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Chapter 2 – A History of the Vote in Canada

Uneven Progress 1867–1919

Back to Table of contents, Chapter 2

Black and white photo of a large group of people crowding around the door of a building.

At Confederation, the Constitution Act, 1867 stated that control of election law and the federal franchise would remain a provincial matter until Parliament decided otherwise. The provinces were still developing more or less independently, each with its own character rooted in its traditions, demography and geography. Inevitably, these differences were reflected in the provincial electoral laws that were to determine who could vote in federal elections for the first two decades of Confederation.1

A Federal or a Provincial Matter?

At Confederation, therefore, no federal election law existed for electing the first Dominion Parliament. Sir John A. Macdonald envisaged the use of provincial election laws as an interim measure for the 1867 election and expected Parliament to adopt its own election law.

It was 1885 before Parliament took action on the franchise. The Conservatives, under Macdonald, had been unable to reach consensus on a single set of voting eligibility criteria, while the Liberals, who supported a decentralized federation, wanted eligibility to remain under provincial control.

In 1885, Macdonald's government finally succeeded in having a law passed that gave Parliament control of the right to vote. The provinces regained control 13 years later, however, under a Liberal government led by Sir Wilfrid Laurier. As a result, in 10 of the 13 federal general elections held between 1867 and 1920, the electorate varied from province to province, with eligibility determined by provincial law.

A cartoon from the Canadian Illustrated News after the 1878 Quebec provincial election depicting a dejected-looking man holding a sign that reads 'defeat' and a triumphant-looking man holding a sign that reads 'victory.'

After the Elections

Appearing first in the Canadian Illustrated News after the Quebec election of May 1, 1878, this cartoon by André Leroux of Montréal was adapted for the cover of the News after Sir John A. Macdonald's Liberal-Conservatives defeated Alexander Mackenzie's government later that year. A. Leroux, Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Illustrated News, September 28, 1878, C-068249

The original colonies continued to adopt or adjust their electoral laws to meet their needs and circumstances. In addition, not long after Confederation, Canada experienced a huge territorial expansion that produced new provinces and territories, each of which adopted its own electoral legislation, adding further to interjurisdictional diversity in the electorate. Citizens of British Columbia and Manitoba took part in their first federal general election in 1872, Prince Edward Island in 1874, the Northwest Territories in 1887, Yukon in 1904, and Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1908.

Black and white photo of a group of men seated on the steps of a building.

Manitoba, 1870

An elected provisional government led by Louis Riel took root in the Red River Settlement in the early months of 1870. The Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia played a key role in negotiating the terms of Manitoba's entry into Confederation later that year, as a largely Métis province with four seats in the federal parliament. Library and Archives Canada, e000009388

Black-and-white photo of a bearded man in a dark jacket.

Angus McKay

Angus McKay was one of the first two Métis politicians elected to Parliament in 1871, along with Pierre Delorme (seen in the photo with Louis Riel, top row second from left). Archives of Manitoba, McKay, Angus (A) 1 Personalities, M.L.A. Lake Manitoba, 1870's, N12819

Other factors, both regional and national, affected evolution of the right to vote during this period. These included demographic change, largely the result of massive immigration; urbanization and industrialization, and the accompanying enfranchisement of workers; and the emergence of a number of groups promoting women's suffrage. First Nations people were still effectively denied access to the franchise, either directly or indirectly, at the regional and national levels.

Black and white photo of a group of men seated on the steps of a building.

Yukon's First Wholly Elected Council, 1908

Voters elected two members for each of the territory's five constituencies. George Black (top row, second from right) also represented Yukon in Parliament from 1921 to 1935 and 1940 to 1949. Martha Louise Black, his wife, held the seat while he was ill (1935–1940) and was Canada's second female member of Parliament. Library and Archives Canada, PA-110153

Canada's geographic expansion in the second half of the 19th century was matched by population growth that continued into the early decades of the 20th century. Between 1871 and 1921, the population more than doubled, from four million to more than eight and a half million. Growth was largely the result of immigration, although not all regions were equally affected. The Prairie provinces and, to a lesser degree, Ontario and Quebec attracted the largest numbers of immigrants. Over this period, the population of the Prairies shot up from 75,000 to almost two million.

Although many immigrants were of British origin, a large proportion were from Eastern Europe and Asia. In provinces where immigrants of neither British nor French origin formed a sizable minority, concerns about the electoral effects of the "ethnic factor" tended to be reflected in electoral legislation. Conversely, in provinces where the existing population did not feel threatened by the arrival of immigrants of different ethnic origins, ethnicity was not an important factor in voting eligibility.

Over the same period, urbanization and industrialization led to the emergence of workers' groups seeking to broaden the electorate. This is not surprising, given that in almost all provinces, the right to vote in federal elections depended on property ownership or, in some cases, income level. These restrictions remained in force until the beginning of the 20th century and persisted even longer in some provinces.

Property- or income-based qualifications effectively prevented large segments of the working population from voting. During the last quarter of the 19th century, most workers earned modest if not miserable incomes, and the vast majority were unlikely to own their own homes. In such conditions, any property-based qualification, no matter how minimal, was prohibitive. When the labour movement began to organize in the early 1870s, its representatives demanded that the franchise be extended to lower-income groups. Some 20 years later, they demanded universal suffrage. It is difficult to know to what extent these demands contributed to improving electoral legislation. One thing is certain: starting at the turn of the century, the provinces progressively eliminated property- and income-based restrictions on voting eligibility.

Questionable Election Practices

In the early days of Confederation, any individual who met the voting eligibility criteria could, in theory, exercise the right to vote. In fact, because of electoral practices common in those tumultuous times—when each vote carried more weight due to the limited number of electors—many people were deprived of that right or obliged to cast their votes for a candidate selected by someone else.

1900 federal election poll book for Pictou, Nova Scotia that shows that income was still a voting qualification.

The Changing Electorate

An expanded franchise brought new participants to politics. The Mechanics and Labourers of Ottawa presented a scroll to Sir John A. Macdonald in 1878 "in sympathy with Liberal Conservative Rule." But a 1900 poll book for Pictou, Nova Scotia, shows that income was still a voting qualification. Library and Archives Canada, MG30-E471, volumes 1 and 4, R2145-0-9-#

Image of a scroll presented to Sir John A. Macdonald in 1878 by the Mechanics and Labourers of Ottawa.

Ceremonial scroll

Library and Archives Canada, MG26-A, Vol 335b, R14424-0-3-E

Some of the rules in effect at that time did nothing to promote fair and equitable polling practices. In all provinces but New Brunswick, which had adopted the secret ballot in 1855, electors voted orally, a polling method manifestly open to blackmail and intimidation.

Furthermore, in all provinces except Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, elections were held on different dates in different ridings. The system allowed the party in power to hold elections in a safe riding first, hoping in this way to influence the vote in constituencies less favourable to them. The system even enabled a candidate who lost in one riding to run again in another. In the 1867 general election, the Conservatives stretched the process over six weeks; in the next election (1872), they dragged it out for nearly three months.

Lithograph produced by the Canadian Illustrated News depicting one of the last open-ballot elections, in Hamilton, Ontario, 1872. Contains series of images from the election, including torchlight parade to attract voters and candidates greeting supporters.

Last of the Open Ballots, 1872

Sketches from the Canadian Illustrated News depict one of the last open-ballot elections, this one in Hamilton, Ontario. On the left, a torchlight parade is held to drum up voters. In the centre, successful candidates greet their supporters outside the newspaper office. On the right, the crowd reacts as each man declares his vote from the hustings. Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Illustrated News, August 31, 1872, C-058774

After their 1874 victory, the Liberals passed two laws on election procedure. One measure withdrew the right to vote from a number of officials, including federally appointed judges and individuals who worked for candidates during an election (for example, as official agents, clerks or messengers), but this had little effect on the overall composition of the electorate. However, the measures also included several important mechanisms to help clean up questionable election practices: they introduced the secret ballot and stipulated that votes must be cast on the same day in all constituencies, and they transferred hearings on contested election petitions from parliamentary committees to the courts.

Other changes were the result of concerns about the fairness of political competition and worries about donors exercising undue influence over politicians. In 1873, telegraph transcripts had showed Sir John A. Macdonald demanding large campaign contributions from promoters of the Canadian Pacific Railway; the evidence helped topple his Conservative government and prompted the succeeding Liberals to make legislative changes. The 1874 Dominion Elections Act required candidates and their "agents" (political parties were not recognized in law until nearly a century later) to disclose how and where campaign funds were spent. This was the first time that such a requirement was put in place. However, the Act's provisions did not limit these expenses, require disclosure of contributions or assign responsibility for administering and enforcing the legislation.

