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In Times Like These: On #elxn42 and the Suffragists

For over a century, suffragists fought to acquire rights to expand fairness and justice. They were imperfect but we should care about what they glimpsed.

Book Cover In Times Like These

Talking History focuses on a wide range of topics in Canadian history, and it consists of articles by Canada's foremost historians and history experts. Our contributors use the power of narrative to bring the past to life and to show how it is not just relevant, but essential to our understanding of Canada and the world today. "Talking History" is a series made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Veronica (Nikki) Strong-Boag is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Professor Emerita in UBC’s Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice and the Department of Educational Studies and Director of the pro-democracy website,


2015’s unprecedented 78-day federal election campaign exposes the perilous state of fairness and justice in Canada. My war bride mother’s favourite adage in raising three children, "Don’t care will be made to care," is more relevant than ever. So too is Joni Mitchell’s more lyrical warning from 1970, a peak moment for so many equality campaigns: "You don’t know what you’ve got 'til it’s gone."

Why, we should ask, is the 21st century still jammed with missing and murdered women, everyday threats to women’s reproductive choice and safety, prejudice in employment and pensions, women and children’s special vulnerability in wars and to climate change, and austerity regimes that target the poor, among whom women figure disproportionately? 

Troglodytes, prime ministers among them, everywhere encourage Canadian voters to ignore the past, present, and future costs of disengaging from stewardship and care.  On offer instead are bribes ranging from income splitting for tax purposes to child benefit cheques and home renovation credits. More threatening loom the sticks of high incarceration rates, loss of charitable status, cuts to the CBC, foreign wars, and so-called anti-terrorism and fair election acts. As the "land of the fair deal" glimpsed by prairie suffragist Nellie L. McClung a century ago in In Times like These slips daily further away, the statue of a caring and just "Mother Canada" proposed for the Cape Breton Highlands National Park looms ever more a monstrous joke.

The women and men, who won the provincial vote for most (but not all) women beginning in Manitoba in 1916, and federally for a select group beginning in 1917, would have been appalled by too much of 2015 Canada. For all their blemishes, these Canadians stood in the forefront of their era’s campaigns for a broader democracy. Today they would rightly ask, "What happened?"

Suffragists would have had little trouble in connecting today’s failures abroad and at home to women’s continuing political disadvantage. In January 2015, as UN Women reported, "only 22 per cent of all national parliamentarians were female" with "38 States in which women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians." In Canada, which often fancies itself far superior, only 76 of 308 MPs (2011–15) were female.








% Women

elected of total




40 (of 103)




28 (of 166)




7 (of 34)




1 (of 1)


Bloc Québécois


1 (of 4)



The spirit of Mike the Ox, the "patriarchal-looking old sinner" from In Times Like These, with "both feet in the trough" (it’s hard not to think of certain Canadian senators), thrives in Harperland. Racism and sexism, E. Pauline Johnson’s target in her short story, "A Red Girl’s Reasoning" (1893), similarly survive to scar the Canadian political landscape.

Book Cover About Canada Women's Rights

And yet, for all the inspiration to pessimism, 21st-century Canadians need not abandon hope. Resistance is never futile. Progressive social media and movements, from Voices/Voix to Engage Canada, offer answers and remedies. So too does history. Reprints of classic protests by early equality champions, Nellie L. McClung (1873–1951) and E. Pauline Johnson (1861–1913), and recent reminders of women’s long-standing struggles by Denyse Baillargeon and Penni Mitchell highlight what is at stake for democracy. With their aid, we need not join Marshall McLuhan’s "sleep walk through history."

Around the globe, another generation has enlisted in McClung’s "war against gloom" and Johnson’s call to "fight on" (1913). Like Soraya Post of Sweden’s Feminist Initiative Party, Russia’s Pussy Riot, US Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, Pakistan’s Mahala Yousafzai, Indigenous child welfare scholar Cindy Blackstock, and former Ottawa parliamentary page Brigette DePape (on such champions see, they oppose not only sexism but, frequently, the blights of racism, classism, and homophobia.

McClung’s world "of the Fair Deal, where every race, color and creed will be given exactly the same chance; where no person can 'exert influence' to bring about his personal ends; where no man or woman's past can ever rise up to defeat them; … where no prejudice is allowed to masquerade as reason; … where there is room for everyone and to spare" is not yet lost.  

No iron law of history, or economics, requires Canadians to turn their backs on Syrian and other refugees, on the victims of BC’s "Highway of Tears," on rising numbers using food banks, or on deepening environmental degradation. We can choose to be our better selves.

