The Canadian Citizenship Debates: the Franchise Act of 1885
In the years after Confederation in 1867 the character of the Canadian state was far from settled. The franchise increasingly became the key marker of power and belonging. From March to June of 1885 the House of Commons debated the specifics of a federal franchise law to replace the provincial regulations that determined voting eligibility.
Bill 103 originally offered to enlarge the electorate with two new groups of voters: spinsters and widows meeting male property qualifications and Indians who occupied land in fee simple with improvements of $150 or more on their reserves anywhere in the Dominion. This latter group would no longer be required to renounce tribal membership and annuities in return for the vote. As amended, however, the Franchise Act ultimately excluded all women and all Natives “in Manitoba, British Columbia, Keewatin, and the North-West Territories, and any Indian on any reserve elsewhere in Canada, who is not in possession and occupation of a separate and distinct tract of land in such reserve, and whose improvements on such separate tracts are not of the value of at least one hundred and fifty dollars, and who is not otherwise possessed of the qualifications entitling him to be registered on the list of voters” (Ermatinger, 16). The final legislation, inspired by British Columbia example, also explicitly excluded “Asiatics” or “Chinamen.” While determination of the federal electorate would be returned to the provinces in 1898, the 1885 exclusions set the terms for a long conflict over political rights.
After Confederation, wealth, the traditional mainstay of political rights, remained critical. Property or income was required for voters. Its power was nevertheless fading. In the 1880s increasing numbers of poorer White men could look forward to the ballot box and Bill 103 reflected that critical shift. Yet, if property, and thereby class, at least with respect to the vote, lost currency, democracy was far from triumphant.
The largest group excluded from the vote—women–were singled out early on in the 1885 franchise debates. Conservative Prime minister John A. Macdonald went beyond the intent of his own bill to support enfranchising married women as well as the less controversial, because of their supposed greater independence, propertied spinsters and widows. He dismissed assertions that voting rights rested on the capacity to bear arms in defense of the nation. He was not, however, prepared to demand the acquiescence of his substantial majority: “a careful listener in the House galleries would have noticed that the chants of praise for the ladies were delivered almost exclusively by members of the Liberal Opposition, while Sir John’s own followers maintained an ominous silence” (Cleverdon 174). Liberals were no more consistent. Their leader, Edward Blake, and his eventual successor, Wilfrid Laurier, were opposed, even as many Liberal M.P.s endorsed women suffrage. After significant debate, anti-feminist sentiment carried the day with the elimination of any female enfranchisement whatsoever.
The First Nations were the next potential voters to preoccupy the House. While off-hand references to feminist agitation had occasionally surfaced, Indians and ‘half-breeds’ opposing federal military forces in the 1885 Northwest Rebellion outraged M.P.s. Opponents also, rather contradictorily, characterized Indigenous men as slavishly dependent on the Department of Indian Affairs. Liberals believed they would become only Tory voting machines. The perceived exploitation of Indian women by their own communities was cited as proof of inherent savagery. The First Nations nevertheless also found champions. For some M.P.s property-holding was sufficient reason to enfranchise selected Native men. They emphasized the fundamental similarity, rather than the difference, of Indian voters. Only a limited regional franchise nevertheless survived attacks. Even this would be gone in 1898.
While raised only late in the debates, the prospect of Chinese electors similarly aroused racial prejudice. Indeed their exclusion occurred at much the same time as the introduction of a federal head tax on Chinese immigrants. Macdonald insisted that
The Chinese are not like the Indians, sons of the soil. They come from a foreign country; they have no intent, as a people of making a domicile of any portion of Canada…. They are, besides, natives of a country where representative institutions are unknown, and I think we cannot safely give them the elective franchise (House of Commons Debates. 4 May 1885).
Once again, however, M.P.s were far from unanimous. As one argued “For my part, I believe in the unity of the human race … I should be sorry to see any man, of whatever race, receive anything but fair play in a British colony” (Ibid). Such broad views again failed to prevail.
By 1885 Canada’s political elites distinguished between men of European origin, the preferred British subjects and those—women, Natives, and Asians—whom they designated properly subordinated.
And yet elite power was never uncontested. The claims of women, First Nations and Asian Canadians upon the emancipatory traditions of western civilization were sometimes admitted. More inclusive visions of Canada were to be glimpsed even as prospects of greater democracy faded in the spring of 1885.
Cleverdon, Catherine L.. The Women Suffrage Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.
Ermatinger, Charles O. Canadian Franchise and Election Laws. A Manual for the Use of Revising Offices, Municipal Officers, Candidates, Agents, and Electors Toronto: Carswell & Co. Pub. 1886.
Strong-Boag, Veronica. “The Citizenship Debates: The 1885 Franchise Act” in Adamsoki, R. and D. Chunn and R. Menzies, eds., Contesting Canadian Citizenship: Historical Readings. Peterborough, ON. Broadview Press. 2002. 69-94.
—–“Who Counts? Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Struggles about Gender, Race, and Class in Canada” in Yvonne M. Hébert, ed. Citizenship in Transformation in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. 37-56.