The reforms cleaned up the electoral process to some extent (for example, by reducing the use of violence to intimidate voters), but they did not eliminate all abuses. The figures on members who lost their seats because of fraud or corrupt electoral practices indicate the extent of the problem. Between 1867 and 1873, when petitions protesting the outcome of an election were presented to a committee of the House of Commons, just 1 of 45 contested elections was invalidated. When the courts began to look impartially at claims following adoption of the Liberal reforms, the number of voided elections soared. Between 1874 and 1878, 49 of the 65 contested elections submitted to the courts were voided, forcing nearly one third of the members of the House of Commons to resign. The rigorous approach of the courts appeared to lower the incidence of fraud, at least temporarily. Between 1878 and 1887, some 25 members were unseated following contested elections. Corruption flared up again, however, between 1887 and 1896, with some 60 members losing their seats after court challenges. By the end of the century, the number of members convicted of election fraud or corrupt practices began to decline again—not because of any improvement in election practices, but because of the political parties' increasing use of "saw-offs"—friendly agreements to withdraw equal numbers of contested election petitions before appealing to the courts.

One must vote in secret
Away from glances:
If a vote can be bought
Well, then,
It's done in secret.
You know what I mean.

Is one dumb enough
To offer gold without knowing
For whom the patriot will
Well, hum,
Cast his vote?
You know what I mean.

— Extract of a satirical song by Rémi Tremblay, songwriter, 1883 (translation)

Fraudulent practices took many and varied forms. One of the most common was to purchase votes through "treating" (the purchase of food and drink) or compensation. In addition to cash payment for votes, candidates or their agents might hand out alcohol, pork, flour and other foodstuffs. Personation—the illegal practice of voting in the place of another elector—also occurred on a large scale, especially in urban ridings, where population mobility was much more prevalent.

Another practice was "importing" voters from the United States for election day—ferrying in Canadians who had moved to the United States. On March 6, 1891, a Quebec newspaper reported the arrival of two Grand Trunk Railway trains carrying some 2,000 textile workers from the United States who were returning home to vote. (Hamelin et al., 108) A decade later in Ontario, the Lake Superior Corporation used a tugboat to bring in workers from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, to vote in the place of absent or deceased miners.

Elections cannot be carried without money. Under an open system of voting, you can readily ascertain whether the voter has deceived you. Under vote by ballot, an elector may take your money and vote as he likes without detection.

— John H. Cameron, MP House of Commons Debates April 21, 1874

Soon after the adoption of Macdonald's Electoral Franchise Act in 1885, falsification of electoral lists became a common practice. Before that date, the lists, drawn up by municipal employees, had given rise to few complaints. Beginning in 1885, however, the lists were drawn up by persons appointed by the party in power. The name or profession of an elector was often changed, with the result that the person in question was not allowed to vote when he arrived at the polling station. At the same time, many individuals became "legally qualified" to vote when false names were added to the lists and the names of persons who had died or moved away were not deleted. To make matters worse, the lists were not updated regularly.

Colour lithograph supporting electoral bid of Malcolm Cameron (1808-1896) in the County of Russell for 1872 federal election.

Campaign Literature, 1872

Malcolm Cameron (1808–1896) used the latest technology to produce this colour lithograph supporting his electoral bid, but voters chose another candidate. Cameron founded the Bathurst Courier at Perth, Upper Canada, in 1833 and was Queen's Printer for Canada from 1863 to 1869. Library and Archives Canada, C-120987

The 1891 election provides an excellent example of the combined effects of falsification of lists and lack of regular updating. In Ontario alone, comparison of the electoral lists updated in 1889 and census data for the year of the election reveals the existence of more than 34,000 "floaters"—persons who had died or moved out of the province. Moreover, because the 1891 election was held on the basis of lists revised two years earlier, tens of thousands of new electors were disenfranchised. In the country as a whole, according to contemporary accounts, at least 50,000 and possibly more than 100,000 electors were deprived of the right to vote in that election because the electoral lists had not been updated or, in some cases, had been falsified.

Intimidation was another method used to influence election results. The Catholic clergy, for example, openly supported the Conservative party in pastoral letters and statements from the pulpit. Some parish priests even threatened their parishioners with the fires of hell if they voted Liberal. Although the effects of such intimidation were felt mainly in Quebec, where some elections were even voided because of the "undue influence" of the clergy, it was also a factor in the Maritimes, Ontario and Manitoba—until the Roman Catholic Church and the courts reined in these tendencies around the turn of the century.

Sketch showing a large crowd of men gathered outside a brick building. A dozen or so men in top hats stand at the front of the crowd on a raised platform.

Nominations, 1871-Style

Sketch of the nominations in Montreal Centre for the Quebec provincial election held in 1871. Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Illustrated News, July 1, 1871, C-056351

Intimidation by employers, though less widespread than the influence of the clergy, was nonetheless a factor. Employers threatened to reduce the wages of, or even fire, those who did not vote for the "right" candidate. The March 10, 1896, edition of La Patrie published the text of a notice posted on the wall of a Montréal manufacturing concern:

We feel it is only fair to notify employees that, in case of a change in government [Conservative], we will be unable to guarantee the wages you are now being paid; neither will we be able to guarantee work of any kind to all the employees employed by us at this time.

— Hamelin et al., 109 (translation)

To the range of questionable election practices already described must be added the inappropriate use of public funds for election purposes, illegal election expenses, falsification of ballots, and dishonesty, or even incompetence, among election personnel. In 1891, a returning officer in the Algoma riding said that he could distinguish between male and female "Indians" only on the basis of their clothing. Organizers for the Conservative candidate seized the opportunity: the men voted first, then loaned their clothing to the women so they could vote.

As a result of these and other scandals, new provisions were added to the Dominion Elections Act. In 1891, it became an offence to assist a candidate in exchange for money or other valuable consideration. In 1908, corporations were barred from making campaign contributions, while others could make donations only through a candidate's official agent. The lack of an overseeing body, however, made the legislation an ineffective deterrent, and businesses continued to donate campaign funds freely to whomever they wished.

…there is so little likelihood of detection, [and] the price paid for passing false votes is so tempting, that unless severe measures are employed, there will always be persons willing to undertake the business.

— Herbert Brown Ames quoted in John English's The Decline of Politics, 1977

The Electoral Mosaic, 1867–1885

From 1867 to 1885, five federal general elections were held, with the electorate varying from province to province under the provincial electoral laws then in force. In all provinces, there were three basic conditions for becoming an elector: being male, having reached the age of 21 and being a British subject by birth or naturalization. The other conditions varied according to the electoral law of each province. Tables 2.1 and 2.2 give an overview of the diversity of conditions in effect.

Except in British Columbia, the main restrictions on entitlement to vote were property- or income-based qualifications, which established four classes of citizens: those who owned real property of a minimum value, those who leased or occupied a property of a minimum value or paid an annual rent of a minimum value, those who owned personal property or a combination of personal and real property of a minimum combined value, and those who earned a minimum annual income. As Table 2.1 shows, electors were far from being equal across the country on the basis of these criteria.

For property owners, the required value of real property varied by as much as $300 from one province to another. Conditions for tenants and for those who qualified on the basis of owning a combination of real and/or personal property also varied widely. Finally, two provinces linked the right to vote to a minimum annual income: in Ontario, the minimum was $250; in New Brunswick, it was $400.

Table 2.1

Property and Income Qualifications: Minimum Conditions Required to Vote in Federal Elections, 1867–1885
Province Property or Income Qualification for Owners and/or Tenants2
Nova Scotia3
  • Value of real property occupied by either owners or tenants: $150
  • Value of real property occupied by owners: $300 in urban areas; $200 in rural areas
  • Amount of annual rent for tenants: $30 in urban areas; $20 in rural areas
  • Value of real property occupied by either owners or tenants: $200 in urban areas; $100 in rural areas
  • Annual income: $250 (urban residents)
  • Value of real property occupied by owners: $100
  • Value of real property occupied by tenants: $200
  • Amount of annual rent for tenants: $20
New Brunswick6
  • Value of real property occupied by owners: $1007
  • Annual income: $400
Prince Edward Island
  • Those under 60 years of age had to make an annual contribution of four days' work to maintain and build highways or the equivalent in cash; those over age 60 had to own real estate that generated a minimum annual income of $8.
British Columbia8
  • No property or income qualifications.

