The Right to Vote in Federal Elections

It was in 1885 that the issue of voting rights for women was first brought up in federal Parliament. Part of the discussion focused on voting rights based on the principle of ownership and female suffrage. During the debate, the federal government retained arguments in favour of female suffrage.

It was a simple equation for the government of Prime Minister Macdonald: if women paid tax to the state then they should logically have a say in decisions made by the state, and this by way of the vote. It was also suggested that female suffrage could help clean up the political world. Finally, the government presented a very fatalistic argument, namely that women were bound to obtain the vote at some point “So why not just give it to them now?”

Anti-suffrage forces (against a woman’s right to vote) were not concerned about these arguments since they remained convinced that the female right would never be granted. They were partially correct in that the debate would stagnate until 1917.

This lack of direct action was linked to Canada’s economic prosperity at the time but the meeting of the International Council of Women in 1909 rekindled the suffragette movement. The National Council of Women of Canada, established by Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor General, joined the cause in 1910 with a panel of experts on voting rights. The Quebec suffragettes from the Montreal Suffrage Association also rallied to the cause and campaigned from 1912 to 1919.

It was the First World War that would precipitate the biggest changes in federal voting rights. It was clear to women that the reality of war had dramatically altered the social relationship between the sexes.

1915: The right to vote by mail was granted to the military electors in service.

1916: As war raged on in Europe, Manitoba became the first province to pass a law granting women the right to vote in provincial elections. This breakthrough paved the way for new voting laws across Canada where pressure groups were active.

1917: Parliament adopted the Wartime Elections Act and the Military Voters Act. The former allowed women to vote in place of another individual in military service as long as there were family ties.

Then the right to vote was extended to all British subjects, male or female, who were active or retired members of the Canadian Forces, including Indians (as defined by the Indian Act) and persons under 21. Some 2000 military nurses, “the Bluebirds,” became the first Canadian women to benefit from this right.

1918: Suffrage at federal elections was further extended to all women 21 years of age and over.

1919: The women’s suffrage movement made huge strides forward and women became eligible for election to the House of Commons.

1920: The creation of the Dominion Elections Act marked the beginning of the modern era in the history of voting in Canada. France’s women, on the other hand, would not obtain the right to vote until 1944.

1921: Agnes Macphail became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. Suffragette groups in the Anglophone provinces began to disband once the right to vote was obtained.