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Electoral Insight - Reform of Election Financing: Canada, Great Britain and the United States

Electoral Insight – May 2002

Thérèse Casgrain

Top photo: Yousuf Karsh / National Archives of Canada PA-178177
Bottom photo: National Archives of Canada PA-126768 Used by permission of Renée Casgrain Nadeau

Thérèse Casgrain led the suffrage campaign in Quebec and became the first woman elected leader of a political party in Canada. In 1970, at the age of 74, she was appointed to the Senate of Canada. Casgrain would serve for only nine months, because of the upper chamber's mandatory retirement age of 75.

Thérèse Casgrain
Suffragist, First Female Party Leader, and Senator

Wayne Brown
Co-Editor, Electoral Insight
Elections Canada

Thérèse Casgrain led the suffrage campaign in Quebec and became the first woman elected leader of a political party in Canada. In 1970, at the age of 74, she was appointed to the Senate of Canada. Casgrain would serve for only nine months, because of the upper chamber’s mandatory retirement age of 75.

For almost 20 years, Thérèse Casgrain campaigned to get women in Quebec the right to vote in provincial elections. The legislation finally passed on a spring day in 1940, marking a new era for the women of Quebec. A decade later (only 50 years ago), Casgrain became the first woman to be elected leader of a political party in Canada. While her name is not as well-recognized today as those of many women who would follow as members of Parliament and legislatures, party leaders, cabinet ministers and heads of state, she achieved her breakthroughs in a conservative era when women rarely played any public role. Casgrain would also raise four children and campaign persistently to correct many social injustices. At the age of 74, she would be appointed to the Senate of Canada.

“Today women do not have to face the same difficulties as of old; they can make their influence more widely felt and they are listened to a little more, but a world in which men and women are completely equal is still far from being realized. All my life I have recommended that one must ask questions, take a position, and act upon it.”
– Thérèse Casgrain, in her autobiography, 1972

Raised in Affluence

Thérèse Casgrain was born in Montreal on July 10, 1896, the daughter of Lady Blanche MacDonald and Sir Rodolphe Forget, an eminent financier and Conservative politician who was said to be one of the richest men in Montreal at the turn of the century. Thérèse would have a long life: 85 years. Since she was born into a wealthy family, it could also have easily been a leisurely life. As True Davidson wrote in The Golden Strings, "Thérèse Forget grew up in a family which took for granted a governess and subsequent boarding-school education, a pony-cart, velvet evening dresses and pearls, a sixteen-bedroom summer home at Saint-Irénée, a few miles from the Manoir Richelieu, visits to Paris, and numerous servants. But Sir Rodolphe Forget was apparently a philanthropist with many progressive ideas for his community." His daughter would attend the best of convent schools. She studied music, languages and home management, but when she wanted to pursue a law degree, her father decreed that her proper place was in the kitchen.

While still a young woman, Thérèse displayed a strong, self-confident, humorous personality; one that challenged realities that seemed wrong to her and that liked to lead. Author Susan Mann Trofimenkoff ("Thérèse Casgrain and the CCF in Quebec") explains that Thérèse "certainly objected to the ceaseless round of entertainment and frivolity that she observed among her social peers. And she also measured her distance from the Catholic church: she was, she claimed, less obedient than other women in the early feminist movement."

As a débutante, while serving at an annual oyster supper to raise funds for the Deaf and Dumb Institute, she renewed her acquaintance with Pierre Casgrain, a young lawyer whom she had met years earlier, when she was a schoolgirl. Davidson reports further that "his courtship seems now to have been rapid and exciting, though strictly chaperoned, as was the custom then. They were married in January 1916, and honey-mooned in Cuba. There the young bride, with a thoughtfulness not common in her age and social group, again pondered on the extreme contrasts of riches and poverty side by side, and wondered what would come of such injustice." That concern, combined with her serious and independent nature, may best explain why a woman born to affluence would proceed to battle steadfastly against an indifferent and ultra-conservative society, not only for women's rights, but for social reforms that benefited both men and women alike.