Table 2.2

Categories of Citizens Ineligible to Vote, 1867–18859

Nova Scotia
  1. Any person who, during the 15 days preceding the election, was remunerated by the government as an employee of one of the following:
    • post office
    • customs
    • lighthouses
    • Crown land office
    • public works
    • mines
    • railroads
    • department of revenue
  2. Any person in need who received social assistance or assistance in any amount from a charitable organization during the year preceding the election.
  1. Any person remunerated by the government as an employee of one of the following:
    • post office (cities and towns)
    • customs
    • Crown land office
    • or holder of one of the following positions:
      • judge of the superior court, court of Queen's bench, vice-admiralty court, sessions court or municipal court
      • district magistrate
      • secretary, undersecretary or clerk of the Crown
      • sheriff or assistant sheriff
      • officer or member of a provincial or municipal police force
  2. Any person who collected federal or provincial duties, including excise duties, in the name of Her Majesty.
  1. Any person of "Indian" origin or partly "Indian blood," not enfranchised, who resided on a reserve located in a riding where no electoral list existed and who benefited from amounts paid, in the form of annuities, interest or other funds, to the tribe or band of which the person was a member.
  2. Any person who was remunerated by the government as an employee of one of the following:
    • post office (cities and towns)
    • customs
    • Crown land office
    • or holder of one of the following positions:
      • judge
      • chancellor or vice-chancellor of the province
      • Crown clerk or assistant clerk
      • registrar general
      • prosecutor in a county court
      • sheriff or assistant sheriff
  3. Any person collecting excise duties on behalf of Her Majesty.
  4. Any person acting as returning officer or election clerk (deputy returning officers and poll clerks retained the right to vote).
  5. Any person working in any capacity for a candidate before or during an election.
  6. Any stipendiary magistrate (i.e. paid by an individual).
  1. Any person of "Indian" origin who received an annuity from the Crown.
  2. Any person holding one of the following positions:
    • judge of the court of Queen's bench, a county court or a municipal court
    • Crown clerk
    • registrar general
    • clerk of a county court
    • sheriff or assistant sheriff
British Columbia
  1. Any person of "Indian" origin.
  2. Any immigrant of Chinese origin.
  3. Any person holding one of the following positions:
    • employee of the customs department
    • employee of the federal government responsible for collecting excise duties
    • judge of the Supreme Court or a county court
    • stipendiary magistrate
    • police constable or police officer
  4. Any employee of the federal government paid an annual salary (except postal employees).
  5. Any employee of the provincial government paid an annual salary.
  6. Any teacher paid by the government of the province.
  7. Any person previously found guilty of treason, serious crimes or other offences, unless he had been pardoned or served his sentence.

Three provinces—Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia—imposed racial restrictions. Before Confederation, just one of the colonies had decreed that "Indians" could not vote. Nova Scotia explicitly excluded them from the electorate in 1854 when it abolished property-based qualifications; when the province re-established these qualifications in 1863, it repealed the exclusion clause. In practice, in Nova Scotia as elsewhere, First Nations persons were not entitled to vote because, under federal law, virtually none of them held property as individuals.

Soon after Confederation, Ontario decreed that, in places where no electoral lists existed, only "enfranchised Indians"—persons who had renounced their "Indian" status—could vote. If they wanted to exercise their right to vote, they could not be "residing among the Indians" or benefiting from amounts paid to a tribe or band in the form of annuities, interest or other funds. In ridings where electoral lists were drawn up, "enfranchised Indians" who did not reside among the "Indians" were eligible to vote, even if they received a portion of an amount paid to a tribe or band. In practice, however, this measure affected few people. Between 1867 and 1920, in all of Canada, a mere 250 First Nations persons were enfranchised. There is no record of others who might have been covered by the terms of the legislation and could therefore have voted; their numbers were certainly not legion.

In Manitoba, First Nations persons who received a benefit from the Crown were not entitled to vote. In British Columbia, neither First Nations persons nor residents of Chinese descent could vote. Although there were very few immigrants of Asian origin in British Columbia at that time, First Nations peoples accounted for more than an estimated two thirds of the province's population in 1871.

At the same time, all provinces except New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island denied the vote to certain government employees. Here, too, there was considerable inconsistency among the provinces. In Nova Scotia, for example, postal employees did not have the vote; in British Columbia and Manitoba, they did; in Quebec and Ontario, only rural postmasters were eligible to vote. Postmasters were patronage appointments made by the federal government. At a time when the Conservatives dominated the federal government, postmasters could be seen as Conservative supporters. This was one of the reasons that Macdonald wanted the federal government to control the franchise.

Amendments to provincial election laws between 1867 and 1885 did little to increase the number of electors, except in Ontario, where property requirements were reduced significantly, and in Nova Scotia, where the voting privileges of property owners were extended to tenants. At the same time, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba extended the right to vote to co-owners and co-tenants of property assessed at a value that, if divided among the co-owners or co-tenants, fulfilled the property qualifications in effect for each individual. Considering the economic conditions of the period, this measure probably affected only a small number of individuals.

Macdonald Centralizes the Franchise

On July 27, 1885, Conservative Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald wrote to his friend Charles Tupper, "On the twentieth we closed the most harassing and disagreeable session I have ever witnessed in forty years." But he went on to add, "I consider the passage of the Franchise Bill the greatest triumph of my life." (Stewart, 3)

Newspaper caricature depicting Sir John A. Macdonald with a speech bubble above his head that reads 'I admit I took the money and bribed electors with it, is there anything wrong about that?'

Macdonald's Admission, 1873

The caption below this cartoon, published on September 26, 1873, quoted The Mail of the same date: "We in Canada seem to have lost all idea of justice, honor and integrity." Macdonald's support in the House of Commons declined after revelations that he had accepted campaign donations from Sir Hugh Allan, with whom he was negotiating government railway contracts. His government resigned on November 6. J.W. Bengough, Library and Archives Canada, C-078604

Why was Macdonald—who had won many other significant victories in his 40-year political career—so pleased with the bill? An ardent centralist, Macdonald had little use for provincial governments; if it had been up to him, they might have been abolished at Confederation. In the years preceding his franchise bill, the struggle between the federal government and the provinces had intensified. Ontario, led by Oliver Mowat's Liberals, had won battles with the federal government on provincial boundaries and alcohol licensing. There seemed to be the risk of a snowball effect: in Nova Scotia, also led by a Liberal government, withdrawal from Confederation was touted as a real possibility. In this context, Macdonald could no longer allow the provinces to control the entitlement to vote in federal elections.

He tabled a bill giving full control of the franchise to the federal government. The bill led to unprecedented debate in the House of Commons. Between April 16 and July 6, 1885, members engaged in heated discussion of every facet of the legislation, often late into the night. The government finally had to concede a number of amendments. The result was an extremely complex elections act that, instead of producing a uniform Canadian electorate, diversified the electorate even more.

At a time when Ontario was preparing to expand access to the vote, Macdonald contrived to keep the property-based qualification. Along with most members of his party, he had a profound aversion to universal suffrage, which he considered one of the greatest evils that could befall a country. Perhaps convinced that most women were conservative, Macdonald suggested giving the vote to widows and "spinsters" who owned property. He backed down, however, in the face of objections from some of his own members. The suspicion remains that Macdonald had inserted the clause as a sacrificial lamb, never intending it to survive final reading of the bill.

Macdonald's 1885 Electoral Franchise Act retained the three basic conditions common to all the provinces: being male, having reached the age of 21 and being a British subject by birth or naturalization. The property-based qualification differed according to whether an individual lived in an urban or a rural riding. Furthermore, in urban areas, it varied according to whether an elector lived in a city or a town (a distinction based on population size). Table 2.3 summarizes the resulting franchise across the country.

Table 2.3

Minimum Conditions Required to Vote in Federal Elections, 188510
Value of real property, whether occupied by owners or tenants11 Amount of annual rent for tenants Annual income
  • $2/month or $20/year
  • $300

For example, to be qualified to vote in a city, a man was required to own real property valued at $300 or more. The occupant in good faith of a property of the same value was also qualified to vote. Tenants who paid a monthly rent of at least $2 or an annual rent of at least $20 could also vote, as could persons whose annual income was at least $300. Sons of owners, or of widows of owners, whose total property value, divided among them, was sufficient to confer the right to vote on each of them were qualified to vote, on the condition that a son had lived with his mother or father for one year with no break longer than four months. Furthermore, all electors except property owners were subject to a one-year residency requirement.

Prince Edward Island and British Columbia, where there had been no property-based qualification, received special treatment. In both provinces, anyone who already had the right to vote when the 1885 act was passed continued to enjoy that right; however, those who reached the age of 21 after that date were subject to the same property or income qualifications as those in effect in the other provinces.

