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RECURRENT VOICES: PART 2 – Reading Referendums: From Brexit in the U.K. to Women Suffrage in B.C.

RECURRENT VOICES: PART 2 – Reading Referendums: From Brexit in the U.K. to Women Suffrage in B.C.

August 1, 2016

In honour of BC Day, BC Studies would like to share a post on the important historical milestone of Women Suffrage in BC.

by Veronica Strong-Boag

Among civilian voters, the 14 September 1916 referendum passed, with 43,619 in favour and 18,604 against. Vancouver counted 63 percent support overall but Ward II, an east-side working-class community, went 61 percent against. In Victoria only 59 percent of male voters gave thumbs up. If many rural areas and small towns, such as Golden and Canal Flats, were supportive, others, such as Field, with 39 for and 33 against, Beavermouth, with 2 for and 8 against, and Windermere, with 11 for and 20 against, turned thumbs down. Military returns proved worse. In March 1917, the old anti-suffrage warhorse, Richard McBride, now BC’s London representative, finally reported, no doubt gleefully, 3,999 votes for female enfranchisement, 4033 against, and 409 rejected ballots. The new Liberal government finally ignored the referendum and opted for entirely new legislation. This received Royal Assent on 5 April 1917, making British Columbia the fourth province to enfranchise white women.

Since provincial voting lists had determined the federal franchise since 1898, BC suffragists anticipated casting ballots in the 1917 election. The restrictions imposed in Prime Minister Borden’s Military Voters’ and Wartime Elections Acts quickly dashed those hopes. Most BC women lacked the federal vote until 1918. Asian and Native women waited many more decades for full enfranchisement.

What then did the BC referendums achieve? Their significance lies elsewhere than their immediate impact. The final count, especially among military voters, presumably younger on average than male civilians, was ultimately grudging.

While suffragists, as Catherine Lyle Cleverdon’s classic text, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (1950) confirmed, largely blamed women for failing the test of enfranchisement, the BC referendum, like Victoria’s before it, reveals a deep well of hostility to female emancipation. Neither referendum justified claims for that “sense of fair play on the part of men” self-servingly celebrated by the editor of Victoria’s British Colonist in September 1916. In the decades to follow, BC female candidates, indeed women in general who dared to voice political preferences, faced no level playing field. A meaningful, although presumably declining, proportion of the electorate viewed women as illegitimate political actors who did not merit their support.

Nor is the significance of British Columbia’s two referendums restricted to gender. Both left unquestioned the superior entitlement of whites, whether male or female, to full citizenship. That particular legacy of empire, like that of patriarchy, remained to be dismantled.

Persisting prejudice helps explain why Canada’s federal cabinet didn’t reach gender parity until 2015 and why racial justice remains elusive. Like the recent Brexit vote at the heart of the old empire, British Columbia’s suffrage referendums offer opportunity to appraise the state of democracy.