon, for several years associate editor of the Canada Citizen. It was the habit of the club to meet each Thursday at 3 p.m., at one of the members’ homes. Though not avowedly a suffrage society, no opportunity was lost of promoting this basic idea of the founders. One of the earliest efforts in this direction was a paper, by Archibald, entitled "Woman Under the Civil Law," which elicited discussion and served as educational material. During these years, too, mainly through the work of the Woman's Literary Club, the University of Toronto was opened to women. Eliza Balmer was the first female student.[4]

Canadian Woman Suffrage Association[edit]

Jessie Turnbull - President

It was believed in 1883 that public sentiment had sufficiently progressed to warrant the formation of a regular Woman-Suffrage Society. On February 1, 1883, the club met and decided the following: "... that in view of the ultimate end for which the Toronto Woman's Literary Club was formed, having been attained, viz., to foster a general and living public sentiment in favor of women suffrage, this Club hereby disband, to form a Canadian Women's Suffrage Association." The following month, on March 5, at a meeting of the City Council, the Toronto Women's Literary and Social Progress Club requested the use of the Council Chambers on March 9. Their purpose was to hold a conversation to discuss the advisability of granting the franchise to those women who possessed the property qualification that entitled men to hold it; and then to proceed to form a suffrage club. Accordingly, on that date, Jessie Turnbull McEwen, then President of the Club, was present along with Mayor Arthur Radcliffe Boswell, ex-Alderman John Hallam, Alderman John Baxter, John Wilson Bengough, Thomas Bengough, Thomas Phillips Thompson, and Mr. Burgess, editor of Citizen. The Canadian Woman Suffrage Association was formally inaugurated, and 40 persons enrolled themselves as members that evening.[4]

The first piece of work undertaken by the Association was the securing of the municipal franchise for the women of Ontario. On September 10, 1883, a committee was appointed to urge the City Council to petition the Local Government to pass a bill conferring the municipal franchise upon women. The committee consisted of Stowe, McEwen, Mrs. Hamilton, Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Mackenzie, and Mrs. Curzon, with the power to add others. The committee waited upon Hon. Oliver Mowat, who was then the Premier of the Province of Ontario. From the beginning, the members of the Association recognized that it would be manifestly unjust to exclude married women from the exercise of the franchise, bestowing it only on widows and single women. However, it was agreed that it was not politic to criticize the franchise bill before the House, on the principle of 'half a loaf being better than no bread'. Accordingly, objections were set aside, and every woman worked towards securing this partial reform, even though, if married, she would not directly benefit by it.[4]


In 1882, the Ontario Municipal Act was amended to give married women, widows and spinsters, if possessed of the necessary qualifications, the right to vote on by-laws and some other minor municipal matters. Again, in 1884, the act was further amended, extending the right to vote in municipal elections on all matters to widows and unmarried women. In the municipal elections in Toronto held on January 4, 1886, women's votes were extremely important and resulted in the election of a candidate pledged to reform, William Holmes Howland.[3][6]

Another important work accomplished about this time, more or less directly through the influence of the Suffrage Association, was the opening of the Woman's Medical College in Toronto. Stowe (with her friend, Jennie Kidd Trout) had, in the 1870s, forced her way into a season's lectures on chemistry in the Toronto School of Medicine. About 1879, she intimated her intention of entering her daughter, Augusta Stowe, as a medical student. Dr. Augusta Stowe Gullen was awarded her degree of M. D. C. M. in 1883, the first woman to be awarded such a degree under Canadian institutions. As a consequence of the persistence of Stowe and her daughter, other women became aware of the possibilities in the medical profession, and so numerous were the applications for admission that it was deemed expedient to open a Woman's Medical College in Toronto. Gullen was appointed Demonstrator in Anatomy.[4]

After the labour involved in securing the municipal suffrage in 1883, and later, in struggling for the opening of the Woman's Medical College, there was a lull until 1889, when Stowe made arrangements to bring Dr. Anna Howard Shaw to Toronto to lecture. Stowe sent out 4,000 invitations, to every member of Parliament, council, school Board and ministerial association, inviting each member to be present to hear about the Woman Question. The lecture was a success, creating so much interest in the matter that the old suffrage association, which had been practically non-existent for several seasons, was re-organized, with Stowe as president, and Mrs. Curzon as secretary. In December 1889, Susan B. Anthony was secured to lecture in the Woman's Medical College auditorium. She succeeded in increasing interest in suffrage work, until it spread from the women of Toronto to those of surrounding towns, with new groups organizing in many places. Next, the Association secured Mary Seymour Howell, of Albany, New York, to lecture. Mrs. McDonell, ever indefatigable in her zeal for women, accompanied Howell to many towns throughout Ontario, to stimulate suffrage clubs already in existence and to form others.[4]