The property-based qualifications set by the Electoral Franchise Act clearly favoured rural residents over urban dwellers. Furthermore, the qualifications were set higher than they had been before in most provinces. The Act did give the vote to new classes of persons, on certain conditions, including fishermen, property owners' sons and farmers' sons (although they already had the vote in British Columbia and Prince Edward Island). At the same time, however, the Act made it more difficult for small property owners and some tenants to obtain the right to vote.

Comparing Tables 2.1 and 2.3 shows that property owners saw the most significant increase in voting qualifications. In New Brunswick and Manitoba, the required value of property tripled for cities and doubled for towns; in rural areas, it rose by 33 percent. In Nova Scotia, it doubled for cities and climbed by 33 percent for towns, but remained the same in rural areas. In Ontario, the property qualification rose by 33 percent for both rural and urban areas. In Quebec, it remained unchanged for urban areas and fell by 25 percent for rural areas.

The situation with regard to tenants is more difficult to pin down. In the provincial laws that had previously applied, eligibility to vote was related to the value of leased property rather than the annual rent paid, making comparisons difficult. Under the 1885 act, at least some tenants became new members of the electorate. In New Brunswick, where no tenant had had the vote, the new law enfranchised those who paid the minimum required rent. In Manitoba and rural Quebec, the annual rent requirement was unchanged; in Quebec cities, it dropped by one third. Elsewhere, it can be assumed that the new law affected tenants adversely to the extent that the required value of leased property rose significantly.

Because the number of citizens in each category is unknown, it is impossible to arrive at an accurate figure for the electorate as a whole. It can be assumed, however, that the new electoral law reduced the overall size of the electorate. Residents of two provinces—British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, where universal male suffrage had almost been achieved—were clear losers. In these provinces, those who already had the right to vote kept it. But others reaching voting age were subject to the property-based requirements, which inevitably reduced the relative size of the electorate. The citizens of two other provinces were also clear losers as a result of the changes: Ontario, because it was the most urbanized province and the legislation favoured rural residents, and Nova Scotia. These two provinces, both with Liberal governments in power, were precisely the provinces that had caused the biggest headaches for the Conservative government in Ottawa in the matter of the division of powers. In just one province—Quebec, a Conservative stronghold since 1867—did the size of the electorate appear to have increased.

Campaign poster depicting Sir John A. Macdonald waving the Canadian Red Ensign flag as he rests on the shoulders of a man wearing a farmer's hat and a man wearing a worker's apron. Text at the bottom of the poster reads, 'The old flag. The old policy. The old Leader.'

The Last Hurrah, 1891

At age 75, Sir John A. Macdonald fought his last election campaign, defending his protectionist National Policy against the idea of "commercial union" with the United States. Library and Archives Canada, e010934529

The 1885 act was more lenient than most of the previous provincial acts in terms of the right to vote of judges and some classes of government employees. Only the chief justice and justices of the Supreme Court of Canada and the chief justices and magistrates of provincial superior courts were prohibited from voting. Furthermore, some election officials (returning officers, poll clerks and the revising officers who updated the lists of electors) were allowed to vote, but only in a riding other than the one where they worked. This rule also applied to all individuals who worked for a candidate in any capacity before or during an election.

The new election law retained existing racial restrictions and even disenfranchised some First Nations people in Quebec and the Maritimes. Persons of "Mongolian and Chinese race" were expressly deprived of the right to vote. According to Sir John A. Macdonald, persons of Chinese origin ought not to have a vote because they had "no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations." (Roy, 152) Furthermore, the First Nations people of Manitoba, British Columbia, the District of Keewatin and the Northwest Territories had no vote, and those living on reserves elsewhere in Canada were required to own and occupy a piece of land that had been improved to a minimum value of $150.

Macdonald was pleased, not only with recovering control of the franchise but also with ensuring that, from then on, the electoral lists would be drawn up by revising officers appointed by the government in power. These lists were the keystone of the electoral system. If an elector's name was missing from the list, he could not exercise his right to vote. Macdonald himself, on the advice of his supporters, appointed the revising officers. Over the years, he established a complex countrywide network of his own appointees, which he controlled completely and effectively.

Laurier Decentralizes the Franchise

For the Liberals, the 1885 election legislation was a bitter pill to swallow. They had only to wait for the right moment to change track. Macdonald died in June of 1891. Without him at the helm, the Conservatives soon foundered, and the Liberals under Wilfrid Laurier took power in 1896. When Charles Fitzpatrick, the solicitor general, tabled a proposed new electoral law in the House of Commons, he said that since 1885, preparation of the electoral lists had cost the public coffers more than $1,141,000, an enormous sum at that time.

The new act, which took effect on June 13, 1898, was designed to correct the situation by giving the provinces responsibility for drawing up electoral lists and, once again, control of the right to vote in federal elections. The situation had regressed to the pre-1885 system, including significant inequality among electors in different provinces.

Election campaign poster depicting a wall of bricks with a different Liberal achievement written in each one. A crowd of people is illustrated in the bottom right and a man and woman in fine clothes appear in the forefront.

Running on Their Record, 1904

The Liberals appealed to voters with a wall of achievement—built of bricks that included "Unjust Franchise Act Repealed" and "Gerrymander Wiped Out." Says Miss Canada to Wilfrid Laurier, "Mr. Foreman you have done splendidly so far, I count on you and your men to complete the work." Library and Archives Canada, C-122035

To mitigate these disparities, the new federal law specified that the provinces were not empowered to disqualify voters. More specifically, the provinces were prohibited from excluding a citizen, otherwise qualified to vote, from exercising the right to vote on the grounds that he practised a particular profession or carried on a particular occupation, worked for the federal government or a provincial government, or belonged to any class of persons. As a result, citizens of Chinese or Japanese descent living in British Columbia obtained the right to vote in federal elections (even though they were excluded from provincial elections), as did federal and provincial government employees in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.

The situation with regard to First Nations people was less clear-cut. At first glance, the wording of the Act seems to suggest that they were also excluded from disqualification by provinces. There were indications, however, that in the minds of the legislators, "Indians" did not belong to "any class of persons." Until that time, the Liberals had always appeared reluctant to give First Nations people the right to vote. At its 1893 convention, the party made a formal statement condemning any measure of this kind. Later, the federal government refused them the right to vote in the Northwest Territories and Yukon, both of which were under direct federal control. It is therefore highly probable that the provisions disqualifying them from voting in provincial elections applied to federal elections as well.

In 1898, most provinces already applied significant restrictions on First Nations people's right to vote. No First Nations person was allowed to vote in British Columbia or New Brunswick. In Manitoba, the right to vote was reserved for "Indian" persons who received no benefit from the Crown and had received no such benefit during the three years preceding an election. In Ontario, the right was given only to "enfranchised Indians" or to First Nations persons living outside a reserve, on condition that the latter owned real property assessed at $200 or more in a city or town or $100 or more in a village or township. This last condition was even more discriminatory because Ontario had abolished all property-based qualifications for non-Indigenous electors 10 years earlier.

The situation did not improve in the years that followed. In 1915, Quebec withdrew the voting rights of First Nations persons living on reserves, and by July 1919, First Nations persons living on reserves anywhere in the country were no longer entitled to vote in federal by-elections.

The Liberals' 1898 election law excluded other groups as well, among them previously excluded federally appointed judges. Furthermore, three classes of individuals already disqualified from voting in Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick—prison inmates as well as residents of lunatic asylums and charitable institutions receiving assistance from a municipality or the government—were now disenfranchised throughout the country. In addition, persons who, before or during an election, were hired by another person and remunerated in any way for working as an agent, clerk, solicitor or legal counsel were also disenfranchised. Electors found guilty of election fraud lost the right to vote for seven years. Finally, returning officers and poll clerks were prohibited from voting in the riding in which they performed their duties. All these exclusions remained in force until at least 1920.

The 1898 act specified that the conditions that qualified a person to vote in a federal election were the same as those that qualified the individual to vote in provincial elections in his province of residence. This principle was more restrictive than it appeared at first glance. Because statutory disqualification was no longer permitted, the provinces were left with five factors that they could use to control the right to vote: age, gender, citizenship, length of residence and property-based requirements. The first three qualifications were already common to all provinces. From Atlantic to Pacific, only males age 21 or over who were born or naturalized British subjects were qualified to vote. Residency requirements, which varied from province to province, might apply to the province as a whole, to the electoral district or to both.

A cartoon from the Canadian Illustrated News depicting the results of the 1878 Quebec provincial election in which the 'vanquished' is portrayed as a sad-looking thin man while the 'victor' is portrayed as a smiling, overweight man. The cartoon is titled 'After the Elections'.

