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RECURRENT VOICES – Veronica (Nikki) Strong-Boag

RECURRENT VOICES – Veronica (Nikki) Strong-Boag

April 5, 2016

99 Years and Counting

What a difference a century, or almost, makes. 99 years ago, on 5 April 1917, the BC Legislature passed a woman suffrage bill. Suffragists had high hopes.  And in 2016, BC has a woman premier.

Enfranchisement had been a long time coming.  The first bills, thanks largely to socialists, had appeared in the 1890s. The Liberal Party waited until 1912 to adopt a woman suffrage platform and the ruling Conservatives sullenly succumbed, making votes for women conditional on a successful referendum in the provincial election of September 1916. This tactic made BC the only Canadian jurisdiction requiring a majority in a referendum of male voters. In 1917, the new Liberal government amended the Provincial Elections Act to grant women the vote on the same basis as men (thus excluding Asians and Indians) and to enable them to run for office. Such provincial legislation did not, as it had previously, bring automatic federal enfranchisement.  In Ottawa the Union government of Conservative Robert L. Borden introduced the War-Time Election Act (1917) giving the vote to close female relatives of men serving overseas.  BC’s white women would not vote as a group until the 1920 provincial and the 1921 federal elections. Asian exclusions didn’t end until 1948 and the First Nations would not receive an unrestricted franchise until 1960.

Years of confronting slippery politicians might have made cynics of BC suffragists. In fact, they entered politics with enthusiasm.  Mary Ellen Smith, the first woman elected to the legislature, brought with her high hopes. In January 1918, the province’s suffragist Western Women’s Weekly endorsed her in a Vancouver by-election to replace Ralph, her husband who had died in office. The long-time women’s rights activist was hailed as someone who “has always stood for her sex and tried to raise the standard of citizenship.”(3 Jan. 1918) In the same issue Smith declared her intention to go “to Victoria a ‘free woman,’ doing my utmost to secure the best possible legislation for women and children, and supporting to the best of my ability any good measures that may be introduced in the best interest of the Province by whomsoever introduced.” Indeed, as an MLA, Smith’s leadership proved crucial in legislating progressive legislation, including mothers’ pensions and women’s minimum wage. Ultimately, however, the pioneer succumbed to political partisanship and the prejudices of a settler electorate.

Although Mary Ellen Smith became the British Empire’s first female Cabinet minister in 1921 (albeit without portfolio) and later the first female ‘Acting’ Speaker, the premiership proved a long way off for women. Only in 1991 did Social Creditor Rita Johnson became BC and Canada’s first female government leader. Christy Clark, who took the premiership in March 2011, has easily surpassed Johnson’s tenure of just over seven months. Judged by Smith’s ambitions, Clark has been conspicuously wanting. Best known for her fierce partisanship and a reactionary liberal brand, she receives many failing grades. On Person’s Day each October 18th, West Coast LEAF, the foremost expression of BC’s suffrage lineage, publishes a Report Card on how the province measures up to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Smith would have wept.

West Coast LEAF’s Evaluation of BC during Clark’s Premiership (2011-2015)


The response of the editor of the Western Women’s Weekly would have been similar. Less than a year after Smith’s historic victory, she observed of the province that “the principles of democracy fail utterly as long as there are very rich people and very poor people.”(28 Dec. 1918).

In 2016 BC’s high and still rising levels of income inequality and poverty (particularly for single mothers and the female elderly) are far from what suffragists would have anticipated from a female premier.  More likely by far the province’s record would have recalled the Conservative government led by Richard McBride, tagged by one BC historian, Margaret Ormsby, in a more innocent age, the ‘people’s dick’. If she had to sum up Christy Clark as BC approaches the suffrage centennial, Mary Ellen Smith would have searched for politer language. LEAF’s grades would have been her starting point.

Click here for more information on the CEDAW Report Card.