In early 1890, it was believed that a Dominion Woman's Enfranchisement Convention might be assembled. This convention was duly announced to be held in Association Hall, Toronto, June 12–13, 1890. Delegates were received from the various Suffrage Clubs then existing. Also, there were representatives from American Clubs, including: Dr. Hannah A. Kimball, Chicago; Rev. Anna Shaw ; Mrs. Isabella Hooker, (sister of Henry Ward Beecher), and Mrs. McLellan Brown, lawyer, and president of a Cincinnati college. The papers that elicited most attention were: "The Ballot, its Relation to Economics; " "Woman as Wage-Earner," and "Woman in the Medical Profession." Yellow, the colour of gold, and the symbol of wisdom in the East, was the badge of equal suffragists all over the continent, and was used for decorations at all meetings of the hall. Some of the mottoes used were "Canada's Daughters Should be Free", "No Sex in Citizenship", "Women are half the People", and "Woman, Man's Equal". The Dominion Woman's Enfranchisement Association became duly incorporated.[4]

In 1890, in accordance with the desire of the Equal-Suffragists, Mayor Edward Frederick Clarke and the Toronto City Council determined to invite the Association for the Advancement of Women (A.A.W.), to hold its 18th annual Congress in Toronto. Some of the women who attended and contributed were: Julia Ward Howe, author and litterateur, the friend and associate of Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes; Mary F. Eastman, one of the leading New England educationists; Alice Stone Blackwell, editor of the Woman's Journal, and daughter of the Rev. Lucy Stone; Clara Berwick Colby, editor of the Woman's Tribune in Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1883; Rev. Florence E. Kalloch, of Chicago; Mrs. Kate Tannatt Woods, journalist and writer.[4]

In 1895, the Equal Suffragists in Manitoba were under the leadership of Dr. Amelia Yeomans. She indicated that the women of the W.C.T.U. were the first to espouse equal suffrage in Manitoba, having twice brought largely signed petitions before the Provincial Legislature. As early as 1872, the statutes in British Columbia were written so as to give married women a vote in municipal matters. By 1895 in Quebec, women for many years had exercised the municipal franchise, although historically, when it was held that a woman would be polluted by entering a polling-booth, it was customary for a notary to call upon the Quebec women in their homes, where they would, in his presence, record their vote without leaving their chair.Prince Edward Island was the only province in Canada in which there was no legislation regarding woman suffrage. Not even the municipal franchise had been conferred. In New Brunswick, Sarah Manning, of St. John, was president of the W.E.A. In the Maritime Provinces, Edith Archibald was president of the Maritime W.C.T.U. and was perhaps, the pioneer suffragist of Nova Scotia. Mrs. Leon Owens was president of the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association (W.E.A.) of Halifax.[4]

People of Colour[edit]

The suffrage movement written about here included only white women. Black men and women were allowed the right to vote at the same time of white women because of the abolishment of slavery in 1834, they were no longer a separate group from white men and women. Asian men and women were not allowed the right to vote until after World War 2. Inuit people gained the right to vote in 1950 and First Nations men and women were not allowed to vote until 1960, twenty years after the entire country allowed white women and black men and women to vote.[7]


