Below is a timeline of key moments related to gender, race, and political representation in the Canadian context. The purpose of this lesson is not to encourage you memorize particular dates, but to provide you with a “big picture” sense of the ways ‘progress’ towards equal representation has been unsteady and uneven.  For example, some women voted in colonial elections before provinces banned women from voting in the mid-nineteenth century. The state’s extension of voting rights to women was uneven; Asian and South Asian men and women, for example, were not permitted to vote until 1948.  Likewise, whereas Claire Brett Martin became the first woman to join the legal profession in Canada in 1897, Black women continued to be excluded from legal education.  When Violet King Henry was called to the Alberta bar in 1954, she became the first Black woman lawyer in Canada, over 50 years later. In 1917, Annie Gale became the first woman in Canada to serve as a city councillor when she was elected to Calgary’s City Council.  It was not until 1974 that Calgary elected a Black woman: Virnetta Anderson.  University of Alberta Political Science Professor Lois Harder’s (2006) description of the history of women’s political involvement in Canada rings true here: “women had power where we often presume they had none, and they may not have had power where we presume that they should” (51). As you read this timeline, do not try to memorize everything. Rather, notice two or three moments that peak your interest and identify why you think these moments matter.

Before European contact in North America:  Before the arrival of Europeans disrupted Indigenous ways of life, women, men, and two-spirit people on Turtle Island all had important and unique political roles.  The “Six Nations”, including the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Iroquois nations formed the Six Nations Confederacy, the first democracy in North America.  Women played important political and legal roles in the Six Nations Confederacy, responsible for selecting and deposing leaders, participating in spiritual ceremonies, controlling the distribution of food and other goods, exercising autonomy in sexual and marital relationships.  In Nehiyaw (Cree) society, women had spiritual, legal, and political roles rooted in their power to give life. 

1600s: The French arrived in ‘New France’ in the early 1600s.  Between 1663 and 1673, filles du roi, dowried single women sent by the French government arrived to help populate ‘New France’. The French viewed the presence of women as vital to their colonial pursuits in North America; without women, it would be impossible to establish a French and Catholic identity in this new colony. Understanding women as fundamental to settlement challenges the notion that European women have no political power or agency when it comes to settler-colonial regimes.  For example, Lois Harder explains that white women participated in negative constructions of Indigenous women’s identities in order to gain power relative to Indigenous women. 

1763-1867: During this period, there was an influx of immigration to British colonies in North America.  Immigrants came from Europe, Britain, and the United States, including British loyalists and Black people fleeing slavery.  In 19th century Britain, gender roles were governed by a strict separation of the supposedly ‘masculine’ public sphere of law, politics and education from the ‘feminine’ private sphere of domesticity. But, in North America, rural women participated in the hard labour required to establish new settlements.  As Lois Harder (2006) explains in “Women and Politics in Canada”: “the necessity of women’s work to the functioning of British North America as well as to their families gave women authority and influence that was not reflected in the formal declarations of social order” (56). 

1791: New Brunswick prohibited women from voting in 1791; otherwise, there were no formal restrictions on women’s voting rights before Confederation.  Women’s voting rights were ambiguous until the mid-nineteenth century; as such, some women voted in elections before provinces enacted formal bans. 

1836: Prince Edward Island bans women from voting. 

1849: Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec) ban women from voting. 

1851: Nova Scotia bans women from voting. 

1873: Women property owners can vote in municipal elections in British Columbia. 

1879: Medical schools open to women in Canada.

1883: Queen’s University and the University of Toronto medical schools reinstituted bans on women.  

1884: Unmarried women with property could vote in Ontario municipal elections, but they could not hold public office. 

1885: Sophia B. Jones, born in Chatham, Ontario, became the first Black woman to graduate from medical school at the University of Michigan after the Toronto Medical School denied her access to medical training because she was a Black woman. Dr. Malinda S. Smith tells her story, which is “little known in Canada”, in her research project on Black women trailblazers.  

1891:  In 1891, the Ontario legislature passed a bill allowing women to study law, but prohibited women from practicing law (Harder, 60).  Claire Brett Martin became the first woman to join the legal profession in Canada in 1897 after nearly a decade of advocacy.  Prohibited from becoming a practicing lawyer, she engaged the help of Dr. Emily Stowe, an advocate for women’s inclusion in medical education, and Lady Aberdeen, the Governor General’s wife, to pressure Ontario to include women in the legal profession. Brett Martin formed the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) and became a practicing lawyer in 1897.