At Her Husband's Side

Thérèse Casgrain's father had served as an Independent Conservative member of Parliament for 13 years, but decided not to run again in the federal election of December 1917. He had voted against his government's conscription law, a law that was widely opposed in Quebec and was dividing the country. Instead, his son-in-law, Thérèse's husband Pierre, campaigned for the Charlevoix seat. He chose to run as a Liberal, supporting Sir Wilfrid Laurier and opposing conscription. The winter weather was very bad during the campaign, but Thérèse staunchly accompanied her successful husband, just as her mother had done with her father.

Pierre Casgrain's second election campaign in 1921 was a lot more difficult. He was competing against a Cabinet minister. Early in the campaign, he became very ill with pleurisy and could not speak at a large rally of supporters. His wife courageously took his place, something rarely, if ever, done by women in Canada at that time. It was her first political speech, and it occurred in the first federal election at which women could vote and be candidates. Pierre Casgrain won again. He went on to become Speaker of the House of Commons in 1936 and Secretary of State in Mackenzie King's early wartime Cabinet. The Casgrains were frequent guests at the Prime Minister's Ottawa home. Those visits, the debates of the House of Commons, which she listened to as often as possible, and social functions as wife of the Speaker gave Mme. Casgrain many opportunities to increase her knowledge of politics and government in Canada.

Leading the Suffrage Campaign in Quebec

Photo : AN, négatif C-22001
Thérèse and Pierre Casgrain were frequent guests of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie
King at his Laurier House home in Ottawa. Thérèse left King's Liberal Party to join the
Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1946, two years before the end of King's
last term as Canada's longest-serving prime minister. King, who was prime minister for 21 years,
is shown here casting his ballot in the 1942 national plebiscite on conscription.

In 1918, Parliament granted all Canadian women at least 21 years of age the right to vote in federal elections, provided they were not alien-born and met property requirements in the provinces that had such rules. In the next year, women also became eligible to stand for election to Parliament. But Quebec women could not cast ballots in provincial elections. The Constitutional Act, 1791 had established a legislative assembly in Lower Canada and allowed the right to vote to all persons possessing certain property qualifications. But, in 1843, a law enacted by the Parliament of the recently united Province of Canada took that right away, because some men feared their authority would be diminished if women could play active roles in public affairs.

For many years after Confederation, the few attempts to obtain the provincial right to vote for Quebec women were made largely by English-speaking women. Recognizing that the province had a French-speaking majority, Quebec women formed a bilingual association in 1921, with Casgrain as one of the founders. The association pledged itself to "an educational campaign to persuade the public and the legislature that women do not wish to have the vote in order to change their sphere in life, but rather to raise and improve the level of society in general." It would take almost two decades to obtain the provincial franchise.

In the winter of 1922, a delegation of about 400 went to Quebec City to ask the provincial government to give the vote to women. The government offered almost no hope, and Casgrain later heard that Liberal premier Alexandre Taschereau privately said, "If the women of Quebec ever get the right to vote, they will not have got it from me." There was also almost no support from the powerful clergy. The women decided to make sure that a bill supporting female suffrage was introduced at every session of the legislature, and each year a different member of the Legislative Assembly introduced one.

But the feminist groups themselves were divided, until a provincial franchise committee was formed in 1928, with Casgrain elected as its president. It was subsequently incorporated under the name La Ligue des Droits de la Femme, since the women were also interested in obtaining many domestic, social and legal reforms. There was little support for suffrage from rural French women, so Casgrain reached them by speaking at conventions and through her popular radio program "Fémina". She would head the Ligue for more than 14 years. In the later years of that period, Union Nationale premier Maurice Duplessis was adamantly opposed to women obtaining the provincial franchise.

The women launched many fund-raising efforts for publicity campaigns. Meanwhile, several female suffrage bills were defeated in the legislature. But finally, some real progress began to be made. While out of power in the late 1930s, the Liberals started to show interest in votes for women. They received a great deal of support from women as they regained power in 1939, and the new premier, Adélard Godbout, included a women's suffrage bill in the Speech from the Throne. On April 25, 1940, the legislature finally passed this bill, and women obtained the right to vote in Quebec's provincial elections.

