Although this year marks the centennial of the women’s right to vote in several provinces, there are many instances of women voting prior to 1916. The journey of the women’s vote in Canada was actually quite a roller coaster. Today’s post will begin to explain the bumpy ride to enfranchisement. Tomorrow we will continue our brief history lesson where today’s post leaves off.
Prior to confederation, the anglophone colonies which would eventually form Canada inherited English common law. Women in England did not vote, but this was a convention rather than written as law. Therefore, in the colonies which ultimately became Canada, there was no law preventing women from voting. Lower Canada inherited French civil law, which better enabled women to own property than English law. Property ownership and age were the main voting requirements, so there are quite a few recorded incidents of francophone women voting in the early days of pre-confederation Canada. However, women throughout most of the other colonies had also been known to vote.
The earliest account of women voting occurred in 1793. The women met the official voting requirements of owning property, so their votes were not challenged. Those women would have been either widowed or unwed, as a married woman’s legal standing was transferred to her husband upon marriage in those days. Another example of a women voting occurred in 1809 when 80 year old widow Marie-Josephte Papineau voted for her son to sit in the Assembly of Lower Canada. Ironically, her grandson who also won a seat in the 1809 election, developed a political agenda later in his career which included illegalizing women’s voting.
Women’s votes threatened the status quo and quickly gained media attention. In 1820, a Royal Gazette article discussed the possible repercussions of this “absurd and unconstitutional practice” which may spiral into a petticoat polity wherein women could acquire greater power and become judges, magistrates, and even members of Parliament. Women’s votes were often challenged and struck off from the poll book, but some, like Marie-Josephte Papineau’s did stand.
Prince Edward Island passed a law making it illegal for women to vote in 1836, and by 1851 laws were in effect in all British colonies which banned women from voting. The ban on women voting was justified as a protection to women from being dragged to the polls by husbands and fathers against their will (which is at odds with the fact that only unmarried women could vote before the ban), and protecting women from the violent environment of the polling stations. In 1867, Canada’s Constitution (called the British North America Act, 1867) granted the right to vote upon every male British subject of at least age 21 who was a householder.
Today we have traced the history of the women’s vote from 1793 to 1867. In tomorrow’s post, we will discuss the development of the women’s suffrage movement which sought to grant voting rights to every woman who met the age and property requirements set out in the BNA Act.
 Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada. A History of the Vote in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Government Publishing, 1997) at 61.
 Jennings, Cec, “Winning Back the Vote” (2015) 95:5 Canada’s History at 30 [Jennings].
 Ibid at 30.
 Klein, Kim, "A ‘Petticoat Polity’? Women Voters in New Brunswick Before Confederation", (Autumn 1996) XXVI:1 Acadiensis at 71, citing Montreal, 25 April 1820, printed in the New Brunswick Royal Gazette, 20 June 1820.
 Jennings, supra note 2 at 30.
 The Constitution Act, 1867, 30 & 31 Vict, c 3 at s 41.