1914: Women were permitted to study law in Quebec.

1917: The federal government gave some women the right to vote. In particular, nurses and women who had men relatives who were serving or who had died in WWI could vote.  

1917:  Annie Gale is elected to Calgary’s municipal council, becoming the first woman “alderman” in Canada. In 1923, she became the first woman in Canada to serve as an acting mayor. 

1918: The federal government passed the Women’s Franchise Act, allowing women to vote if they were British subjects (which, essentially, meant Canadian citizens).

1921: Anges MacPhail, a candidate for the United Farmers of Ontario party, is elected to the House of Commons, becoming the first woman Member of Parliament in Canada. 

1927: The “Famous Five” contest the British North America Act’s definition of ‘personhood’, arguing that women are persons capable of serving in the Senate. After the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that women were not persons, the Famous Five appealed the case to the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (1929), which ruled that women are, in fact, persons. The Famous Five’s view of personhood, however, was rooted in white supremacy and ableism. That is, members of the Famous Five, including Emily Murphy and Nellie McClung, were proponents of eugenics and forced sterilization. 

1940: Quebec grants women the right to vote in provincial elections. 

1941: Quebec permits women to practice law. 

1945: Ivy Lawrence Maynier becomes the first Black woman and the first woman of colour to graduate from the Univeristy of Toronto Law School.  She was also the first student to graduate with an honours degree in international law.  Dr. Malinda S. Smiths writes about Ivy Lawrence Maynier here

1948: Canada permits Asian and South Asian men and women to vote. 

1953: Violet King Henry graduates from the University of Alberta with a law degree, becoming the first Black person in Alberta to graduate with a law degree.  When she was called to the Alberta Bar in 1954, King became the first Black person to be called to the Alberta Bar (1954) and the first Black woman lawyer in Canada.

1960: Indigenous men and women could vote without giving up their status, a process the government called “enfranchisement”.  Before 1960, “status Indians” under the Indian Act could only vote if they gave up their status. 

1967: Pressure from the women’s movement leads Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s government to establish the Royal Commission on the Status of Women on 3 February 1967 to “inquire into and report on the status of women in Canada, and to make specific recommendations to the federal government to ensure equality for women in all aspects of society.”  The commission held public hearings over the course of six months and released its report in 1970, providing 167 recommendations for achieving women’s equality.  The recommendations became a “blueprint for 20 years of subsequent feminist activism” (Harder, 2006: 67).  

1974: Virnetta Anderson becomes the first Black woman to serve on Calgary’s City Council.  

1972: Rosemary Brown becomes the first Black woman to serve in the British Columbia legislature.  When she ran for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party in 1975, she became the first woman to run for the leadership of a federal party. 

1980: Alexa McDonough becomes the first woman to lead a major political party in Canada when she became the leader of the Nova Scotia’s New Democratic Party (NSNDP).  In 1995, McDonough was elected leader of the federal NDP. 

1989: Jan Reimer became Edmonton’s first woman mayor of Edmonton.

1993: The Right Hon. Kim Campbell became Canada’s first woman Prime Minister when she assumed the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1993.  Named “Canada’s coolest Prime Minister” by Maclean’s, Campbell served as Prime Minister until her party was defeated in the 1993 election by Jean Chretien’s Liberals.  When Campbell became Prime Minister, she assumed the leadership of a country deeply divided by a decade of constitutional reforms, and two unsuccessful attempts by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to bring Quebec into the constitution.  As Justice Minister in 1991, Campbell implemented the “No means no” law, providing clear legal definitions of what constitutes consent.  

1993: Jean Augustine becaomes the first African-Canadian woman to be elected to the House of Commons.  Augustine made history when she secured unanimous support for her motion to make February Black History Month in Canada. 

1993: Sheila Copps became the first woman to serve as Deputy Prime Minister. 

2011: Alison Redford becomes Alberta’s first woman premier when she assumes the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party.  She leads her party to victory in the 2012 provincial election before resigning, her tenure as premier plagued by a series of scandals.  Redford was the eighth woman to serve as a provincial premier in Canada.

2015: Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appoints Canada’s first ever cabinet with equal representation of men and women.  

2015: Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appoints Canada’s first ever cabinet with equal representation of men and women.  

2019: Canada elects a record 98 women to the House of Commons.  Women comprise 29% of the seats in the House of Commons.  The table below, from Equal Voice Canada and the Library of Parliament, evidences the slow progress on women’s representation. 


BIG IDEA: Representation

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