After the Elections, Part 2

The 1878 Quebec provincial election resulted in numerous cartoon depictions of the vanquished and the victor, such as this one from the Canadian Illustrated News. Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Illustrated News, May 4, 1878, C-067823

The required length of residence in the province was 6 months in British Columbia and 12 months everywhere else; for particular ridings, the provisions ranged from 1 month to 12 months. Ontario, the most urbanized of the provinces, added a specific provision with regard to cities and towns, where changes of domicile were extremely common. The residency requirement was 12 months in the province, 3 months in the town in question and 1 month in the riding. These provisions tightened restrictions on urban electors, who often moved in pursuit of work, without penalizing them too harshly.

Before 1920, only two provinces changed their residency requirements. In 1907, New Brunswick halved it, from 12 months to 6. The same year, Ontario relaxed its 12-month residency requirement to include residence anywhere in the country, though the additional residency requirements for urban areas remained in place. A few provinces accepted the fact that some individuals (loggers, sailors, students) were occasionally or temporarily absent from their usual residence to carry on their occupation or attend an educational establishment. In 1900, the federal government decreed that military personnel and war correspondents did not lose the right to vote because of absence for reasons of active duty. The measure, which affected all provinces, was adopted to accommodate Canadians serving in the Boer War in South Africa. When the war ended two years later, the privilege granted to Canadian servicemen remained in place.

A postcard featuring the photograph of a bearded man urging electors to nominate and vote for T.F. Wallace in a 1902 by-election in West York, Ontario.

Family Connections, 1902

This card urged electors to nominate and vote for T. F. Wallace but did not achieve its goal: Wallace lost the 1902 by-election. He was likely a relative of Nathaniel Clarke Wallace, member of Parliament for West York from 1878 until his death in 1901, and of Thomas George Wallace, who held the seat from 1908 to 1921. Library and Archives Canada, C-976540

Before adoption of the 1898 act, property-based qualifications were the main curb on expansion of the electorate. At that time, this restriction still existed in only four provinces: Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec.

In Prince Edward Island, property-based qualifications affected only persons 60 years of age or over, who were required to own real property assessed at at least $100 or generating a minimum annual income of $6. In 1902, the province achieved universal male suffrage when it abolished the requirement. To qualify to vote in New Brunswick, it was necessary to own real property assessed at $100 or more, or real property and personal property with a combined value of $400. Persons earning an annual income of $400 were also qualified to vote. This threshold was very high; at the turn of the century, a textile worker, for example, earned an average of $240 per year. New Brunswick abolished property- and income-based qualifications in 1916.

In Nova Scotia, the situation had remained unchanged since 1885. To be qualified to vote in the province in 1898, it was still necessary to own, rent or occupy property assessed at $150 or more. Furthermore, an individual who owned personal property and leased or occupied property whose value, added to that of the personal property, totalled $300 was qualified to vote. Co-owners, co-tenants, sons of men qualified to vote or of widows who owned, occupied or leased property with a value sufficient to confer the right to vote could vote under the same conditions as those that existed before 1885. The province later qualified as electors persons earning an annual income of at least $250 and fishermen who owned real property, boats, nets and fishing tackle with a combined value of $150 or more. Property- and income-based qualifications were eventually eliminated in the province in 1920.

In Quebec, where urbanization was in full swing, the property-based qualifications in force in 1898 still favoured residents of rural areas. In urban areas, owners or occupants in good faith of premises assessed at $300 could vote; in rural areas, the minimum required value was just $200. A similar disparity existed between tenants in urban areas, where the minimum annual rent was $30, and tenants in rural areas, where it was $20. Persons receiving a minimum annual income of $300 were also qualified to vote. Fishermen could vote if they owned boats, nets, seines and fishing tackle worth a total of $150 or more. Furthermore, retired farmers and property owners (referred to as life annuitants) could also vote if their annuity—in cash or in kind—was $100 or more. Teachers were exempt from any property-based requirement. In 1912, Quebec substantially reduced financial qualifications, a measure that gave the right to vote to the great majority of men in the province.

The lists used in [the 1908 federal] election were provincial lists which had been compiled two or more years earlier, and contained the names of many dead and absent persons. However, by a custom regarded as common and ordinary, the votes of the dead and absent were not lost but were made good use of by both contesting parties.

— Charles G. ("Chubby") Power, A Party Politician, 1966
Photograph of an older man pasting an election proclamation poster on a pole using a brush and a bucket of paste.

Broadcasting the News, 1911

In the days before mass media, broadcasting an election proclamation required a brush and a bucket of paste (Lambton County, Ontario). John Boyd, Library and Archives Canada, PA-060819

The 1898 federal legislation certainly expanded the Canadian electorate. To what extent? Because censuses from that era are relatively unreliable, it is impossible to say. One thing is certain: when the legislation was adopted, most provinces, including Ontario (the province with the largest population), had already introduced universal male suffrage. In these provinces, therefore, universal male suffrage also applied to federal elections. This was a significant step forward from Macdonald's 1885 legislation, which not only maintained the principle of property- or income-based qualifications but even raised the eligibility threshold in most areas of the country. Laurier's 1898 law broadened the electorate by prohibiting provincial disqualification based on race or socio-professional characteristics. Nonetheless, two provinces—British Columbia and Manitoba—tried to find ways to get around the federal legislation.

The 1898 Plebiscite on Prohibition

The year 1898 marked the first time the federal government held a referendum—the prohibition plebiscite. Some 44.6 percent of the electorate voted: of those, 51 percent voted in favour of a prohibition on alcohol, and 49 percent voted against. With such a close result, Prime Minister Laurier decided there was not enough support for legislating prohibition.

In 1901, British Columbia decreed that no one could vote if he was unable to read the provincial election legislation, which was written in English. Naturally, this measure was hostile to the enfranchisement of citizens of Chinese or Japanese origin. The following year, Manitoba adopted a similar strategy: no one was qualified to vote who could not read the Manitoba elections act in English, French, German, Icelandic or a Scandinavian language; this effectively prohibited many immigrants of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian origin from voting in federal elections. The record does not show whether the federal government intervened to counteract these efforts at disenfranchisement.

Boundary Redistribution

For the democratic process to be truly representative, a system for maintaining the fair and balanced distribution of constituency boundaries is essential. The Fathers of Confederation addressed this requirement in the Constitution Act, 1867 by adopting the basic working principle of "representation by population" for the House of Commons. Given that the Act guaranteed Quebec a minimum of 65 seats in the House of Commons, the seat allotment for the rest of the country was determined by dividing the average population in Quebec's 65 ridings into the total population for each of the other provinces—thus making the number of seats per province proportional to their respective populations. The Constitution Act, 1867 furthermore provided a mechanism for maintaining this balance by specifying that a process to review and adjust provincial seat allotments, as well as boundaries of individual ridings, should occur after each 10-year census.

Significantly, in those early years after Confederation, the responsibility for determining the new boundary placements rested solely with the government. The Representation Act of 1903 sought to rectify the consequent political advantage by conferring the job of boundary readjustment on a bipartisan committee of the House of Commons. Since the governing party still held a majority on the committee, though, the pursuit of balanced democratic representation remained a secondary consideration, and blatant political manoeuvring within the process continued to fuel rancorous debate for another 60 years.

Borden's Strategic Measures

After Canada declared war on Germany in August 1914, the country fell victim to a wave of collective hysteria. The commander of the naval yard at Esquimalt, British Columbia, was so fearful of a German invasion that he succumbed to nervous collapse. Fear of spies gave rise to general mistrust of new Canadians, especially those from Germany or Austria-Hungary. At that time, immigrants from these countries accounted for about 5 percent of the population of Canada. In October 1914, the federal government interned foreign nationals identified by government officials as a potential danger to the country. More than 8,500 individuals were sent to closely guarded internment camps.

Three years later, the war dragged on, and volunteers for military service had begun to fall short of requirements. In April 1917, the number of volunteers was only 5,530; in May, it was up slightly at 6,407. But Canadian losses at the front were high: in April alone, 3,600 Canadians were killed and 7,000 wounded at the battle of Vimy Ridge. The Conservative prime minister, Sir Robert Borden, travelled to England and returned shaken by the experience. To him, there was only one solution: in June, he tabled a military service bill authorizing the government to conscript any male person between the ages of 18 and 60.

Black and white photograph of six soldiers in First World War uniforms sitting on a mound of earth as they mark election ballots.

Making the Vote Accessible, 1916–1917

Special arrangements for electors unable to vote because of occupation or assignment abroad were introduced gradually to improve access to the vote. For example, in 1915, the postal ballot was introduced. These photos show soldiers voting overseas in the federal election of December 1917 and the British Columbia election of September 1916. Department of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada, PA-002318

Black and white photo of a dozen soldiers in First World War uniforms holding and marking ballots as they crowd around an antique car.

