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RECURRENT VOICES: PART 1 – Reading Referendums: From Brexit in the U.K. to Women Suffrage in B.C.

RECURRENT VOICES: PART 1 – Reading Referendums: From Brexit in the U.K. to Women Suffrage in B.C.

July 20, 2016

July 20, 2016
by Veronica Strong-Boag

The entrails of the 23 June 2016 Brexit Referendum on the UK’s exit from the European Union will be studied for many years, particularly for the prejudice they may reveal. Experiments with women suffrage referendums, two of which occurred in British Columbia in 1914 and 1916 respectively, deserve the same attention.

In Canada, referendums are best known for addressing controversial questions, such as prohibition, conscription, constitutional reform, and Quebec sovereignty. Often forgotten is their intervention into the women suffrage debates that sharply divided Canadians well into the twentieth century. Such initiatives were especially commonplace (and results very uncertain) in both the United States and Switzerland. Direct democracy, with its threat of a declaration of “ultra vires,” was far less in vogue in Canada. British Columbia provides the sole example of a provincial suffrage referendum. Its capital Victoria also supplies a rare earlier municipal initiative offering advice to higher levels of government on female enfranchisement.

Decades of feminist campaigning preceded both referendums. Victoria’s activists pioneered BC demands for women suffrage. While showing little interest in including non-settler women, they embraced a far wider vision of democracy than that which they inherited. On 14 January 1914, as part of an extensive program of public education, Victoria’s suffragists had the question, “Is it desirable that the Municipal, Provincial and Federal franchise be extended to women on equal terms with men voters?” put before the capital’s propertied electorate. A day later, the Victoria Daily Colonist reported that 2,009 ballots had been cast in favour, 1,622 against, and 115 spoiled. In the context of some forty years of effort, less than 54 percent support had to disappoint. Certainly it would not have met the threshold of 60 percent set in the failed 2005 BC Referendum on electoral reform. In the aftermath, BC feminists redoubled efforts to recruit politicians and voters but Premier Richard McBride and the long governing Conservatives remained obdurate.

Within a few months, much had changed. Canada was at war and women soon hailed for patriotic service. The Conservatives, under Premier W.J. Bowser from 1915, were on the run from charges of incompetence and corruption while Liberals foresaw harvesting prospective female voters. In January 1915, Vancouver’s two more progressive newspapers, the Vancouver Sun and the World, organized a mock election among readers. This “electorate” was offered a choice of nineteen candidates for political leaders. The result put Conservative Prime Minister Robert Laird Borden and Liberal Leader of the Opposition Wilfrid Laurier at the top, but Nellie L. McClung, the nation’s best-known suffragist and a regular BC campaigner, placed third. Bowser soon faced a revolt in his own ranks when some MLAs saw defeat foreshadowed in the 1915 downfall of anti-suffragist Conservatives in Manitoba. In early 1916, he sought salvation in a conversion to direct democracy: the people, or rather men who could vote, would let him off the hook by deciding yea and nay on women’s rights. Liberal leader H.C. Brewster insisted this wasn’t fair since “only one sex would be able to vote,” but then of course the legislature shared that liability

Suffragists protested strenuously, arguing that rights conferred in a referendum might later be confiscated the same way. By June 1916 a Provincial Women’s Suffrage Referendum Association was nevertheless appealing to civilian voters at home and military voters overseas. An important ally, the British Columbia Federationist, however, went sour, suggesting on 14 April 1916 that “the master class” hoped to enlist female recruits. Such betrayal did not stop BC’s leading working-class suffragist Helena Gutteridge from resolutely defending suffrage as a human right. (To be continued).

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. While the military vote from Canada ran 4499 in favour and 2528 against, the overseas military returns were disappointing. 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. (To be continued).

* Part 1 of 2 (Check back for Part 2 on Aug. 1, 2016)