After losing a plebiscite because they couldn’t vote, women of the Yukon organized and petitioned for the franchise. The vote, they argued, would ‘lift from mothers, wives, and daughters of men the shame and degradation of being legally classed with idiots and criminals.’ (Dawson Daily News)

Yukon Women and the vote, Part 2

How the temperance movement mobilized the push for women’s suffrage

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.

historywomens suffrage

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley speak at a COVID-19 update press conference in Whitehorse on Nov. 19. On Nov. 24, Silver and Hanley announced masks will be mandatory in public places as of Dec. 1, and encouraged Yukoners to begin wearing masks immediately. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Masks mandatory in public places starting on Dec. 1

“The safe six has just got a plus one,” Silver said.

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, speaks at a press conference in Whitehorse on March 30. Hanley announced three more COVID-19 cases in a release on Nov. 21. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three more COVID-19 cases, new exposure notice announced

The Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Brendan Hanley, announced three… Continue reading

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: COVID-19 strikes another blow at high-school students

They don’t show up very often in COVID-19 case statistics, but they… Continue reading

The Cornerstone housing project under construction at the end of Main Street in Whitehorse on Nov. 19. Community Services Minister John Streicker said he will consult with the Yukon Contractors Association after concerns were raised in the legislature about COVID-19 isolation procedures for Outside workers at the site. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Concerns raised about alternate self-isolation plans for construction

Minister Streicker said going forward, official safety plans should be shared across a worksite

Beatrice Lorne was always remembered by gold rush veterans as the ‘Klondike Nightingale’. (Yukon Archives/Maggies Museum Collection)
History Hunter: Beatrice Lorne — The ‘Klondike Nightingale’

In June of 1929, 11 years after the end of the First… Continue reading

Samson Hartland is the executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines. The Yukon Chamber of Mines elected a new board of directors during its annual general meeting held virtually on Nov. 17. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Yukon Chamber of Mines elects new board

The Yukon Chamber of Mines elected a new board of directors during… Continue reading

The Yukon Hospital Corporation has released its annual report for 2019-20, and — unsurprisingly — hospital visitations were down. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Annual report says COVID-19 had a large impact visitation numbers at Whitehorse General

The Yukon Hospital Corporation has released its annual report for 2019-20, and… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

City council was closed to public on March 23 due to gathering rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The council is now hoping there will be ways to improve access for residents to directly address council, even if it’s a virtual connection. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Solution sought to allow for more public presentations with council

Teleconference or video may provide opportunities, Roddick says

Megan Waterman, director of the Lastraw Ranch, is using remediated placer mine land in the Dawson area to raise local meat in a new initiative undertaken with the Yukon government’s agriculture branch. (Submitted)
Dawson-area farm using placer miner partnership to raise pigs on leased land

“Who in their right mind is going to do agriculture at a mining claim? But this made sense.”

Riverdale residents can learn more details of the City of Whitehorse’s plan to FireSmart a total of 24 hectares in the area of Chadburn Lake Road and south of the Hidden Lakes trail at a meeting on Nov. 26. (Ian Stewart/Yukon News file)
Meeting will focus on FireSmart plans

Riverdale residents will learn more details of the City of Whitehorse’s FireSmarting… Continue reading

The City of Whitehorse is planning to borrow $10 million to help pay for the construction of the operations building (pictured), a move that has one concillor questioning why they don’t just use reserve funds. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Councillor questions borrowing plan

City of Whitehorse would borrow $10 million for operations building

Most Read