“If a man preferred to work”: Prince Edward Island’s Statute Labour Franchise in the Era of Responsible Government

MEDIUM_SIZELike every other British North American colony, Prince Edward Island had employed the 40 shilling freehold franchise during the early-nineteenth century.  So long as a person owned 40 shillings worth of real estate on the Island, that person had the privilege of voting in colonial elections.  After PEI formally disenfranchised women in 1836, these property-owning voters also had to be male (Garner, 155).  This codification of patriarchy meant that the Island’s several “lady landlords” found themselves without a formal political voice despite the land they owned (Bittermann and McCallum, 7-8).

New possibilities opened for Islanders in 1851.  Early that year, the British crown granted PEI responsible government (MacNutt, 124-125).  The colony’s legislature could now pass whatever laws it liked.  Two years later, in 1853, the Island’s House of Assembly flexed its new legislative muscles and reformed its electoral laws.  The statute labour franchise that resulted stands unmatched in Canadian history.

Today, our taxes pay for our roads.  Unless stuck in traffic, the average Canadian has little need to think about road maintenance.  This was certainly not the case 200 years ago.  Because of underdeveloped state institutions and a general hostility to direct taxation, the British North American colonies relied upon their inhabitants to keep local roads in good repair.  Every summer, until the age of 60, British North American men had to spend approximately four days working on their colony’s roads (or pay a sum of money in commutation).  This was known as statute labour.

Although every colony enforced some form of statute labour law, only PEI ever linked it to the franchise.  As of 1853, any male British subject over the age of 21 who resided on the Island and had performed his statute labour (or paid his commutation) could vote on election day.  Voters no longer needed to own property for their enfranchisement.  For British North America, this was almost unheard of.  Only Nova Scotia had strayed away from a property-based franchise by this point, and the result was electoral corruption on a massive scale (Garner, 30-31).

PEI’s Conservatives had resisted this change all the way.  As Conservative assemblyman Francis Longworth put it, the statute labour franchise placed “the basement class of our social edifice in a position to over-rule all the others,” namely property-owners (Bumsted, “Part One,” 25).  But the colony’s Reformers, alongside the majority of Islanders themselves, really didn’t care.  To them, a franchise grounded in statute labour fit the local conditions of PEI better than any franchise that required property ownership.

Traditionally, Britons had employed the gendered language of independence to justify a property-based franchise.  The man who possessed his own property had the space to build his own shelter and to produce his own food.  So long as he did so, he theoretically depended upon no other person beyond his family for survival.  Because such idealized autonomous men wanted for nothing, they couldn’t be – in theory – blackmailed or bribed.  This manly self-sufficiency supposedly allowed patriarchs to make independent decisions on election day.

PEI’s land system, however, did not really lend itself to such definitions of citizenship or manliness.  During the eighteenth century, the British crown had distributed the colony’s lands amongst a small group of wealthy landholders.  By the mid-nineteenth century, most Island men did not actually own the land on which they lived: they instead rented it from one of the Island’s landlords (Robertson, 10-11).  Although PEI’s franchise law included stipulations for leaseholders, it nevertheless favoured the Island’s property-owning minority (Grittner, 103).

Of course, PEI’s tenants in no way viewed themselves as second-class subjects.  As early as the 1830s, they had organized collectively to demand freer access to the land and greater recognition of their economic value.  To make their case, tenant leaders grounded their arguments in a different gendered language: one that linked ideal manliness with labour and industriousness.  While PEI’s landlords may have owned the land, its tenants worked the land, improved the land, and brought value to the land.  From this point of view, the industrious tenant formed the backbone of Island society.  Without him – and it was always presumed to be him, ignoring the significant contributions of women to rural and urban economies – the colony would have remained wilderness and its economy would have collapsed (Bittermann, 165).

When the Island’s Reform party defended the statute labour franchise in 1853, it relied upon the same gendered arguments employed by the colony’s tenantry.  In the words of Reform leader and PEI premier George Coles, “the laboring and productive classes, who pay taxes and discharge all the duties and obligations of useful and honest citizens, are quite as much entitled to a voice in the legislation of the country as their apparently more fortunate brethren, the possessors of property.”  By means of statute labour, Island men proved their industry and their dedication to the colony.  The majority of Islanders agreed that men of such quality deserved the vote in return.  It shouldn’t matter whether they owned property or not (Grittner, 107-110).

