Monday, January 25, 2016

A question: about the centenary of woman's suffrage

Later this week marks the hundredth anniversary of the Manitoba legislature becoming the first in Canada to recognize women's right to vote as of 28 January 1916.  (See Allan Levine's story of it here.) By the end of 1919, all the  provinces west of Quebec had followed Manitoba's lead.  But -- genuine question here, dear readers -- did that give women in those provinces the vote in federal elections?

Here's the complication. In 1898 the federal Parliament had passed legislation giving control of federal electoral lists to the provinces, so that provincial franchise rules automatically determined who voted in federal as well as in provincial elections. It was a federalism thing. In 1867 control of electoral lists had been left with the pre-existing provinces for the time being. When in 1885 Macdonald's federal government exercised the power to move control of the federal franchise to the federal government, the opposition Liberals accused them of altering the confederation agreement and centralizing what should be decentralized. In 1898 Laurier, who had been one of the critics in 1885, passed legislation to return control of the federal franchise to the provinces.

In 1917 and in 1918 the federal government began to take charge again of the federal franchise rules. A series of bills legislated new federal controls on the federal franchise and the keeping of electoral lists, finally providing in 1918 that women (in all provinces) could vote federally whether or not they could vote provincially.

I take this to mean that that when women's right to vote in Manitoba elections was confirmed by the Manitoba legislature in January 1916, their right to vote in federal elections automatically came with it. Amiright about this?

All my authorities at hand -- Elections Canada's History of the Vote in CanadaCanadian Women: A History (1988 ed, mea culpa), Canadian Encyclopedia online, Wikipedia -- fudge and fuzzify on this. They are clear enough that from 1898 control of the federal franchise lay with the provinces, and that did not begin to change until 1917.  But as I read them, all report that women got the right to vote in federal elections only with the federal government acts of 1917, the first beneficiaries being some some female military personnel,and then female relatives of soldiers. They seem to assume that the provincially-mandated enfranchising of women of 1916 and 1917 had applied to provincial elections but not to federal ones. Even Manitoba's official commemoration of this event declares that it applied to "the right to vote in provincial elections."

Now, there was no federal election between January 1916 and September 1917.  If Manitoba women had the right to vote in federal election in that period, by virtue of the Manitoba franchise rules applying to federal elections automatically, they would still not have been able to exercise their right -- but only because there was no federal election happening. That is, Manitoba women got the right to vote in federal elections in January 1916, but never got the chance to exercise the right before the feds took it away in September 1917 (before beginning to give it back again). N'est-ce pas?

I'm genuinely puzzled here. It's a smallish point, a technicality perhaps, and complicated.  But if our standard authorities have got the technical details wrong or at least fuzzy, is is not worth starting to put it right?

Can anyone confirm or correct me here? Put it this way: if there was a federal by-election somewhere in Manitoba in mid 1916, could Manitoba women have voted in it? The books seem to tell us they could not.  Seems to me they could have.  Emails go here.

Update:  Allan Levine offers a list of federal by-elections but none quite fits the test. Jonathan Scotland has some evidence:
I don't have a 100% confirmation for you, but it strikes me that you're right -- especially because one of the justifications of the 1918 Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women was to correct the fact that (to quote the online version of A History of the Vote in Canada) the War-time Elections Act "effectively withdrew the vote from women who would otherwise have had it by virtue of provincial law but did not have a relative in the armed forces," something Laurier pointed out during the HoC debates in September 1917. Incidentally, Peter McDermott points out Laurier's position in his chapter "Enemy Aliens in the First World War" in Wright, Tucker, and Binnie, eds., Security, Dissent, and the Limits of Toleration in War and Peace, 1914-1939, p. 85.
Now that seems persuasive.

Laurier in the House of Commons, 6 September 1917, points out the Wartime Elections Act (then under debate) would disenfranchise women of Ontario and the western provinces who already had the franchise -- unless they happened to have relatives in the forces.  Following McDermott's footnote, we get at p.5421:
Mr Laurier:  Am I right in this: that while the women of Ontario and the western provinces have today, under the laws of those provinces, the right to vote, they will, with the exception of those who are qualified as the relatives of men who have enlisted, not have the right to vote in this election?
Mr. Meighen: That is correct.
Clearly they are talking about the federal vote in the forthcoming federal election.  The quotation above from the History of the Vote would be pretty persuasive too, except the rest of that book's coverage of the changes made by provincial legislatures consistently refers to the broadening of the provincial franchise only.

I think next Thursday marks the anniversary of the day women in Manitoba had their right to vote provincially and federally established -- the first in Canada.

Follow @CmedMoore