Thursday, June 27, 2019

History of Suffrage

The Champlain Society continues to pour out episodes in what most be the most productive and most substantial Canadian history podcast, Witness to Yesterday.*  I've just been listening to Patrice Dutil's lively and interesting conversation with Tarah Brookfield about the suffrage movement in Ontario, drawing on her recent book Our Voices Must be Heard, part of the seven-volume UBC Press series "Women's Suffrage and the Struggle for Democracy" on suffrage across Canada edited by Veronica Strong-Boag.

The episode elides one odd and neglected twist in the campaign for the vote. Who could vote in federal elections was made a provincial responsibility in the British North America Act, 1867: whatever electoral rules prevailed in a province applied automatically to federal elections too. The federal government had the authority to secure control over the terms of the federal franchise and did so in by the Franchise Act of 1885. But in 1898 the Laurier government returned that control to the provinces. 

As a result, adult women acquired the federal vote, along with the provincial vote, in provinces that legislated female suffrage in 1916 and 1917. These women -- estimates ran as high as a million --  had their right to vote removed when the federal government regained control of the federal franchise by its gerrymandering legislation of 1917, which permitted only women in the forces or with relatives serving in the forces to vote. This point was extensively discussed in parliamentary debate on the 1917 federal Elections Act. 

*Okay, I've been on the podcast (and Patrice is always after me to promote the Champlain Society, of which I'm a member) but it's true and I'd say it anyway. Witness to Yesterday is also supported by the Hudson's Bay History Foundation and the Wilson Institute of McMaster University.
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