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The Western Provinces set a Precedent for Others

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Reading: Interview with Tom Wilson


Nellie McClung, in a group photograph taken on the day the Alberta Womens Suffrage Bill was passed, January 1917. Image Courtesy of BC Archives - Call Number: B-06791In Manitoba and British Columbia, the Conservative governments were openly hostile to the suffrage movement. As a result, the suffragists actively threw their weight behind the Liberal parties in important elections.

In 1914, when the Manitoba Liberals endorsed suffrage and made it a significant part of their campaign platform, the Women's Civic League, the Grain Grower's Guide, (published by the Manitoba Grain Grower's Association), and Nellie McClung all threw their weight behind the Liberals.

Despite their efforts, the Conservative government was reelected with a slim majority. The following year, a scandal regarding the construction of the new Parliament buildings toppled the Conservative government, resulting in another election. This time, T. C. Norris and his Liberal party received a commanding majority, despite the efforts of the Conservatives to make a comeback.

This cartoon makes reference to the issues that were part of the Liberal platform. Image Courtesy of BC Archives - Call Number: E-06023As Norris had promised he passed a suffrage bill, which granted female suffrage and ensured that women could hold political office. On January 28, 1916, Manitoba became the first province in Canada to grant full political privileges to women.

Events in British Columbia followed a similar course. In 1913, Conservative Premier Richard McBride reiterated his long-standing refusal to support a suffrage bill, the suffragists changed their tactics from petitions and delegations to the government to an effort to overthrow the ruling Conservatives.

Hoping to capitalize on the suffragists' frustration, the Liberal party began to openly court the support of the suffrage forces—much to the alarm of the Conservatives. As the 1916 election drew near, the Premier offered to introduce a suffrage bill if female suffrage was endorsed in a referendum held during the 1916 election. But he refused to support a Socialist bill, which would have given women the vote prior to the election, further alienating suffrage forces. As a result, the Suffrage Referendum League threw its weight behind the Liberal party.

The Liberals won the election with a comfortable majority, and the suffrage referendum received an affirmative vote of more than two to one. Thus, on April 5, 1917, the women of British Columbia achieved political equality through a bill presented by the Liberal government.

Unlike the blatant government hostility faced by the suffrage movements in Manitoba and British Columbia, the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan were friendlier to the suffrage cause. Information campaigns were launched by organizations like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the United Farm Women of Alberta (UFWA) to convert women to the suffrage cause, in the interests of achieving other social and moral reforms.

When petitions indicative of widespread support among both urban and rural populations were presented to the respective legislatures, the Liberal governments of both provinces were quick to grant women political equality.

In Alberta, Premier Sifton introduced a suffrage bill which provided women with complete political equality with men in all provincial, municipal and school matters. The law was amended to reflect these changes on April 19, 1916 and Nellie McClung campaigned for the Liberals in the 1917 elections.

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            For more on women and the vote in Canada, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
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