Voting overseas during the First World War

William Ivor Castle, Canada Department of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada, PA-000554

Borden's government was already in serious trouble, however, and an election was imminent. Could the conscription issue defeat them at the polls? This was what was predicted in the West, where the largely immigrant population already sympathized strongly with Laurier's Liberals, and the conscription issue seemed to be strengthening the trend. Across the country, union leaders got ready to do battle with conscriptionists. In Ontario, the rural population opposed conscription, and Francophone Quebec rejected conscription spontaneously and massively.

Borden and his government, who saw their situation as increasingly desperate, attempted to modify the composition of the electorate by changing the electoral law. Borden confided to his diary, "Our first duty is to win at any cost the coming election so that we may continue to do our part in winning the war and that Canada be not disgraced." On September 20, 1917, Parliament adopted not one, but two election acts, though Borden had to use closure to push them through.

The first, the Military Voters Act, was designed to increase the number of electors potentially favourable to the government in power. As its title suggests, the law defined a military voter as any British subject, male or female, who was an active or retired member of the Canadian Armed Forces—including First Nations persons and persons under 21 years of age, independent of any residency requirement—as well as any British subject ordinarily resident in Canada who was on active duty in Europe in the Canadian, British or any other allied army. (Thus, some 2,000 military nurses—the "Bluebirds"—became the first Canadian women to get the vote; see next section.) Furthermore, military voters could assign their vote to any riding in which they had previously resided, or their vote could be assigned by the party of the military voter's choice to the riding where it would be most useful. Finally, the Act contained a short section that appeared innocuous but was extremely significant: several hundred thousand votes from overseas would be counted only 31 days after an election in Canada.

The second law, the Wartime Elections Act, had a dual purpose: to increase the number of electors favourable to the government in power and decrease the number of electors unfavourable to it. The law conferred the right to vote on the widows of Canadian Forces members as well as on the spouses, mothers, sisters and daughters of any persons, male or female, living or dead, who were serving or had served in the Canadian Forces, provided they met the age, nationality and residency requirements for electors in their respective provinces or Yukon. It also conferred the right to vote on those who did not own property in accordance with prevailing provincial law but had a son or grandson in the army. (This provision affected only Quebec and Nova Scotia, as the other provinces had already abolished property- and income-based qualifications.)

The Act also disenfranchised conscientious objectors. This affected Mennonites and Doukhobors, two pacifist groups, even though the federal government had exempted them officially from military service: the former in 1873 and the latter in 1898. Individuals born in an enemy country who became naturalized British subjects after March 31, 1902, were also disenfranchised, with the exception of those born in France, Italy or Denmark who arrived in Canada before the date on which their country of origin was annexed by Germany or Austria. Also included were British subjects naturalized after March 31, 1902, whose mother tongue was that of an enemy country, whether or not the individual's country of origin was an ally of Great Britain. The same rule applied to persons found guilty of an offence under the Military Service Act, 1917. Overall, new Canadians living on the Prairies were the most seriously affected by the Wartime Elections Act, with tens of thousands being disenfranchised.

Finally, the legislation of September 20, 1917, stripped the provinces of the responsibility for drawing up electoral lists and gave the task to enumerators appointed by the federal government—in other words, by the Conservatives as the party in power. The president of the Canadian Suffrage Association remarked that the Act would have been more honest if it had simply disenfranchised everyone who failed to promise to vote for the Conservatives! All Borden had to do now was call an election.

But the race was not yet won. One week after the two laws were passed, an informant with sources in government circles reported to Laurier that the Conservatives, fearing defeat, were preparing to mobilize English-Canadian opinion against French Canada. Who among Borden's inner circle had devised the strategy? One thing was certain: Borden did not reject it. In the next few months, the English-language press painted a picture of Quebec as a province that was as big a threat to Canada as Germany was to the world.

Cases of election fraud soared during the subsequent election campaign. A soldier suspected of intending to vote Liberal was threatened with being sent immediately to the front. Telegrams and letters from the federal cabinet even specified the number of floaters to be entered on the electoral lists to assure election of a given candidate in a given riding. An officer who feared investigation of the irregularities was told that anyone who failed to hold their tongue would be buried in France within six months. Efforts to exercise "undue influence" on the election resurfaced on a scale previously unheard of. The Sunday preceding the election, in three out of four Protestant churches across the country, pastors and ministers exhorted the people to look on voting for the government in power as a sacred duty, failing which Canada would be disgraced.

The election was held on December 17, 1917. As specified in the Military Voters Act, the votes of civilian electors were counted before those of military voters. The military vote was more than 90 percent for Conservative candidates. The Conservatives won at least 14 additional seats by redistributing the military vote to ridings where opposition candidates had a slight lead. Borden won the election. But was Canada less "disgraced"? The proposition is doubtful at best. A few days before Canadians went to the polls, Laurier remarked to Sir Allen Aylesworth, one of his oldest friends, "The racial chasm which is now opening at our feet may perhaps not be overcome for many generations."

Women and the Vote

The Bluebirds who voted in the 1917 federal election may have been the first Canadian women to do so with the official sanction of the electoral law behind them, but they were not the first women in the colonies of British North America to vote.

Handwritten record of names, qualifications, challenges and votes for the election of July 25, 1827, in Lower Canada, showing that vote of Agnes Wilson was not challenged

A Woman Votes in Lower Canada, 1827

A handwritten record of names, qualifications, challenges and votes for the election of July 25, 1827, shows that Agnes Wilson's vote (left-hand column, fourth name from the bottom) was not challenged. Women in Lower Canada were not bound by the common law convention barring women from the polls. Library and Archives Canada, RG 4-B72, Volume 21, pages 3153-4

At Confederation, all the original colonies had statutory provisions excluding women from voting;14 these were entrenched in section 41 of the Constitution Act, 1867:

Until the Parliament of Canada otherwise provides, all laws in force in the several Provinces of the Union … shall … apply to elections of Members to serve in the House of Commons … [and] every male British Subject, aged Twenty-one Years or upwards, being a householder, shall have a vote.

— Constitution Act, 1867, section 41

The colonies (except for Lower Canada) inherited England's common law tradition, under which women had not exercised the franchise for centuries; this was the result of convention, not statute law. (Garner, 156) In the colonies, the convention seems to have been less influential.

Women and the Right to Vote, 1867–1900

Constitution Act, 1867 entrenches women's exclusion from the vote.
Female property owners in British Columbia are first "Canadian" women to gain the right to vote in municipal elections.
First women's suffrage group set up in Toronto under the guise of a literary society.
Sir John A. Macdonald introduces, then withdraws, an elections act amendment that would have given women the right to vote.
  • Women's Enfranchisement Association of New Brunswick formed.
  • Manitoba Equal Suffrage Club founded.
  • House of Commons votes down a petition for women's suffrage presented by the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
By this date, most women property owners have the right to vote in municipal elections.

Only New Brunswick explicitly prohibited voting by women before 1800. There, the council banned women from voting in the colony's inaugural election, held in 1785, but the assembly later failed to include the ban in the colony's first electoral law, passed in 1791.

In Upper and Lower Canada, the Constitutional Act of 1791 was silent on the issue of women voting, extending the franchise to "persons" who owned property of a certain value. Not being subject to the common law, women in Lower Canada turned out to vote at several locations. Madame Rosalie Papineau, mother of Louis-Joseph Papineau, voted for her son at the 1809 election, declaring her choice "a good and faithful subject." The women accompanying her also voted. By the 1820 election the practice had spread, and voting by women was recorded in Bedford County and Trois-Rivières, where a local citizen wrote later that two members had been elected by the "men and women of Trois-Rivières, for here women vote just as men do, without discrimination." In Trois-Rivières, one man was even disenfranchised because he had placed his property in his wife's name. On election day, "the unhappy man appeared at the polling place, only to find himself doubly humiliated by being refused the franchise and then sent to get his wife to the polls because she was the qualified voter in that family." (Cleverdon, 215)

Black and white photograph of four women gathered around a table on which there is a large pile of paper.

The Suffragist Movement

The Manitoba Political Equality League was founded in 1912 and was instrumental in the movement to enfranchise Canadian women. In 1916, Manitoba women were the first to gain the right to vote in provincial elections. Women across the country gained the same federal voting rights as men in 1918 when gender barriers were removed at the federal level. Cyril Jessop, Library and Archives Canada, e010933901

In Upper Canada, the common law tradition seems to have prevailed, since there are no written accounts of women voting or records of election-related complaints involving voting by women.

