Women and the Vote in Canada: a Timeline
The history of the vote in Canada is long and complicated, with many different groups being restricted, disenfranchised and excluded over the years through changing political circumstances. This year marks a significant anniversary for Canadian women. On January 27, 1916, women in Manitoba were granted the right to vote in provincial elections. Saskatchewan and Alberta followed with similar rulings in March and April of the same year.
But the history of women and the vote in Canada is about exercising, losing and winning back rights over many decades. Some women in British North America voted as far back as the 18th century, and through the years women held and lost voting rights at various levels of government. Until 1832, British common law did not specifically restrict voting by gender, although the custom of excluding women had existed for centuries, and was generally followed in the colonies that became Canada.
Here’s a timeline of the women's vote in Canada:
1785 The Council of the colony of New Brunswick explicitly denies women the vote in its inaugural election.
1791 The Constitutional Act of 1791 creating Upper and Lower Canada, does not mention gender. Voters are “persons” who own property of a certain value. There are no written records of women in Upper Canada (which followed British common law) voting. There are numerous records and accounts of female property owners voting in Lower Canada (which followed the civil code practiced from French colonial days).
1832 The Imperial Reform Act in Britain specifically excludes women from voting. This act influences political thought and practice in the North American colonies.
1834 Lower Canada restricts voting by women, to protect them from “dangerous conditions” at polling stations, after deaths occurred during some controversial elections.
1836 Prince Edward Island specifically excludes women.
1840 The Act of Union, which united Upper and Lower Canada as the Province of Canada, does not prohibit women from voting.
1843 New Brunswick specifically excludes women.
1844 A few women are recorded as voting in Canada West, the first written record of breaking the common law practice. A Reform candidate accuses the women of voting for his Tory opponent.
1849 The Reform government of Baldwin and LaFontaine, which opposed the rule of the Tory elite, consolidates electoral laws and specifically excludes women in the Province of Canada.
1851 Nova Scotia specifically excludes women.
1867 The British North America Act, the constitution of the Dominion of Canada, states in Section 41: “every male British Subject, aged Twenty-one Years or upwards, being a householder, shall have a vote.” Other criteria for voting is based on provincial laws, and all five now exclude women from the vote.
1873 Women owning property in British Columbia can vote in municipal elections.
1876 The Toronto Women`s Literary Club is founded by Dr. Emily Stowe, Canada`s first female doctor. This is the first female suffrage organization in Canada, but the name deliberately hides the purpose of the organization to deflect harassment.
1882 Ontario unmarried women who own property can vote in municipal elections.
1883 Toronto Women`s Literary Club reconstituted and named the Toronto Women`s Suffrage Association.
1887 Women owning property in Manitoba can vote in municipal elections.
1889 The Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association founded as an outgrowth of the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Association. Later known as the Canadian Suffrage Association.
1890s Icelandic women in Manitoba form suffrage societies and campaign for the right to vote.
1893 Manitoba's Woman's Christian Temperance Union and Icelandic Manitoban women present a petition for female suffrage to the provincial legislature. It is rejected and they stage the first mock Parliament to raise funds and educate the public on women’s suffrage.
1894 The Women's Enfranchisement Association of New Brunswick is formed, and the Equal Suffrage Club is founded in Manitoba. The Canadian House of Commons votes down a petition for women's suffrage presented by the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
1898 The magazine Freya (Woman) is founded by Icelandic Manitoban Margret Benedictsson and her husband Sigfus. Men and women subscribe from across Canada.
1900 Most women property owners in Canada can vote in municipal elections.
1906/07 Manitoba revokes women's municipal voting rights, then reinstates them.
1910 The National Council of Women endorses female suffrage.
1912 The Political Equality League founded in Manitoba. Led by Nellie McClung, a delegation meets with Premier Roblin, and is rebuffed.
January 1914 The Women's Parliament is staged at the Walker Theatre. McClung’s humourous impersonation of Premier Roblin is widely commented on.
1915 The Political Equality League submits another petition to the new Manitoba government.
January 1916 Manitoba grants women the right to vote in provincial elections and to stand for political office.
March 1916 Saskatchewan grants women the right to vote in provincial elections and to stand for political office.
April 1916 Alberta grants women the right to vote in provincial elections and to stand for political office.
April 1917 British Columbia and Ontario grant women the right to vote in provincial elections and to stand for political office.
August/September 1917 The Military Voters Act gives all serving military personnel, including military nurses, the right to vote in federal elections. The War-time Elections Act gives the vote to female relatives of serving military personnel. It also disenfranchises thousands of men who are conscientious objectors, including Mennonites and Doukhobors, and naturalized British subjects born in enemy countries.
April 1918 Nova Scotia grants women the right to vote in provincial elections and to stand for political office.
May 1918 The Federal Women's Franchise Act gives all women British subjects aged 21 and over the right to vote in federal elections.
April 1919 New Brunswick grants women the right to vote in provincial elections, but not to stand for political office.
July 1919 Women become eligible to stand for office in the Canadian House of Commons. They are not eligible to be appointed to the Senate.
1921 Agnes Macphail is the first woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons.
May 1922 Prince Edward Island grants women the right to vote in provincial elections and to stand for political office.
1925 Newfoundland grants women the right to vote in provincial elections and to stand for political office. (Newfoundland was not part of Canada at this time.)
1927 Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards, (The Famous Five), petition the Supreme Court of Canada to establish whether women can be appointed to the Canadian Senate. Justice Minister Ernest Lapoint directs the Supreme Court to rule specifically on the meaning of “person” under section 24 of the British North America Act. This is known as the “Persons Case” (officially, Edwards v. A.G. of Canada).
1928 The Supreme Court of Canada rules that women are not “persons” according to the British North America Act and are ineligible for appointment to the Senate.
1929 The Famous Five appeal to the Privy Council of England, which overturns the Canadian ruling. Women can be appointed to the Senate, but more importantly, cannot be denied other rights based on a very narrow interpretation of law.
1930 Cairine Reay MacKay Wilson appointed the first woman to the Canadian Senate.
March 1934 New Brunswick grants women the right to run for political office.
April 1940 Quebec grants women the right to vote in provincial elections and stand for political office.
A History of the Vote in Canada, 2nd ed., revised and enlarged. Also online
The Woman suffrage movement in Canada, by Catherine Lyle Cleverdon
Canada, the franchise, and universal suffrage , by Anna Cecile Scantland.
The Persons Case: The Origins and Legacy of the Fight for Legal Personhood, by Robert J. Sharpe and Patricia I. McMahon.
Canadian Women: A History, 2nd ed., by Alison L. Prentice.
Liberation deferred? : the ideas of the English-Canadian suffragists, 1877-1918, by Carol Lee Bacchi.
Citoyennes? : femmes, droit de vote et démocratie, by Diane Lamoureux.
Other Primary sources available at the Toronto Reference Library.
Canadian Federal Election 2015 Polling Station, Raysonho@ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine.
Business Card, Flora MacDonald Denison, President, Canadian Suffrage Association. Toronto Public Library.
The Canadian Mother election poster, 1917. Toronto Public Library.
Penny Teskey, age 21, casts her first vote in 1965. Toronto Public Library. Toronto Star Licence.