For over a century, suffragists fought to acquire rights to expand fairness and justice. They were imperfect but we should care about what they glimpsed and we should know what we are losing when we succumb to selfishness and despair. On the 19th of October 2015 the best commemoration of suffragism is for voters to toss the scoundrels out.

Suggestions for Further Reading: 

Book Cover A Brief History of Women in Quebec

A Brief History of Women in Quebec, by Denyse Baillargeon, trans. W.D. Wilson 

About the book: A Brief History of Women in Quebec examines the historical experience of women of different social classes and origins (geographic, ethnic, and racial) from the period of contact between Europeans and Aboriginals to the twenty-first century to give a nuanced and complex account of the main transformations in their lives. 

Themes explored include demography, such as marriage, fecundity, and immigration; women’s work outside and inside the home, including motherhood; education, from elementary school to post-secondary and access to the professions; the impact of religion and government policies; and social and political activism, including feminism and struggles to attain equality with men. Early chapters deal with New France and the first part of the nineteenth century, and the remaining are devoted to the period since 1880, an era in which women’s lives changed rapidly and dramatically. 

The book concludes that transformation in the means of production, women’s social and political activism (including feminism), and Quebec nationalism are three main keys to understanding the history of Quebec women. Together, the three show that women’s history, far from being an adjunct to “general history,” is essential to a full understanding of the past. Originally published in French with the title Brève histoire des femmes au Québec.

book cover e pauline johnson

E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose, by E. Pauline Johnson, edited by Veronica Strong-Boag & Carole Gerson

About the book: E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) was a Native advocate of part-Mohawk ancestry, an independent woman during the period of first-wave feminism, a Canadian nationalist who also advocated strengthening the link to imperial England, a popular and versatile prose writer, and one of modern Canada's best-selling poets. Johnson longed to see the publication of a complete collection of her verse, but that wish remained unfulfilled during her life. Nine decades after her death, the first complete collection of all of Pauline Johnson's known poems, many painstakingly culled from newspapers, magazines, and archives, is now available. 

In response to the current recognition of Johnson's historical position as an immensely popular and influential figure of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this volume also presents a representative selection of her prose, including fiction about native-settler relations, journalism about women and recreation, and discussions of gender roles and racial stereotypes.

Book Cover In Times Like These

In Times Like These, by Nellie McClung, with an introduction by Veronica Strong-Boag

About the book: Nellie McClung's fourth book, In Times Like These, written in 1915, survives as a classic formulation of a feminist position. With hard-hitting rhetoric it demands women's rights as a logical extension of traditional views of female moral superiority and maternal responsibility.

Book Cover About Canada Women's Rights

About Canada: Women's Rights, by Penni Mitchell

About the book: This accessible and engaging book introduces readers to key historical events, and the women who were central to them, in the struggle for women’s equality in Canada. Four and a half decades after the report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, the feminist struggle is as necessary as ever—but thanks to the hard work of activist women, many forms of discrimination are a thing of the past.

Beginning before the colonization of Canada by European settlers, Penni Mitchell explores gender roles within First Nations societies, where women often brokered peace agreements, oversaw property and advised leaders. She also examines the struggles of First Nations women to challenge Indian Act discrimination against women and children.

Exploring the early days of colonial settlement, Mitchell notes that women were among Canada’s first administrators, and they started its first schools and hospitals. Later, women were among the first to oppose slavery, internment and racial segregation. Demanding a greater say in their country, women fought for the right to vote, attend university and divorce. They fought for child protection laws, public health clinics, minimum wages, equal pay and better working conditions. About Canada: Women’s Rights considers the ways in which women’s lives have been transformed by the legalization of birth control and abortion and the removal of patriarchal privilege from family law.

About Canada: Women’s Rights introduces readers to some of the many women who changed Canada through their efforts to secure greater equality. While a few are well known, many of these women and the battles they won have been forgotten. They deserve a greater place in Canada’s history.

Veronica (Nikki) Strong-Boag is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Professor Emerita in UBC’s Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice and the Department of Educational Studies and Director of the pro-democracy website, . She is  the recipient of the Tyrrell Medal in Canadian History from the Royal Society of Canada (2012) and a former president of the Canadian Historical Association (1993–4). She has numerous publications, including Liberal Hearts and Coronets: the Lives and Times of Ishbel Marjoribanks Aberdeen and John Campbell Gordon, the Aberdeens (2015), Fostering Nation? Canada Confronts the History of Childhood Disadvantage (2011), Finding Families,  Finding Ourselves: Ourselves: English Canada Confronts Adoption from the 19th Century to the 1990s (2006), and Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) (2000), with Carole Gerson. She has won the John A. Macdonald Prize in Canadian history (1988) and the Canada Prize in the Social Sciences (2012).

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