Thérèse Casgrain and the Purging of National Memory

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articleIn July 2014, even as Canadians saw reminders of the centennial of World War One’s opening shots, they discovered they had been surreptitiously stripped of other parts of their history. Media across Canada suddenly highlighted the 2010 removal of Thérèse Casgrain, Quebec suffragist icon, from Canadian currency and from the title of a national prize for volunteers. Equally tardily, many commentators lamented the loss from the $50 bill of ‘Alberta’s Famous Five.’ In 1929 Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby won women recognition as ‘persons’. Such activists and the issues they championed are clearly not in favour in Ottawa.

In fact such decommemoration and deliberate neglect are nothing new. Canadians have been losing history for some time. Ottawa might have invited us to celebrate a bowdlerized version of the War of 1812 but it has sidestepped the women suffrage centennials and the anniversaries of the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canadians are not to be encouraged to remember historic struggles for equality. Casgrain’s feminist successors, like justice-seeking charities such as Oxfam and PEN, are pariahs in official circles. In their place we see the unedifying spectacle of a cabal of anti-feminist MPs and Senators, including the always missing-in-action Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, curbing Canada’s official commitment to equal rights. Recurring photo ops direct Canadians elsewhere. A Conservative leader notorious for his attacks on social justice and the self-servingly retitled ‘Prime Minister’s Volunteer Awards’ distract attention from Ottawa’s disengagement from public well-being. No wonder the World Economic Forum downgraded Canada from 14th (2006) to 21st (2012) in gender equality.

To camouflage reactionary agendas, federal Conservatives have set about to dumb down the electorate. This begins with history and the assault is wide-ranging. The savaging of museums, commemorative programs, Library and Archives Canada, and Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, just like Stephen Harper’s highly public denigration of sociology in 2013, tells us how little evidence and education are valued. The March 2014 veto by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights of my invited submission on International Women Day (IWD), described at ActiveHistory.ca, http://activehistory.ca/2014/03/international-womens-day-iwd-and-human-rights-2014/, demonstrated the same preference for popular ignorance. Ottawa’s ruling party favours a fictional past where power goes unquestioned, elites rule in the common good, and women freely subsidize male authority. Unsettling messages of resistance and struggle, just those embodied by the Quebec activist and her counterparts, who are likely to be remembered on IWD across the country, are to be forgotten.

Such distortion of history is far from accidental. It camouflages a hard-edged politics that denies women, and disadvantaged groups in general, recognition and redress. Fortunately, alternatives exist. In websites like http://activehistory.ca and http://womensuffrage.org and UBC Press’s forthcoming series, “Canada Women, Suffrage, and Human Rights,” modern scholarship offers ample reminders of both injustice and resistance. In this, women, whether alive or dead, always matter. As Thérèse Casgrain demonstrated, the furtherance of democracy depends on their actions and inspiration. Commemoration on coinage or with prizes helps ensure that Canadians remember that there are always alternatives to the status quo.

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag, Ph.D, FRSC, is a Canadian historian specializing in the modern history of women and children in Canada. She is Professor Emerita of Women's History at the University of British Columbia. In 1988 she won the John A. Macdonald Prize (awarded to the best book in Canadian history) for her study of the lives of women in Canada between the wars, entitled The New Day Recalled. In 1993–94 she served as president of the Canadian Historical Association. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. In July 2012 the Royal Society of Canada announced that Strong-Boag would be awarded the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada."

This article was written by: Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag, Ph.D, FRSC, is a Canadian historian specializing in the modern history of women and children in Canada. She is Professor Emerita of Women's History at the University of British Columbia. In 1988 she won the John A. Macdonald Prize (awarded to the best book in Canadian history) for her study of the lives of women in Canada between the wars, entitled The New Day Recalled. In 1993–94 she served as president of the Canadian Historical Association. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. In July 2012 the Royal Society of Canada announced that Strong-Boag would be awarded the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada."