A slight to Nellie McClung

It has been described as a snub and it is. But it’s also a failure to recognize an extremely important person who played a significant role in the establishment of Canada as a modern society. In an historical context, how can one justify the Bank of Canada’s decision to exclude Nellie McClung from the short list of noted women who will be vying for a place on a national banknote? The short answer is that it can’t be justified.

Five women are finalists: poet E. Pauline Johnson; Viola Desmond, a black rights avocate from Nova Scotia; Olympic medallist Fanny Rosenthal; Elsie MacGill, who earned an electrical engineering degree; and Idola Saint-Jean, who workd to get women in Quebec the right to vote.

Ironically, what Saint-Jean accomplished would not have been possible without the achievements of McClung, who helped bring the vote to Manitoba women 24 years earlier. In fact, Manitoba in January 1916, through the efforts of women such as McClung, set the precedent for all Canadian women to eventually receive the vote at all levels of government.

McClung wasn’t the only Manitoban fighting for women’s sufferage, but she is recognized by historians as being the driving force behind the successful movement. Her skills as an organizer, writer and orator propelled the women’s vote to the forefront of the provincial political agenda.

She was also a member of the Famous Five Alberta women (McClung had moved to Alberta and later to Victoria, B.C.), who fought to be recognized as “persons” in the British North America Act.  The Supreme Court of Canada had ruled that women were not “persons” under the act and were restricted from serving in certain public offices, such as the Caandian Senate. The Famous Five took their case to the Privy Council of England — then the highest judicial authority for Canada — which in 1929 reversed the earlier court decision. According to the Privy Council, “the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. And to those who ask why the word ‘person’ should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?”

Perhaps McClung’s finest hour came when a mock parliament was held in 1914 at Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre to gain public momentum for the cause of women’s suffrage.

McClung told the audience prior to the beginning of the mock parliament: “Remember, life on the stage here is reversed. Women have the vote while men do not” (Manitoba Free Press, January 29, 1914).

McClung, in the role of the parliament’s premier, stood and mimicking the gestures of Premier Rodmond Roblin told the audience at the Walker (now Burton Cummings Theatre) that men were being misled: “If men were all so intelligent as these representatives of the downtrodden sex seem to be it might not do any harm to give them the vote. But all men are not intelligent.

“There is no use giving men votes,” she said, turning the tables on the arguments made by Roblin to the accompanying laughter of the audience. In fact, McClung used many of the words and phrases offered by Roblin when the Political Equity League (PEL) delegates met a day earlier with the premier.

“They would not use them (votes),” said McClung. “They would let them spoil and go to waste. Then again, men would vote too much. Politics unsettles men, and unsettled men mean unsettled bills — broken furniture, broken vows, and divorce.

“Good men shrink from the polls as from a pestilence,” she commented.

Quoting a statistic that revealed men comprised most of the land’s lawbreakers, McClung scolded: “Surely you do not ask me to enfranchise an army of lawbreakers? Giving men the vote would unsettle the home ...

“In administrating the government we have studied economy. We have studied every dollar — to see if we could make better use of ourselves. We have been very generous, we are paying fourteen women for every government job ... Perhaps the time will come when men and women legislate together. I don’t know. In the meantime, I ask your delegation to be of good cheer. We will try to the best of our ability to conduct the affairs of the province, and prove worthy standard-bearers of the good old flag of our grand old party, which has often gone down to disgrace but never to defeat.”

McClung, recalling Roblin’s treatment of the women who visited his office, said: “We like delegations. We have seen a great many, and we pride ourselves on treating these delegations with the greatest courtesy and candor. We assure you that we are just as pleased to see you today as we shall be to see you at any future day. We wish to compliment this delegation on their splendid gentlemanly appearance. If without exercising the vote, such splendid specimens of manhood can be produced, such a system of affairs should not be interfered with. Any system of civilization that can produce such splendid specimens of manhood as Mr. Skinner (he played the role of a man without the vote) is good enough for me, and if it is good enough for me it is good enough for anybody.”

When McClung finished her oration, Skinner, resurrecting McClung’s threat to Roblin during her earlier one-on-one meeting with the premier, said, “I venture to say that we will get you yet.”

Newspapers of the day reported that the audience rocked with gales of laughter, and that “storms of applause punctuated every point and paragraph of what is unanimously conceded to be the best burlesque ever staged in Winnipeg.”

This program had been so successful that it was repeated in Winnipeg and moved on for a showing in Brandon. As a financial success, the mock parliament funded the suffragette campaign.

The Winnipeg Telegram editorialized that the program was so well received by the audience that “the cause of women may not be so hopeless after all and the vote may not be so far away as one might be inclined to fear.”

But Roblin remained unmoved, despite the mockery made of his government’s battle against the suffragette movement. While Roblin maintained his unwavering opposition, around him there was a ground swell of support for the women’s cause.

“He (Roblin) was decidedly on the wrong side of the issue, as my mother reported, both for herself and her mother-in-law,” wrote former Manitoba Premier Duff Roblin, the grandson of Rodmond Roblin, in his book, Speaking for Myself: Politics and Other Pursuits (1999).

It was only after the more favourable Premier T.C. Norris government took over the reins of government that Manitoba women were granted the vote.

The absence of McClung from the short list, with a winner being announced on Dcemeber 8, is shortshighted to say the least.

She may not get on a banknote, but she was honoured last week with a plaque at the Manitoba Legislature to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Manitoba women receiving the vote.