In the years following 1853, Islanders would periodically question their statute labour franchise.  Some viewed it as a headache to administer.  Others thought it sustained a backward and inadequate road maintenance system.  Finding a suitable substitute proved difficult however.  PEI tried a franchise in the 1870s based upon the payment of a poll tax, but it failed after only two years.  Many Islanders simply didn’t have the money to pay a cash-based levy.  Robert Shaw, an Assemblyman representing Queens County, summed it up well: “If a man preferred to work rather than pay a poll tax it was an injustice to deprive him of that privilege.  Many people in the country found it easier to do two or three days work than to pay a tax…”  (Grittner, 121)

For nineteenth-century PEI, the statute labour franchise simply made good sense.  Not only did it account for economic realities – that the majority of Islanders didn’t actually own the land they occupied, and that many of them couldn’t afford a monetary tax – but it also embraced the colony’s cultural realities.  Because most Islanders couldn’t access property ownership, they didn’t subscribe to a notion of manliness that associated ideal manhood with real estate.  Community-mindedness and hard work meant more than any piece of turf, and the statute labour franchise rewarded these gendered characteristics.  Indeed, this franchise made so much sense on the Island that PEI would continue to offer statute labourers the vote through to the next century.

Although PEI’s statute labour franchise may have ended in 1901, the idea that industriousness should guarantee enfranchisement certainly did not.  As the First World War entered its final months, Island suffragists emphasized the important contributions made by women’s labour to both the war effort and PEI more generally (Cleverdon, 202).  Women on PEI would finally win the provincial vote in 1922, supported by the strength of such arguments.





Bittermann, Rusty.  Rural Protest on Prince Edward Island: From British Colonialization to the Escheat Movement.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

Bittermann, Rusty and McCallum, Margaret.  Lady Landlords of Prince Edward Island: Imperial Dreams and the Defence of Property.  Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.

Bumsted, J. M.  “Parliamentary Privilege and Electoral Disputes on Colonial Prince Edward Island: Part One.”  Island Magazine 26 (September 1989): 22-26.

——–.  “Parliamentary Privilege and Electoral Disputes on Colonial Prince Edward Island: Part Two.”  Island Magazine 27 (March 1990): 15-21.

Cleverdon, Catherine L.  The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada.  Second edition.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Garner, John.  The Franchise and Politics in British North America, 1755-1867.  Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1969.

Grittner, Colin.  “Working at the Crossroads: Statute Labour, Manliness, and the Electoral Franchise on Victorian Prince Edward Island.”  Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 23.1 (2012): 101-130.

MacNutt, W. S.  “Political Advance and Social Reform, 1842-1861.”  In Canada’s Smallest Province: A History of Prince Edward Island.  Pages 115-134.  Edited by Francis W. P. Bolger.  Charlottetown: The Prince Edward Island 1973 Centennial Commission, 1973.

Robertson, Ian Ross.  The Tenant League of Prince Edward Island, 1864-1867: Leasehold Tenure in the New World.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

The Daughter of the Red Land—Yan Li

yanliBy Huai Bao

A veteran of twenty-five years in Canada, a professor, novelist, literary prize winner, recipient of many awards and grants, and a finalist for Books in Canada’s First Novel Award, Yan Li (1955-) is certainly not an ordinary woman. She has been called the “Jane Eyre of China” by readers and fans due to her inspirational life experiences—a “dreams-come-true” process of struggling for self-actualization (Zhao, 2012). Her novels also offer points of entry for understanding the relationship between female immigrants and Canadian feminism and between immigrants and the promise of Canadian democracy.

The author of Lily in the Snow (2010), Married to the West Wind (1998; 2000), and Daughters of the Red Land (1995), Li, born in Beijing, China in 1955, is one of the few female diasporic Chinese writers in North America who have published award-winning novels in the English language. Aside from writing, she is Associate Professor and the coordinator of the Chinese language and culture program at Renison University College, and the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo.

In Writing Chinese Diaspora, Shao-Pin Luo suggests that Chinese-Canadian literature is divided into two categories: works by the children of earlier immigrants and those by newcomers from China and elsewhere (2012).  The first group largely narrates lives of Chinese railroad workers and historical Chinatowns in a collective repudiation of institutional racism and construction of a new identity. The second reflects the concerns of arrivals from the Sinophone world such as Lien Chao (born 1950 and arrived 1984), who published a bilingual narrative long poem, Maples and the Stream (1999); Ting-Xing Ye (born 1952 and moved to Toronto 1987), the author of the memoir, Leaf in a Bitter Wind (1998) and young adult fiction; and Ying Chen (born 1961 and emigrated to Montreal 1989), who writes in French (2012). These latter writers are studied more as diasporas than racial minorities: contemporary scholarly interest focuses largely on their “ancestral, cultural, and economic ties” with their country of origin that “cross national boundaries” (Yu, 621-622, 2007). The prejudices of Canada connected with historic Chinatowns and discrimination are of less interest, although systemic racism along with racial stereotypes are often the target of the writers’ satire.