Two recorded incidents in Nova Scotia make it clear that women voted there. The first involved a disputed election in Amherst Township and the second an 1840 election in Annapolis County, where the Tories made great efforts to use women's votes to save the riding from a Reform landslide and the Reformers countered by transporting their own female supporters to the polls. The Tory effort was in vain. The Reform women did not even have to vote—they turned out at the polls in such large numbers that the Tory women returned home without voting. (Garner, 156)

The 1840 Act of Union, uniting Upper and Lower Canada in the Province of Canada, contained no prohibition on voting by women, and neither colony had a law against it. At least seven women voted in the 1844 election in Canada West—the first recorded occurrence of a violation of the common law practice. This came to light as a result of a protest by the defeated Reform candidate that seven women had voted for his Tory opponent. When they returned to power in 1849, the Reformers used the occasion of a general consolidation of electoral laws to insert a clause excluding women from the vote.

The entry of women into politics, even if only by suffrage, would be a misfortune for our province. There is no basis for it, be it natural law or social benefit. Rome will approve our viewpoint, which is that of all our episcopate.

Mgr Bégin, motion tabled at the National Assembly on January 10, 1922 (translation)

The female franchise had already begun to contract in 1834, when Lower Canada's legislative assembly attached a clause restricting voting by women to an act dealing with controverted elections.15 The pretext was that polling stations had become too dangerous for women. (Violence during the 1832 election had resulted in three deaths.) The 1830s also saw the rise of ultramontanism, a conservative clergy-led movement that was to affect many aspects of Quebec society. The Imperial Reform Act of 1832, which restricted the franchise in the United Kingdom to men, may also have been influential.

Women and the Right to Vote, 1912–1921

  • Manitoba Political Equality League founded in Winnipeg.
  • Montreal Suffrage Association formed.
  • Flora MacDonald Denison, suffragist journalist and president of the Canadian Suffrage Association, publishes War and Women.
  • Edmonton, February. Nellie McClung, heading one of the largest delegations to the Alberta legislature ever assembled, presents a petition demanding the vote for women.
  • Winnipeg, December. Suffragists present a 45,000-name petition to Premier Tobias C. Norris.
  • January. Manitoba women are the first in Canada to win the right to vote in provincial elections.
  • March. Saskatchewan women get the right to vote.
  • April. The suffrage movement triumphs in Alberta.
  • February. Ontario women get the vote but still cannot sit in the legislature.
  • April. British Columbia women get the right to vote.
  • Serving members of the armed forces (including women) get the federal franchise through the Military Voters Act.
  • Female relatives of soldiers at the front get the right to vote through the Wartime Elections Act.
  • May 24. Royal assent given to a bill giving women the right to vote in federal elections. Eligibility: age 21 or older, not alien-born and meet property requirements in provinces where these exist.
  • Electoral law amended—women can now stand for federal office.
  • Federal electoral law amended; changes include universal female (and male) suffrage regardless of provincial law.
  • First federal election at which women vote under universal franchise.

Another force was at work as well: cultural politics. The events in Bedford County in 1820 demonstrated that restriction of the franchise may have been less the result of hostility to women voting than of language and cultural tensions. In Bedford, the defeated candidate complained to the assembly that his opponent had been elected in part by the votes of 22 married women—in other words, husbands and wives had exercised the right to vote on the basis of the same pieces of property.

The assembly responded by resolving that the women's votes had been illegal, but the resolution seems to have been prompted by the fact that the women's votes had elected an English-speaking candidate at the expense of the French-speaking incumbent. This impression is reinforced by an incident eight years later, when in 1828 petitioners contested the election of Andrew Stuart after an English-speaking returning officer in Québec refused to accept one woman's vote for Stuart's French-speaking opponent. (Garner, 157)

Whatever the source of the restriction, and regardless of the fact that the 1834 law was later struck down, increasing social conservatism seems to have done its work, and women in Lower Canada appear to have ceased voting in significant numbers. (Hamel, 227)

[Women's suffrage] is a matter of evolution and evolution is only a working out of God's laws. For this reason, we must not attempt to hurry it on.

— James P. Whitney, The Mail and Empire, March 21, 1911

Table 2.4

Women's Democratic Rights
Right to Vote Right to Be a Candidate
British Columbia 1917 1917
Alberta 1916 1916
Saskatchewan 1916 1916
Manitoba 1916 1916
Ontario 1917 1919
Quebec 1940 1940
New Brunswick 1919 1934
Prince Edward Island 1922 1922
Nova Scotia 1918 1918
Newfoundland 1925 1925
Northwest Territories 1951 1951
Yukon 1919 1919
Nunavut16 1999 1999
Canada 1918 1919

Between that time and Confederation, the female franchise was eroded further. Women were disenfranchised by law in Prince Edward Island in 1836, in New Brunswick in 1843 and in Nova Scotia in 1851. Two years earlier, in 1849, the Reform government of the Province of Canada had gained legislative approval for a law prohibiting women from voting: "May it be proclaimed and decreed that no woman shall have the right to vote at any election, be it for a county or riding, or for any of the aforesaid towns and cities." This ended years of confusion about the validity of the female franchise in the Canadas.

This was the situation at Confederation: women of property in the various colonies had enjoyed the franchise (or at least had not faced legal restrictions), then lost it over a period of years and for a variety of reasons. Within a decade, however, a women's suffrage movement had begun in almost all the former colonies. The exception was Quebec, where extreme conservatism and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church still held sway in social, political and religious matters. Elsewhere in Canada, the push for women's suffrage had taken hold by the 1870s.

The first suffrage societies were established by women seeking social, economic and political equality with men. Many were professionals, often pioneers in fields such as medicine, who had encountered discrimination first-hand. (Bacchi, 433) This decade saw the founding of the Toronto Women's Literary Club by Dr. Emily Stowe, Canada's first female doctor, in 1876. The club was in fact a screen for suffrage activity and thus was the country's first suffragist organization, changing its name in 1883 to the Toronto Women's Suffrage Association.

But soon the suffrage movement took on a different cast, attracting men and women of Protestant Anglo-Saxon origins, most of whom belonged to the educated urban middle class—professionals, clergymen, a few reform-minded businessmen and their wives. (Bacchi, 433) These suffragists had a broad social reform agenda, one that embraced workplace safety, public health, child labour, prohibition of the production and sale of alcohol, prostitution, the "Canadianization" of immigrants as well as votes for women. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), for example, became a force in the suffrage movement, convinced that if women had the vote, temperance would be assured.17

Black and white photo of a group of mostly women in long dresses and hats standing on the porch of a home.

Sisters in the Struggle, 1916

British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was photographed in 1916 at the Edmonton home of Nellie McClung. Mrs. McClung is in the centre, wearing a striped dress; Mrs. Pankhurst is to her left. Also in the group was Emily Murphy (author, suffragist and later a judge), one of the five complainants in the 1929 "Persons Case," in which the British Privy Council determined once and for all that Canadian women were indeed "persons" and therefore eligible for appointment to the Senate. Royal BC Museum and Archives, Image B-06786

Similarly, social reformers intent on combatting the evils of industrialization and the urbanization that accompanied it—abuse of alcohol, prostitution, venereal disease, neglect of children—joined the suffrage movement with the goal of bolstering the social order with what might now be called "family values." Giving women the right to vote would double the family's representation and extend maternal influence into the political sphere.

In Quebec, the picture was different. As the suffrage movement elsewhere in Canada was taking its first steps, Quebec moved to prohibit women voting in municipal elections and to amend the Civil Code to make women legally "incapable"—of owning property, of inheriting an estate and certainly of voting. Advocates of women's rights in that province therefore focused more on gaining legal reforms and equality of opportunity in education than on the vote. It was not until the 1930s that the focus shifted to women's suffrage. Also apparent was the influence of conservative clergy and nationalists who objected to the Anglo-Saxon origins of the suffrage movement.

In the 1880s, debate about women's suffrage became linked with provincial autonomy issues. Until 1885, under the terms of the Constitution Act, 1867, which provided that existing provincial election laws would continue until Parliament decided otherwise, the provinces determined who was eligible to vote in federal elections. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald changed that with the Electoral Franchise Act of 1885, which consolidated control of the franchise at the federal level. As mentioned earlier, Macdonald even included a clause giving propertied widows and single women the right to vote, though he later withdrew it: apparently it had been a sacrificial lamb never intended to remain in the final version of the law. Sir Wilfrid Laurier's Liberal government returned the federal franchise to provincial control with a new electoral law in 1898. The focus of suffragist activity therefore shifted to provincial governments and legislatures, where it remained for the next two decades.

By the end of the 19th century, then, the women's suffrage movement was well under way, with organizations active in the western provinces, Ontario and the Maritimes. The municipal franchise was extended gradually; by 1900, most women property owners across the country could vote in municipal elections.

In addition, bills to give women the right to vote had been introduced in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia, though none was successful. Between 1885 and 1893, and again between 1905 and 1916, a bill introduced annually in the Ontario legislature to give women the right to vote provoked laughter and derision. Bills were also introduced in the New Brunswick legislature in 1886, 1894, 1895, 1897, 1899 and 1909; all were defeated (some by only a narrow margin) or allowed to die on the Order Paper. Women presenting petitions at the time the 1909 bill was introduced were greeted by insults, whistles and jeers from members of the legislative assembly in the corridors, who asked the sergeant-at-arms to ring the division bells until the women left the building.

To counter these attitudes, Canada's suffragists relied on petitions to provincial governments—sometimes containing as many as 100,000 names; on lecture tours and speaking engagements; on meetings with politicians; and on public meetings and events, such as mock parliaments. The confrontational tactics adopted by British and American campaigners for women's suffrage had no counterpart in Canada.


Votes for Men!

Women's suffrage groups often staged public events to advocate their cause. In January 1914, a play written by Nellie McClung was staged in Winnipeg, featuring women in the role of legislators listening to a group of men petitioning for the vote. Playing the role of provincial premier, McClung rejected the idea, declaring that "Man is made for something higher and better than voting. Men were made to support families. What is a home without a bank account!" McClung mimicked Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin so well that the audience often roared with laughter. Chronicle of Canada, 557 Foote and James, Archives of Manitoba, Events 173, PR1967-43

The suffragists were well organized, willing to buck social convention and skillful at enlisting the help of influential organizations, particularly in the West, where they gained the support of the United Farmers' Association of Alberta and the Grain Growers Association. As has been the case with other social issues in Canada, the Western provinces led the way in enfranchising women. Manitoba was the first, extending the provincial franchise to women in January 1916. Saskatchewan and Alberta followed suit in March and April respectively. The next year, 1917, Ontario women got the vote in February and British Columbia women in April. Also that year, Louise McKinney of Alberta, a temperance and women's rights advocate, became the first woman elected to a Canadian legislature.

This broadening of the provincial franchise, coupled with extension of the franchise to propertied women in municipal elections, created pressure for change at the federal level. But the immediate impetus was political, and women's first access to the federal franchise was almost accidental. On the eve of the 1917 general election, the government of Sir Robert Borden faced a complicated situation: women in all provinces from British Columbia to Ontario had the vote by virtue of provincial electoral law; women living east of the Ontario/Quebec border did not. Without some standardization of the franchise, ridings in Ontario and the West would have twice as many electors as those in Quebec and the Maritimes.

The temporary solution that presented itself had less to do with women's rights than with the pressing political issue facing Borden's government: conscription. As described earlier in this chapter, Parliament extended the franchise through two new laws in a transparent effort to expand the pro-conscription ranks. The Military Voters Act, intended to enfranchise soldiers under the age of 21, inadvertently benefited women as well, so that the Bluebirds—military nurses serving in the war effort—became the first Canadian women to exercise the right to vote in a federal election.

A black and white photograph from 1917 showing women in nurses' uniforms gathered around tables at which soldiers are seated. One of the nurses hands a document to one of the soldiers.

Bluebirds at the Ballot Box, 1917

These Canadian military nurses (the "Bluebirds"), photographed at a polling station set up at a Canadian field hospital in France in December 1917, were among the first Canadian women to vote in a federal election. William Rider-Rider, Canada Department of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada, PA-002279

The second law, the Wartime Elections Act, gave the vote to close female relatives of people serving in the armed forces (swelling the electoral lists by some 500,000 names), but it also effectively withdrew the vote from women who would otherwise have had it by virtue of provincial law but did not have a relative in the armed forces. This situation would not be tolerated for long.

The following year, Borden's re-elected government moved to correct the situation, introducing a bill to provide for universal female suffrage on March 21, 1918. Again, the bill was not universally welcomed. MP Jean-Joseph Denis declared, "I say that the Holy Scripture, theology, ancient philosophy, Christian philosophy, history, anatomy, physiology, political economy, and feminine psychology all seem to indicate that the place of women in this world is not amid the strife of the political arena, but in her home." (Debates, April 11, 1918; 643) Facing strong opposition, Borden compromised by stipulating in the bill that women electors would have to meet the same requirements as men—for example, property requirements where they existed. The compromise worked, and the Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women received royal assent on May 24, 1918. A 1919 law gave women the right to be candidates in federal elections.

Women's suffrage was "in the tide," as Nellie McClung told Alberta legislators in 1915. The "fresh wind" of change felt by McClung would sweep across the land. Women gained the provincial franchise in Nova Scotia in 1918, New Brunswick in 1919, Prince Edward Island in 1922 and Quebec in 1940.

At the federal level, the Dominion Elections Act of 1920 provided access to the vote without reference to property ownership or gender—age and citizenship remained the only criteria. Provincial control of the federal franchise was now a thing of the past. The general election of 1921 was the first in which nearly all Canadian men and women over the age of 21 could vote. Agnes Macphail won a seat at that election and became the first female member of Parliament.

Black and white photograph of Agnes Macphail, seated.

Canadian women won the right to stand as a candidate for the House of Commons in 1919. In 1921, Agnes Macphail was the first woman elected to the Canadian Parliament. The Grey Roots Archival Collection


1 The Parliament of Canada, created by the Constitution Act, 1867 is made up of the Crown, the appointed Senate and the elected House of Commons. Senate seats are allocated on a regional basis, while the number of seats in the House of Commons is determined by a formula found in the Constitution and is adjusted every 10 years.

The Constitution Act, 1867 also provided for Parliament to create a "General Court of Appeal for Canada." It did so in 1875 when it created the Supreme Court of Canada. At first, its decisions could be appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. This lasted until 1933 for criminal appeals and until 1949 for other appeals. Today, the Supreme Court is the final court of appeal.

2 The amounts indicated apply to each individual elector, including co-owners and co-tenants (e.g. for two co-tenants, the minimum value of the dwelling would be twice the amount stated in the table).

3 In Nova Scotia, the right to vote was given to the sons of anyone qualified to vote, on condition that the total value of the father's (or mother's, if the father was deceased) property was sufficient to qualify him to vote and that the son had not been absent from the family home for more than four months during the year preceding an election. Individuals whose total real and/or personal property was valued at at least $300 were also qualified to vote.

4 In Ontario, the right to vote was generally given to all residents whose names were included on a property assessment roll. An elector whose name did not appear on a list had to be, for at least six months before an election, the owner or tenant of real property granted by the Crown whose value met the requirements of the property qualifications then in effect.

5 In Manitoba, the right to vote was also given to any occupant of a dwelling located on land from which it was possible to derive income of at least $20 per year. In all cases, the period of residency was at least three months before an election.

6 Personal and/or real property of a total value of $400 also entitled individuals to vote in New Brunswick.

7 Property owners only.

8 In British Columbia, all electors had to have lived in the province for at least 12 months and in the riding for at least 2 months before an election.

9 Based on provincial legislation in effect for all or part of the period.

10 Under the terms of the Electoral Franchise Act of 1885, voting qualifications were the same in all provinces except Prince Edward Island and British Columbia. In those two provinces, where no provincially established qualifications existed, anyone who had the right to vote at the time the 1885 act came into effect kept that right; those who reached the age of 21 after that date had to meet the same qualifications as those in the other provinces.

11 The right to vote was given to sons of owners and tenants, on condition that the minimum value of the father's (or mother's, if the father was deceased) dwelling was sufficient to qualify him for the vote and the son had resided in the family home for 12 months without being absent for more than 4 or 6 months (depending on whether they lived in an urban or a rural area). In rural areas, owners' sons could be absent for more than 6 months without losing the right to vote if the reason for absence was working as a sailor or fisherman or attending an educational institution in Canada.

12 A city was a town with a population exceeding a number established by law.

13 Fishermen who owned real property and fishing gear (boats, nets, fishing gear and tackle) of a total value of at least $150 were also qualified to vote.

14 Only Upper Canada never used statute law to close the franchise to women. But after the union of Lower and Upper Canada, the Province of Canada disenfranchised women in 1849.

15 The law was later overturned by colonial authorities in London for reasons unrelated to women's right to vote.

16 Note: Nunavut was created on April 1, 1999.

17 The first Canadian section of the WCTU was founded by Letitia Youmans at Picton, Ontario, in 1874.