By Jacob Friesen
April 17, 2019 marks an important anniversary in New Brunswick history: the 100th anniversary of the day when women won the right to vote in provincial elections in New Brunswick. New Brunswick was one of the last provinces in Canada to extend the franchise to women. Federally, women had been eligible to vote since 1918; provincially, after New Brunswick wandered over to the right side of history, only Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Quebec disenfranchised women.
There are a few things worth thinking about as this anniversary approaches. First, change for the better is always possible. The New Brunswick Women’s Enfranchisement Association was founded on April 4, 1894 – the 125th anniversary of that organization is another date to mark this year. 25 years of determined effort later, the Association go what it wanted.
Second, while progress is always possible, it is never guaranteed, and must always be fought for. Regress is possible too. Much less well-remembered than the outcome of the struggle for the franchise is the reason the struggle was necessary to begin with. Until 1843, women were legally eligible to vote in New Brunswick. The province’s 1795 electoral legislation allowed qualified “persons” to vote – and “persons” was interpreted to include women. On January 1st, 1843, a law was passed explicitly limiting the vote to men.
Claiming that “persons” were only men was conventional at that time. Indeed, the famous “Persons Case”, the legal battle to win the right for Canadian women to sit in the Canadian Senate, was in response to successive federal governments in the early 1900s refusing to grant this right to women on the grounds that when the British North America Act, a piece of legislation drafted shortly after New Brunswick banned women from voting, described which “persons” were qualified to sit in the Senate, the writers of the legislation only considered men to be “persons”.
When the case was eventually decided in favour of Canadian women by the Privy Council of England – which the Famous Five petitioners had to turn to after the Canadian Supreme Court unanimously ruled against them – one member of the Council famously defended moving away from the original, sexist interpretation of the word “persons” because that interpretation was “a relic of days more barbarous than ours”.
Third, there is always more to do in the long struggle for justice. While most provinces allowed women to contend for public office once they were allowed to vote, New Brunswick did not extend this right to women until March 9th, 1934, and it wasn’t until 1967, when Brenda Robertson won a seat, that a woman was actually elected to public office. Moreover, it is important to remember that only some women won the right to vote in 1919. Entire populations of men and women, such as Indigenous people, would not win the franchise until decades later.