With strong ancestral and cultural ties to her birth country and newer emotional ties to her adoptive land, Li falls firmly into the second category of Chinese-Canadian writers. She spent her girlhood during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when all the institutions of higher learning in China, in response to the call of the Communist Party to “transform all universities with Mao’s thought” (Zhang, 2010), suspended the national college entrance examination and were open only for “re-educational” purposes. After she finished high school, Li became an industrial worker, a peasant, and a soldier in Shangxi and Beijing until the resumption of the national college entrance examination system in December 1977, when she was 22 years old. She was accepted to Shanxi Teachers’ College, where she was assigned a major, English, of which she had no prior knowledge.

Born to parents who were both academics—her father a physicist and mother a research fellow in adult education and editor-in-chief of an educational journal, Li had always aspired to an academic career. After she earned her BA, she attended the China Academy of Social Sciences to pursue a MA in English journalism. After working for six months as a news editor and reporter with Xinhua News Agency, the largest such body in China, she was accepted in 1987 by the University of Windsor to study North American history, an academic discipline about which she had always been interested.

Even before graduation from Windsor, Li had decided to write the novel, which became Daughters of the Red Land, for English-speaking audiences. Applying for permanent resident status during her first year in Canada, she, like many others, struggled to support her ambitions. Li answered the advertisement of a rich elderly Canadian widow in need of a housekeeper. In return for cooking, dog-walking and cleaning, she made enough to survive and, very importantly, had access to a private library of thousands of volumes for two years (CCTV-10, 2012). Her life with the Canadian widow is vividly documented in Daughters of the Red Land. Li herself narrates the story in which her employer becomes the “Mrs. Thompson.”

Li mailed the manuscript to several publishers. After it was turned down five times, she received an offer from Sister Vision Press, a feminist Toronto-based publishing company. Founded in 1984, it specializes in serving Black women, “Native Sisters,” “Asian Sisters” and others who define themselves as women of colour who challenge and enrich Canadian feminist theory and research (2012). It proved a congenial home for Li’s approach to her subject matter.

In 1995, Daughters of the Red Land was published. It is a compelling semi-autobiographical story about three women of different generations surviving 20th century China’s social upheaval:  the foot-binding Laolao[1], her Communist-emancipated daughter Qin, and Qin’s daughter Peace—effectively Li herself, who has moved to Canada and narrates the story. Laolao is the victim of the feudal patriarchal society, who lives as men’s subordinate and serves as their instrument for reproduction. Qin, while embracing Communist emancipation of women wholeheartedly, also struggles against male dominance in a traditional relationship as well as political persecution and resulting family trauma. In contrast, Peace, Li’s presumed embodiment, positively experiences the potential openness and pluralism of Canadian feminism. With more freedom than her female kin, she is allowed to choose her values and shape her own identity.

Prior to coming to Canada, all Li knew about feminism was Mao’s slogan, “Women hold up half the sky” (2013). Daughters of the Red Land employs the story of the three generations to “metaphorically” represent “the historical advancement of the female subjective consciousness from its absence, to enlightenment and finally to elevation” (2012). The result is “a political novel in the deepest, most admirable sense: it exposes and condemns violence and hypocrisy by allowing us into the lives of those affected” (Tihanyi). Although to a lesser degree than the other group of Chinese-Canadian writers, Li also uses the novel to acknowledge racism: for example, the drunken Mrs. Thompson is clearly understood as ignorant and prejudiced when she claims that Chinese “all eat rats and grassroots” (1996, 2012).  [2]

In 1996, the novel received Books in Canada’s First Novel Award and Li was selected by the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest, Ontario to be ‘Woman of the Year’ in Art/History/Literature. Li has expressed pleasure at readers’ reports of the impact of her writing. She has also sometimes been astonished by ignorance as when one naive White reader from Vancouver confessed that Daughters of the Red Land gave her new appreciation for the Chinese in her community as something more than  “simple-minded” and “expressionless.” (2012).

Perhaps in response to such reception, Li’s second novel in English, Lily in the Snow (2009) seems more preoccupied with immigration, displacement, cultural clashes and prejudice. It takes up the story of the transformation of Lily, who leaves Red China and moves to Canada, inspired by the “Norman Bethune spirit,” a reference to the Canadian doctor whose assistance to Mao’s army in battling the Japanese in the 1930s made him a national icon (Shao, 2012). She starts a new life in the fictitious “Mapleton,” constructed by Li out of a mélange of her own experiences in Windsor, Kitchener, and Waterloo. Lily’s mother, Grace, arrives to join her daughter to “find out what’s good about Canada,” a question that unsettles the entire novel. Subsequent intergenerational conflict is treated with humor and sensitivity.

If the special value of diasporic literature lies generally in writers’ ability to translate their personal experiences “into two (or more) systems” and enrich “both cultures” (Maver, unpaginated), Li distinguishes herself by her sharp observation and judgment of characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Along with its cast of Chinese characters, Lily in the Snow offers a kaleidoscope of individual diversity, including “an Indian woman who works at a clothing factory; a Jamaican lady who works with Lily as cleaning women in a hotel, who studied child psychology ‘back home,’ and wanted to be a teacher; and a Vietnamese grandma who lives in Lily’s building nicknamed the ‘refugee camp,’ as it is full of recent immigrants” (2012). Li both conveys  “trenchant humour” about “the characters’ reactions” (Tisseyre, 2010) and satirizes the “promised land” as experienced and viewed by the recent immigrants—especially women of colour—who struggle near the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy. Also new in Li’s work here is her treatment of the relations between feminism and women of different racial groups. The Jamaican woman in her story, for example, equates gender equality and the emancipation of women with her freedom to go to a male strip club and hire a male escort. A White Canadian woman is astonished upon hearing from Lily that women in China do not have to take their husbands’ surnames after marriage. A prostitute at the hotel where Lily works as a cleaner flaunts her income, leaving the former to reconsider the meaning of “emancipation” of women.

As the author of seven books, Li is internationally recognized as a bilingual Chinese-Canadian writer. Canadian literary critic Michelle Tisseyre concludes that, “Her style is unique, its images and cadences enriched by the mysterious fusion-like process of writing in two languages simultaneously, but her voice is unmistakably Chinese, resonant, even in English, with the boldness, power and elegance of that ancient language” (2010). In navigating the waters of her birthplace and her new home, Li travels a route not always chosen by Canada’s many diasporic writers. Her character Lily ultimately finds beauty in the cold northern dominion: She found “The snowstorm was over and the whole world was tranquil…”  That tranquility and acceptance ultimately suggest a more positive response to Canada that that of Chinese-Canadian writers such as Sky Lee, Larissa Lai, and Fred Wah, who are far more preoccupied with the shortcomings of their Canadian birthplace. Sharing concerns with other new Chinese immigrants about the gap between the ideal and reality of immigration, lost privilege and new hardship, and the construction of a hybrid identity, Li’s texts struggle for realism and optimism.  Her response presents the possibility that modern transnational subjects can become empowered residents of new lands.  Such diasporaic writers nevertheless confront the continuing gap between immigration’s promise and the reality of economic and cultural exclusion from mainstream society. In 2004, for example, Statistics Canada’s 2004 reported that visible minorities comprised only 7.1% of all MPs but an estimated 14.9% of all Canadians. Li’s novels help depict part of the explanation of that  “democratic gap.”





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[1] “Laolao” is a Northern Chinese colloquial term for “grandmother.” Her personal name is never mentioned, an omission that suggests distance, perhaps emotional as well as temporal, from the modern-minded narrator, though the author answers in her email that she uses “Laolao” for the mere convenience of English speaking readers to remember since the pronunciation is simple.

[2] In a CCTV-10 interview, Li claims that Mrs Thompson was “basically” kind, which is suggestive of the unpleasant memory of the latter’s racist remark.

Pink Pachyderms: the US’s anti-choice women and the politics of fear (and privilege)

By Veronica Strong-Boag and Kelsey Wrightson

6262125642_2999cc3114_o-1While the conservative war against choice is far from new, tactics have evolved. In 2008 Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential candidate for the Republican Party, used the phrase “pink elephants” to describe the newest face of the global war against women, namely female Republicans working within legislative institutions to limit reproductive freedoms. In the United States, conservative campaigners and lawmakers have successfully repealed fertility rights won by champions of women. Beginning with the defunding of Planned Parenthood (first in 1976 with the Hyde Amendment and continuing into the new millennium under George W. Bush [2001-2009]) and following the 2008 global recession with widespread curtailment of state access to abortion, reproductive freedom has been increasingly ‘legislated away.’ That threat was recently exemplified in Texas where bills pushed through a Republican-dominated senate sharply limit access to abortion services, shut down clinics, and changed rules of care to impose medically-unnecessary deterrents. Even the heroic filibuster of Democrat Wendy Davis could not stop the anti-choice tide.

