Having lost the plebiscite for prohibition on Aug. 30 1916 because they couldn’t vote, the women of the Yukon petitioned Commissioner George Black for a meeting on the issue. Black replied to their request by referring to the Elections Act, pointing out that the elimination of the word “male” would automatically include women as voters.
He further noted that the same result could be achieved at the territorial level with a similar change of wording in the elections chapter of the Yukon Act. Within a couple of weeks The Yukon Women’s Protective League was circulating a petition destined for Ottawa. It wasn’t long before the League had established themselves in their new headquarters on Second Avenue.
It was quite specific as to why the women of the Yukon wanted the vote. Too many “foreign born” men were living in the Yukon, and the illiterate alien vote was having too much of an influence on elections. Not being fluent in English, these aliens did not have a clear understanding of the issues upon which they were voting, they said. The petition argued that the 900 Canadian and American women in the Yukon who were fluent in English would “offset and overcome the deteriorating effect of an illiterate foreign vote.”
From Manitoba in the east, California in the south and Siberia to the west, these 900 women were the only ones who were still disenfranchised. A simple change in the wording of the Dominion Election Act and the Yukon Election Act would “lift from the mothers, wives and daughters of men the shame and degradation of being legally classed with idiots and criminals.”
The Arctic Brotherhood Hall in Dawson City was filled almost to capacity the evening of Nov. 25 1916, with a large representation of women, and many prominent citizens of the territory present. Frederick Congdon, the former member of Parliament spoke about the progress of women in Britain, and attributed much success in industry to women.
A few months later, with a territorial election in the offing, the League, in conjunction with another newly formed organization, the Yukon Progressive League, posted a manifesto in the Dawson Daily News proclaiming “Equal Rights to All, Especial Privileges to None,” and presenting 14 points for the candidates to respond to, including endorsement of the Women’s Protective League petition for the franchise.
As a result of the war, the women of the Yukon were called upon to perform patriotic duties that gave them, in a territory quickly being depleted of men, a voice that they never had before, and they proved equal to the challenge. At the same time, they bridled at the restrictions that muted their voice at election time.
As the war progressed, the forceful petitioning of the women in the Yukon was gaining attention, in conjunction with events affecting women across the nation. It was the conscription issue that brought things to a head. The long, drawn-out, war, now in its third year, was draining the country of eager volunteers. In April of 1917, 3,500 Canadians lost their lives and another 7,000 were wounded.
If Canada was to sustain its commitment to Britain to supply a steady stream of volunteers, then drastic measures would have to be taken at home. Prime Minister Robert Borden’s solution was conscription and it nearly tore the country apart. Conscription, or the arbitrary enlistment of new recruits was highly unpopular among the citizens of Quebec and other parts of the country.
In addition, a growing number of those left behind in Canada did not favour conscription. Many of those in favour of conscription had already enlisted were already serving overseas. The Borden government passed the Military Service Act Aug. 29 1917, making men between the ages of 20 and 45 eligible for call-up for service until the end of the war.
Before ending parliament and calling an election, Prime Minister Borden’s government passed important pieces of legislation that were strategically designed to favour the conscription issue. One was the Military Voters Act, which conferred upon any British subject, male or female, who was actively serving in the armed forces, the right to vote. This included some 2,000 military nurses, with more than a dozen from the Yukon.
Another law, the Wartime Elections Act gave the vote to spouses, widows, mothers, sisters and daughters of any person alive or dead who was serving — or had served — in the Canadian forces. The act also disenfranchised conscientious objectors or individuals born in enemy countries who became naturalized British subjects after March 31, 1902.
Together, these acts were designed to tip the scales in favour of the Borden government. This decision would have been well received by women in the Yukon. The federal election took place Dec. 17 1917. The Borden Unionist Party, which was a coalition of Conservative and some Liberal candidates, won one of the largest majorities in Canadian history.
Finally, on May 24 1918, an act to confer the vote upon women was passed, stating: “Women who are British subjects, 21 years of age, and otherwise meet the qualifications entitling a man to vote, are entitled to vote in a Dominion election.” It came into effect January 1, 1919. On April 3 of the same year, the Yukon Act was amended, entitling women to vote in elections for territorial council.
During the federal election of 1921, women turned out in large numbers to listen to the issues in the coming vote. A Mrs. McRae became the first woman to chair an election meeting in Dawson that November. The following evening, a Mrs. Walker presided over another public meeting at which more than 70 women turned out to hear what candidate George Black had to say. Women were eager to exercise their new found responsibility.
The Yukon also led the way with women being elected to Parliament: Martha Black was only the second woman elected to the House of Commons in 1935. I note that by the summer of 2000, the Yukon had a woman as member of Parliament (Louise Hardy), another as Senator (Ione Christensen), and a third as the Commissioner (Judy Gingell). Pat Duncan was the first woman to lead the territorial government that year, and Kathy Watson was just closing out her term as mayor of the capital city.
I wonder where else in the country such a representation of women has been found in the seats of power?
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere.