Thérèse Casgrain and the Purging of National Memory

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,, 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 and 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.

Mary Simon

(1947 – )

Mary Simon is a well-known Canadian Inuit leader. Born in northern Quebec, she had an early career with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Northern Service (CBC) where she established her credentials as someone committed to the north and its peoples. In 1986 she became president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and helped to ensure the participation of Russian Inuit. In the 1980s and 1990s she was an Inuit negotiator during negotiations about the repatriation of the Canadian constitution. In 1994, Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien appointed her the first Canadian ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs. In the 1990s, she was Policy Director for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People. Between 1999 and 2001 she served as Canadian ambassador to Denmark. Since then she has chaired the Arctic Children and Youth Foundation and served on the Board of Governors of the University of the Arctic and as a Board Member for the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation. In 2006 she was elected president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.



Simon, Mary. 1996. Inuit: One Arctic, One Future.Cider Press.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami,

The History of Women’s Suffrage in Quebec

Casgrain from CBC Archives.

Until the end of the 19th century, women in Quebec enjoyed more possible rights than their counterparts in Canada’s other provinces and territories. In those jurisdictions ruled by Common Law, a wife had no legal existence separate from her husband since, at marriage, a man obtained absolute control of the woman’s person and assets. In Quebec, however, the Civil Code initially permitted women political and legal status (however limited).

Although they were not explicitly granted provincial suffrage until 1940, propertied women in pre-Confederation Quebec, like a few elsewhere in Canada, sometimes voted. This was possible through the Constitutional Act of 1791, which granted certain owners and tenants qualified voter status without distinction to sex. Some women interpreted this act—which was later clarified as a “constitutional oversight” rather than an act of feminism—as an authorization to vote. Female property holders in Quebec consistently voted in elections from 1809 until at least 1834. In 1849 the “historical irregularity” was rectified and the word “male” was inserted into Quebec’s franchise Act to formally prohibit women from voting.

Historian John Makoff has argued that the Quebec shutdown was likely a cross-border reaction to the founding moment of the US women’s rights movement at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. This event may also have spurred the eastern Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to alter the gender-neutral language of their electoral laws to explicitly disqualify women in 1848 and 1851, respectively (Makoff 2003: 89). When even small numbers of women attempted to give silence a more favorable spin, lawmakers responded with formal exclusion.

Joining suffragists across Canada, the suffrage movement became active in Quebec in the early 20th century. Francophone and Anglophone women allied in the National Council of Women (founded 1893) and the former in the Fédération nationale St.-Jean-Baptiste (FNSJB; founded 1907) supplied the first activists. The FNSJB was, however, severely limited by the opposition of the Catholic Church.

Canada enfranchised most women at the national level in 1918, two years ahead of the industrial giant to its south. Suffrage campaigns then focused on local capitals. Quebec was the last of the provinces and territories to legislate the female franchise. This occurred at the beginning of World War Two (1939-1945) under a new Liberal government anxious to establish more progressive credentials. Between 1918 and 1940, Quebec suffrage campaigns were led by activists such as Thérèse Casgrain (1896-1981), Idola St. Jean (1880-1945), and Carrie Derick (1862-1941).


Markoff, J. (2003). “Margins, Centers, and Democracy: The Paradigmatic History of Women’s Suffrage.” Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 29 (1), 85-116.


Future Reading:

Black, N. and Brandt, G.C. (1999). Feminist Politics on the Farm: rural Catholic Women in Southern Quebec, and Southwestern France. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Casgrain, T. F. (1972). A Woman in a Man’s World. J. Marshall, translator. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. (Also published in French under the title: Une Femme chez les hommes.)

Casgrain, T. (1993). Une femme tenace et engagée. Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université du Québec.

Cleverdon, C. L. (1950). The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Collectif Clio. (1982). L’histoire des femmes du Québec. Quinze, Montréal.

Lamoureux, D. (1989). “Citoyennes? Femmes, droit de vote et démocratie.” Montréal: Les Éditions remue-ménage.

Laplante, L. (1990). “Les femmes et le droit de vote: L’épiscopat rend les armes.” Cap-aux-Diamants, 21, printemps, pp. 23-25.

Trifiro, L. (1978). “Une intervention à Rome dans la lutte pour le suffrage feminine.” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, 32 (1), pp. 9-18.