Women such as Senator Kelly Ayotte (Republican New Hampshire), Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (Republican, Minnesota), Lieutenant -Governor Rebecca Clayfish (Republican, Wisconsin), and Florida Attorney-General Republican Pam Bondi are enthusiastically ploughing the anti-choice furrow. They follow generations of Republican women, who, even before the attainment of the franchise, functioned variously as ‘party women,’ GOP officials, or ‘clubwomen’ sympathizers.  Applauded by the ‘pro-life’ group, the Susan B Anthony List (a name that invokes a suffrage pioneer but a cause that would have certainly caused that radical proponent of women’s rights apoplexy), today’s pink elephants pit women against women, and endeavor to plaster a female mask on a movement financed and led largely by white men. Although Rymph found female Republicans supporting equality in the past, questions have to be asked regarding the ‘New Right’ and the evident assault on gender equality: why are some women identifying with a conservative movement that threatens their own bodily integrity and what is the impact of their efforts on American anti-choice laws?

Superson identifies both religious and secular reasons for female support of conservative and anti-choice movements. She takes up the now classic arguments of Andrea Dworkin: conservatism promises women protection from supposedly naturally violent men. Given the Right’s insistence that violence and social disintegration are inevitable without traditional marriage and nuclear families, only a retreat to an imagined past can bring women economic and physical safety. Women, in other words, should appreciate that they benefit from tradition’s constraints on the ‘natural’ urges of men. Submission to patriarchal domination is the price they, and not so incidentally their fetuses, must pay for protection. Conservatism itself reaps obvious benefits from women. Not only do they do much of the daily grind of partisanship, they can also make parties appear more inclusive.  In return for support, a miniscule group of women receive the bounty and recognition offered Sarah Palin and her sister-travellers.

As evidenced by surging anti-choice legislation in the 21st century, the conservative women’s movement has gained significant power as US lobbyists. Two prominent groups, ‘Women Concerned for America’ and ‘Independent Women’s Forum’, like the Susan B. Anthony List, regularly take the lead in pressing state and federal governments to curtail choice.  Such advocates drape themselves in the flag of traditional morality, even as they often deploy Third Wave feminism’s recognition of diversity by claiming to stand for the ‘underrepresented,’ supposedly ‘silent, majority’ (Concerned Women for America). Despite such claims, the narrow range of class and race embodied by the Pink Pachyderms is striking: better-off whites are once again endeavouring to reduce the rights of others.

Combating such opponents sometimes appears to place feminists in a catch-22.  On the one hand, fighting among women invokes longstanding misogynistic assumptions about women’s supposed incapacity for rational discourse and ‘team play.’  Ignoring the anti-feminist threat poses other, arguably far more serious, dangers: the welfare of the majority of women is deliberately jeopardized by well-placed and heavily financed zealots in patriarchy’s cause.

The American conflict is not precisely replicated anywhere else in the world, although nations where religious fundamentalism runs riot over women’s bodies offer obvious similarities. If, however, the comparison is to the United Kingdom and Canada, we see the significance of different political structures. Halfmann argues that the party-based parliamentary systems of Canada and Great Britain, unlike the US’s lobby-dominated politics, have marginalized abortion on the national agenda. National medical systems (however compromised) offer another level of difference, and sometimes protection. This is not to suggest, however, that some of the same prejudices don’t inform British and Canadian reactionaries. In Canada, Conservative Party backbenchers have repeatedly attempted to reopen the debate under the guise of preventing ‘sex selective abortion.’ With the appointment of Rona Ambrose, who previously voted against reproductive freedom, as Minister of Health (2013), pro-choice Canadians have to remain vigilant.  Feminists also need to scrutinize groups such as R.E.A.L Women, which, while significantly less powerful than its American counterparts, is allied to Focus on the Family, a group with close ties to US evangelical conservatives. Even as they face the reality of the Dominion’s different religious and political make-up, such reactionary forces aspire to be the ‘true north’s’ own elephants, trumpeting the protection of women and western civilization from what an earlier generation of anti-feminists termed the apocalypse of ‘long-haired men and short-haired women.’

Around the world at the dawn of the 21st century, reproductive freedom for women, which has only a bare beginning in many countries, is under assault. That attack is occurring in the midst of a state and international world order confronting unprecedented threats to human survival (over-population and environmental collapse to name only a few) that contribute to rising distress, violence, and determination to protect immediate self-interest. As in wars of every description, symbolic women and their real bodies stand on the firing lines. According to America’s pink brigade and their global counterparts, women need to accept that their interests are served by obedience and acceptance of the ‘natural’ patriarchal order.  In the meantime, anti-feminist pink elephants, much like the character of Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s dystopic The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) stand by to reap the benefits of defending male privilege. That sorry tale provides a visceral warning of the costs of failing to advocate and entrench reproductive freedom.


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