Her First Personal Election Campaign

In a 1942 federal by-election, Mme. Casgrain was the Independent Liberal candidate in the Charlevoix–Saguenay riding, the seat held earlier by both her father and husband. She had to campaign across a riding almost 700 miles in length, but thought her family's connections in the riding would ensure her victory. Instead, she finished second. Earlier that year, like most residents of Quebec, she had voted "non" to the military conscription plebiscite question put forward by King's Liberal government, and she continued to speak out against compulsory service overseas. She received almost no assistance from prominent Liberals with whom she had associated for more than 20 years. "I very quickly realized that the leaders of the Liberal party, both federal and provincial, did not want me as a member," said Casgrain. "Not only was I a woman, but they knew that if I were elected they would not be able to make me accept ideas I had already rejected."

Casgrain and the CCF

In 1946, Mme. Casgrain joined the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Perhaps the most intriguing question about her career is why a wealthy and well-connected upper-class French-Canadian woman would choose to take an active role in a small socialist party that had originated in western Canada. Trofimenkoff notes that Casgrain had grown disillusioned with the Liberals. For example, she had hoped that Prime Minister Mackenzie King would appoint one of the "Five Persons" as the first woman to serve in Canada's Senate. After all, the five Alberta women, now known as the "Famous Five", were the ones who challenged the traditional view that only a man could be a "person" and only qualified "persons" could be appointed to the Senate. They finally won their fight when the Judicial Committee of Britain's Privy Council, Canada's highest court in those days, agreed that Canadian women were indeed "persons", eligible for appointment to the Senate and participation in enacting the country's laws. However, the first woman to be appointed to Canada's Upper Chamber was Cairine Wilson, a Liberal Party activist.

Casgrain also appears to have greatly admired the CCF leader, J.S. Woodsworth, and Agnes Macphail, the first woman elected to Parliament (in 1921) as one of a group of independents who sat together as the Progressives. (For more on Macphail and the Progressives, see the November 1999 issue of Electoral Insight.) The CCF favoured universal, state-organized and state-financed social welfare programs and Trofimenkoff reports that Casgrain saw the CCF as the party that most shared her concerns about unemployment, poor health, education and housing, and low wages for women. In her autobiography, Casgrain herself explained her switch of parties by saying she "had long seen how badly Canada needed a political party centred upon the common good rather than on the promotion of personal interests."

Perhaps the final straw that pushed Casgrain away from the Liberal fold was another event in 1945. The government was getting ready to send out the first family allowance cheques. They would be addressed to mothers in most of Canada, but to fathers in Quebec. Why the difference? Putting money in the hands of Quebec mothers supposedly would undermine paternal authority in the family, as sanctioned by tradition and the province's Civil Code. Casgrain organized a flood of protests that reached King's office. She succeeded in changing his mind, but a year later she joined the CCF.

First Woman Leader of a Political Party in Canada

In 1948, Mme. Casgrain was chosen one of the national vice-chairs of the CCF, the only woman on its executive. When elected leader of the Quebec wing in 1951, Casgrain became the first woman in Canadian history to head a political party. Strangely perhaps, she was not even present at the convention that chose her. She was in Frankfurt, Germany, representing the CCF at an international rally of socialist movements. In 1955, the provincial party's name was changed to Parti social démocratique du Québec, a name that more clearly indicated the party's objectives and was more easily translatable. Casgrain served as its provincial leader until 1957.

In her memoirs, Casgrain says the CCF had "great difficulty establishing itself in the province of Quebec, in large part because of the power of the Catholic Church." The Church suspected the CCF was actually a communist movement. The party had only about 300 members in the province and very little chance of any success at the polls there. As Casgrain wrote, "Our élite in those days failed in their duty. Many remarkable men who in their hearts were radicals and reformers sacrificed their ideals to their careers rather than suffer the repeated defeats of a new party." She added, "It was not very easy to work for a party that was under merciless attack from those in power, without election funds, and faced with an ill-informed public opinion." Over the years, Casgrain herself would contest eight federal and provincial elections as a CCF candidate. But she realistically noted that, "As a woman, and the leader of a party of the left to boot, I had no chance of success. However, I attained my goal, which was, above all, to make the CCF philosophy more widely known and to obtain publicity for the party."

John Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives swept the federal election of 1958. After another poor showing by the CCF, its leaders and their labour colleagues decided a new party was needed. So conventions of the Canadian Labour Congress and the CCF each passed a resolution calling for the creation of a broadly based political movement embracing the CCF, the labour movement, farm organizations, professional people and other liberally minded persons interested in basic social reform and reconstruction through the parliamentary system of government. Thérèse Casgrain chaired the CCF convention, in Regina, that approved the resolution. Three years later the New Democratic Party (NDP) was founded and Tommy Douglas, former premier of Saskatchewan, became its leader.

Recognition as a Leader

In 1961, Mme. Casgrain founded the Quebec branch of the Voice of Women, a movement dedicated to world peace. In subsequent years, she was its delegate to many international conferences. In 1969, she became president of the Canadian Consumers Association for Quebec. In 1967, the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada awarded Thérèse Casgrain its medal as the "Woman of the Century" for Quebec. During the same year, she was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada, and in 1974, she was made Companion of the Order. In 1979, in recognition of her tireless leadership of the struggle for women's right to vote in Quebec, she was a recipient of the Governor General's Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case.

Senator Casgrain

At the age of 74, Mme. Casgrain was surprised to receive a telephone call from Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He offered her a seat in the Senate. It would be only for a few months, because five years earlier Parliament had passed a law requiring senators to retire from the Upper House when they reached their 75th birthday. Casgrain accepted the position because she believed it would give her a greater opportunity to work for her goals and country. On October 8, 1970, Casgrain was sworn in as a senator and chose to sit as an independent, because her colleagues in the CCF and the NDP had always refused to take such an appointment, unless the Senate was greatly reformed first.

Within days, one of Canada's most frightening events occurred. The British Trade Commissioner in Montreal, James Cross, and Quebec's Labour Minister, Pierre Laporte, were kidnapped. Then came the startling news that Laporte had been murdered. In her first speech in the Senate, Casgrain expressed full approval for Trudeau's action in proclaiming the controversial War Measures Act. Later, Casgrain travelled to several cities across the country as part of the Senate-House of Commons Committee on the Constitution, to ask Canadians how the British North America Act could best be amended or patriated. When the report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women was tabled in Parliament, she pleaded for all ministers to be responsible for making the improvements that fell under their departmental jurisdiction, but that role was given to the Secretary of State for Urban Affairs.

In the Senate, Casgrain pursued other causes long close to her heart. She reminded her colleagues that, in Quebec, unlike most provinces, women were still not eligible to serve on juries. A few months later, Quebec dropped that rule. Casgrain also strongly opposed certain agricultural controls, such as those on the price of eggs, which she was sure would greatly encourage black market sales. She also criticized the media for being more interested in the scandals of the day than in writing about serious economic issues, which she felt could have educated the public and sped the passage of needed reforms.

Casgrain would be a senator for just nine months, until July of 1971, when she was forced to retire. She would have preferred to continue and began to work against compulsory retirement from any job. She continued to campaign actively for Canadian charities and consumer rights.

Thérèse Casgrain died in Montreal on November 3, 1981, at the age of 85. Perhaps the best summation of her life and achievements is the one in the introduction to her autobiography. Long-time colleague Professor Frank Scott wrote, "Those who know that continuous reform is essential and possible in our parliamentary system, will recognize that Thérèse Casgrain has made a great personal contribution to Canadian democracy."

Sources

Casgrain, Thérèse F. A Woman in a Man's World. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1972.

Trofimenkoff, Susan Mann. "Thérèse Casgrain and the CCF in Quebec." Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June 1985), pp. 125-153. Reprinted in Beyond the Vote: Canadian Women and Politics. Edited by Linda Kealey and Joan Sangster. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989, pp. 139-168.

Davidson, True. "The Gentle Heroine, Thérèse Casgrain." The Golden Strings. Toronto: Griffin House, 1973, pp. 35-47.

National Library of Canada.

Elections Canada. A History of the Vote in Canada. 1997.


Note: 

The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.