Quebec women right-to-vote milestone marked by province

Seventy-five years after Quebec women won the right to vote, the province has renamed its equality prize after suffrage movement leader Thérèse Casgrain.

Henri Bourassa warned of women becoming 'veritable women-men' if given right to vote

Thérèse Casgrain, president of the League for Women's Rights in Quebec from 1929 to 1942, is pictured during an election run in 1967. (The Canadian Press)

Seventy-five years after Quebec women won the right to vote — a right opposed by some such as politician Henri Bourassa who once warned it would turn women into "veritable women-men" — the province has renamed its equality prize after suffrage movement leader Thérèse Casgrain.

On April 25, 1940, Bill 18 was passed at Quebec's National Assembly, putting an end to electoral discrimination against women.

Women won the right to vote in Canadian federal elections in 1918, but Quebec women had no electoral rights in the province until 22 years later. It was the last province in Canada to pass such a bill.

This week, Quebec honoured Casgrain by renaming its Equality Prize the Thérèse Casgrain Equality Prize.

"With this tribute, our government wants to honour this grand Quebecer who inspired so many women to get involved in public life," said Premier Philippe Couillard in a statement.

The family is absolutely thrilled.- Michèle Nadeau, Casgrain's granddaughter

The government also commemorated other women's movement leaders, including Marie Lacoste-Gérin-Lajoie, Idola Saint-Jean and Marie-Claire Kirkland.

"I want even more Quebec women to represent us in the future. Women have never held more than 33 per cent of the seats at the National Assembly. We all win when we see women take a place that corresponds to their real contribution at the heart of our society," said Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée.

Michèle Nadeau, Casgrain's granddaughter and the president the Thérèse Casgrain Foundation, said the honour was unexpected.

"We're thrilled. The family is absolutely thrilled. It was something that we had not really expected, so it makes it even better," Nadeau said. "For the provincial government to underline her achievements, that's wonderful."

Long road ahead

It took Casgrain and her committee 20 years to get Quebec women the right to vote and the right to run for office.

According to Elections Quebec, the Casgrain-led effort was two-pronged: First, they focused on getting out the message through the media to help change Quebecers' minds, and second, they lobbied Quebec parliamentarians heavily.

"Suffragettes literally marched on Quebec City. Each year, they found a parliamentarian who sided with their cause to sponsor bills on suffrage. Henry Miles agreed to introduce the first of these bills. It would take several pilgrimages and 14 bills to achieve victory," says the Elections Quebec website.

Along the way, Quebec's women's suffrage movement was met with vehement opposition:

Cardinal Louis-Nazaire Bégin: "The entry of women into politics, even if only by suffrage, would be a misfortune for our province. Nothing justifies it, neither natural law nor the social interest; the authorities in Rome approve of our views, which are those of our entire episcopate."

Louis-Arthur Giroux, politician: "The argument of the similarity with the other provinces is cited, as if for some, progress consists of aping what others do. Quebec has its traditions, its customs and they are its strength and its greatness. Were this bill to pass, women would resemble a star having left its orbit."

Henri Bourassa, politician and founder of Le Devoir: "French-Canadian women risk becoming 'public women,' veritable women-men, hybrids that would destroy women-mothers and women-women."

Appointed to Senate by Trudeau

Casgrain continued to lobby for women's rights and against various social and political events of decades to come, including discrimination in social security payments, nuclear testing and Duplessis-era policies. 

The Voice of Women organization of Quebec, headed by Thérèse Casgrain initiated a 24-hour silent vigil at Montreal's war memorial on Nov. 10, 1961, to protest against further nuclear tests (Canadian Press)

She ran in her first federal byelection in 1942, but lost. She went on to become the first woman to lead a political party in Canada, the socialist-leaning Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in Quebec, before joining the NDP shortly after it was formed in 1961.

In 1970, at the age of 74, she was appointed to the Canadian Senate by then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

He had extended the invitation to join the Senate to Casgrain with the mutual understanding it was more a symbolic gesture than anything, considering it was just a few months shy of her 75th birthday — the age at which senators must resign from the Upper House. 

Casgrain died in 1981, at the age of 85.

A year later, Trudeau established the federal Thérèse Casgrain Volunteer Award in her memory.

The prize was quietly renamed in 2010 after Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, which had administered the Casgrain award, was instructed to create a Prime Minister's Volunteer Award in its place. The new award is handed out in a ceremony each year presided over by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Insight into Casgrain's life

Born in 1961, Michèle Nadeau grew up as one of Casgrain's 17 grandchildren.

"She had two boys and two girls," Nadeau said of Casgrain. "She was part of our lives. It's amazing when I think of what she was doing at the time. Of course, she had slowed down by the time I was around but she was still involved in tonnes of causes, but very involved in all of our lives."

You'd go over to the apartment and there'd be Robert Bourassasitting in the living room.- Michèle Nadeau, granddaughter of Thérèse Casgrain

She said she didn't really understand her grandmother's accomplishments until she was a teenager. Until then, she knew Casgrain as a funny, warm and welcoming grandmother who was interested in what all of her children and grandchildren were up to. 

"But then I sort of started realizing as a teenager — you know, you'd go over to the apartment and there'd be Robert Bourassa sitting in the living room… I started realizing she was someone who made quite an impact in the political world," she said. Bourassa was twice the premier of Quebec — first from 1970 to 1976 and then from 1985 to 1994.

"One event that I will remember for the rest of my life was the Yvettes rally at the Forum, during the first referendum [in 1980], said Nadeau, who at the age of 18, attended the rally with her mother.

"All of a sudden she came on to the stage. Here was this elderly woman, looking frail — you know, at that time she was about 84, 85 years old — but very dignified. There was a standing ovation for this woman. And it went on and on and on. It must have gone on for three or four minutes. And that's when I realized how women loved her and what she had done."