Timeline: Women and the Right to Vote in Canada
Date Jurisdiction Statute Effect First Minister and Party
1916: January 28 Manitoba An Act to amend The Manitoba Election Act, Statutes of Manitoba 1916, c. 36 Full voting equality Tobias Norris: Liberal
1916: March 14 Saskatchewan An Act to amend the Statute Law, Statutes of Saskatchewan 1916, c. 37 Full voting equality Walter Scott: Liberal
1916: April 19 Alberta Equal Suffrage Statutory Law Amendment Act, Statutes of Alberta 1916, c. 5 Full voting equality Arthur Sifton: Liberal
1917: April 5 British Columbia Provincial Elections Act Amendment Act, 1917, Statutes of British Columbia 1917, c. 23 Full voting equality Harlan Carey Brewster: Liberal
1917: April 12 Ontario Election Law Amendment Act, 1917, Statutes of Ontario 1917, c. 6 Full voting equality Sir William Howard Hearst: Conservative
1917: September 20 Federal War-time Elections Act, Statutes of Canada 1917, c. 39 Vote given to women who were the wives, widows, mothers, sisters or daughters of men who were serving with the Canadian or British military, until the men were demobilised Sir Robert Borden: Unionist
1917: September 20 Federal Military Voters Act, Statutes of Canada 1917, c. 34 Vote given to women who were on active service for Canada or Britain, until demobilised Sir Robert Borden: Unionist
1918: April 26 Nova Scotia Nova Scotia Franchise Act, Statutes of Nova Scotia 1918, c. 2 Full voting equality George Henry Murray: Liberal
1918: May 24 Federal An Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women, Statutes of Canada 1918, c. 20 Full voting equality for men and women, in effect January 1, 1919 Sir Robert Borden: Unionist
1919: April 17 New Brunswick An Act to extend the electoral franchise to women, and to amend the New Brunswick Electors Act, Statutes of New Brunswick 1919, c. 63 Full voting equality, but women not eligible for election to the Legislative Assembly Walter Edward Foster: Liberal
1919: May 20 Yukon An Ordinance respecting Elections, Ordinances of the Yukon Territory 1919, c. 7 Full voting equality George P. MacKenzie: Commissioner of Yukon[note 1]
1922: May 3 Prince Edward Island Election Act, 1922, Statutes of Prince Edward Island 1922, c. 5 Full voting equality John Howatt Bell: Liberal
1925: April 3 Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly Amendment Act, Statutes of Newfoundland 1925, c. 7 Women age 25 and over given right to vote; men age 21 and over had right to vote

Newfoundland was a dominion and crown colony separate from Canada until 1949 || Walter Stanley Monroe: Liberal-Conservative-Progressive Party

1940: April 25 Quebec An Act granting to women the right to vote and to be eligible as candidates, Statutes of Quebec 1940, c. 7 Full voting equality Adélard Godbout: Liberal
1951: June 12 Northwest Territories Elections Ordinance, Ordinances of the Northwest Territories 1951, c. 18 Equality of voting status since Council members were first elected in 1951 Hugh Andrew Young: Commissioner of the Northwest Territories[note 2]
1999: April 1 Nunavut Nunavut Elections Act, Statutes of Nunavut 2002, c. 17, which repealed and replaced the Elections Act, Revised Statutes of Northwest Territories (Nu) 1988, c. E-2, which was temporarily in force in Nunavut Equality of voting status since creation of Nunavut. Prior to the creation of Nunavut, women held full voting rights in the Northwest Territories since Council members were first elected in 1951.
Source: Library of Parliament Parl Info: Women's Right to Vote in Canada[8]

Notes to table[edit]

  1. ^ Yukon Territory did not have political parties or responsible government in 1919. The Commissioner, appointed by the federal government, was the head of government. The vote was granted to women in Yukon during the government of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden (Unionist).
  2. ^ The Northwest Territories did not have political parties or responsible government in 1951. The Commissioner, appointed by the federal government, was the head of government. In 1951, the federal government was Liberal, under Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent.


  1. ^ Kalbfleisch, John. "Quebec, 1944: Finally, women are allowed to vote". Montreal Gazette. Montreal Gazette. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  2. ^ Finley, Falconer & Newbolt 1920, p. 524.
  3. ^ a b Stanton, Anthony & Gage 1886, p. 832.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Canadian Magazine 1895, p. 328-.
  5. ^ "Women's Suffrage in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia". www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. Retrieved 2018-11-21.
  6. ^ Staff writer(s); no by-line. (5 January 1886). "Election of William Holmes Howland as Mayor of Toronto". The Ottawa Journal. Retrieved 19 February 2019.
  7. ^ "Women's Suffrage in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia". www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. Retrieved 2018-11-21.
  8. ^ Library of Parliament Parl Info: Women's Right to Vote in Canada


Further reading[edit]

  • Strong-Boag, Veronica (2016). "Women's Suffrage in Canada". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada. OCLC 21411669. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  • Tremblay, Manon; Trimble, Linda (2003). Women and Electoral Politics in Canada. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press. OCLC 500909205.

External links[edit]