by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
A suffrage amendment to the Manitoba Election Act, aimed at giving women the vote in the province, was completed by the provincial government in December 1915.
“The bill is precisely the same in principle as the Australian Equal Suffrage Act,” reported the December 24, 1915, Manitoba Free Press. “It will give a vote to every person in the province regardless of sex, provided that the would-be voter has been a year in the province and is of the required age” (21 years old).
In 1902, the Australian Parliament passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act, which enabled all women to vote and stand for federal election.
The Premier Tobias Crawford “T.C.” Norris Liberal government initiated the legislation with the stipulation that a petition had to be submitted that included at least 15 per cent of the names of women who would subsequently be eligible to vote.
The Norris government received a petition with 39,684 names attached, which was far in excess of the requirement.
“The names on the petition, which in a row of solid signatures would stretch a distance of 1,159 feet, are in excess of the required 15 per cent by 22,965, and are, in fact, 33.9 per cent of the total number of women of voting age in the province,” according to the Free Press.
Ninty-four-year-old Amelia Burnett, of the Sturgeon Creek District, alone was responsible for acquiring 4,750 names, which was an achievement recognized in the Manitoba Legislature that “brought forth a storm of applause in which the premier and the ministers joined.”
Burnett made a brief speech to the to those assembled “in which she declared that she had hoped to live to see the women of the province enfranchised.”
Once Burnett had finished her speech, Premier Norris strode down the aisle of the legislature and warmly grasped the hand of the elderly woman, who had lived to be a witness to history in the making.
The premier announced that the government would introduce the legislation at the next sitting of the legislature in the New Year. Congratulations came early, as its passage was assured by the Liberal majority in the legislature.
“Amid scenes of unparalleled enthusiasm the bill to amend the Manitoba Election Act so to give the suffrage to women of the province on the same terms as men was passed in the legislature yesterday afternoon,” reported the Free Press on January 28, 1916.
On January 28, 1916, when the amended act was signed by Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor, for the first time in Canadian history following Confederation, women received the right to vote in a province, preceding even suffrage at the federal level.
Thomas H. Johnson, the acting premier in the Norris government, moved the third reading of the amendment. “He delivered an earnest and eloquent speech, declaring that the ordinary rule of the house to pass third readings without discussion did not seem appropriate on such a momentous occasion.
“He dwelt on the stupendous importance of Manitoba's action in being the first Canadian province to enfranchise women and predicted that other provinces would eventually follow and that at last the principle would be recognized by federal legislation.”
Johnson, the minister of public works in the Norris government, declared that January 27, 1916, “would remain a milestone in the life of the province.”
Despite Johnson’s prediction, “the milestone in the life of the province” receives little recognition today, which is a disservice to the many women and groups who fought long and hard to change the political landscape of Manitoba and the nation.
“I believe women suffrage would be a retrograde movement,” declared Sir Rodmond Roblin, the premier preceding Norris who for years stymied the efforts of Manitoba suffragettes, “that it would break up the home, that it will throw the children into the arms of the servant girls. Indeed, I am afraid my friend Mr. (Richard “Dickie”) Rigg (a labour leader and MLA) might shortly come to us for the extension of the servant girls, on the plea that servant girls have as good a right to vote as any other class of woman.”
The male British-centric prejudices of the day are encapsulated in this speech by the premier. His reaction to suffrage was not uncommon, for many Manitobans shared his viewpoint, including some women.
“If you don't stop advocating woman suffrage in your paper you can cancel my subscription,” wrote one angry husband to the Grain Growers’ Guide, which supported the suffrage movement. “My wife gets the Guide and reads your articles to me ... at the supper table and it makes things very unpleasant in my house.”
As exemplified by the agriculture-oriented newspaper, the suffrage movement was not just an urban phenomenon. Although farm women were often unable to take part in the many meetings in towns and cities across the province, they kept abreast of the movement through newspapers such as the Guide, lending their support through letter writing and lobbying of their husbands that so discomforted the male reader who threatened to cancel his subscription.
When the petition for the vote was presented in the legislature, Winona Dixon, a member of the executive for the Political Equity League, gave the Guide a “great deal of credit” for its support of the women’s suffrage movement.
(Next week: part 2)