Rally honours struggles of suffrage
By Sue Tiffin
Published Sept. 20, 2018
One hundred years ago, it might have been commonplace to see women, dressed in period clothing, walking down Bobcaygeon Road toward the Village Green to join together, rally and fight for equality.
That same scene was re-enacted in downtown Minden on the afternoon of Sept. 15 when the street was closed off and a crowd of women and their allies gathered throughout the town.
“Do not fail to hear Margaret Haile,” read the poster advertising the Celebration of Women’s Voting Rights event, marking the occasion on May 24, 1918, that the federal vote was granted to most Canadian women (voting rights for Asian men and women and Indigenous people came as late as 1960.) And though the crowd mingled and excitedly caught up with each other once they got to the site of the historical suffrage re-enactment, all focus was on Margaret Haile, depicted by Fay Wilkinson when she took to the podium.
“We need an international socialist movement, that might build a new society, in which all divisions regarding sex, class, colour, creed and nationality are eradicated,” Wilkinson, as Haile, declared to enthusiastic cheers from the crowd in a rousing speech paying honour to the struggles and sacrifices of women working to obtain the vote, and encouraging continued progress in the modern-day efforts toward equality.
Haile was the first woman to run for legislative office in Canada, long before women were allowed to vote, and might have been the first woman to run for major elected office within the entire British Empire.
She spoke to the moral strength of suffragettes around the world, some who were jailed and force-fed because of their protest and attempts to organize and advocate.
“Vote for women!” yelled people in the audience, some holding placards that read, “women, use your vote,” and “make democracy great again!” After Haile’s speech, the crowd of women – some holding paper chains together, some holding hands with children, one dressed as Rosie the Riveter and another from the ’60s hippie movement, enthusiastically marched together and cheered in solidarity in the intense heat of the day behind Wilkinson and Liane Spong-Hooyenga, the first female detachment commander in the Haliburton Highlands for the Ontario Provincial Police, to the Minden Hills Cultural Centre. Some in the crowd pointed out that when Spong-Hooyenga was born, the OPP were not yet recruiting women as police officers.
At the cultural centre, placards were propped against tables and tea was served while women took to the podium to share their stories.
Jeanne Anthon, who is currently a Minden Hills councillor and was reeve of the former Anson, Hindon and Minden council, presented a message from Laurie Scott, Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP.
“The history of women’s right to vote in Ontario and Canada is a history of women refusing to let their voices go unheard,” said Anthon, reading from Scott’s speech. “It’s a story of women being told repeatedly that their ideas had no place in parliament or in politics, but women refused to accept that. Instead, suffragists continued to engage with parliament and with politicians demanding the right to be heard.”
Scott’s message cited Agnes McPhail and Margaret Birch, who she commended for “blazing the trail” before her.
“While it’s important to recognize how far we’ve come, it is important that we use occasions like these to talk about the work still to be done,” Anthon read.
Scott is the first woman to be elected as MPP from the Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock riding and is the current Minister of Labour.
Leo Dobrzensky, historian and author of Fragments of a Dream: Pioneering in Dysart Township and Haliburton Village, spoke of the lives and contributions of local pioneer women, who mothered large families and endured physical and mental hardships in Haliburton County’s early days.
Rita Baird, former president of Minden’s Women Institute which was founded in June 1907 (the non-denominational organization got its start in Stoney Creek in 1897) attended the celebration with her “Circle of Friends,” former WI members in Minden.
The WI served to assist and encourage women to become more knowledgable and responsible citizens; to promote and develop good family life skills; to help discover, stimulate and develop leadership; to help identify and resolve needs in the community across Canada and the world.
“WI resolutions that have made a difference in our lives and which very few of you realize,” said Baird, “was mandatory stopping for school buses with flashing lights, signs at railway crossings, painting of lines on provincial highways, easily understood labels on food products, which we really need now, too … I mean, do we really understand what is in [our] products? No. Watch Marketplace and W5.”
Baird said the WI in Minden worked steadily and quietly, and “became a quiet, driving force in the township … The power of a cup of tea, sandwich and cake, resulted in many donations throughout Minden to be given to the town.”
She pointed out the WI bench, where people can sit, and think on the contributions of the women who have done so much in this community.
“It has been my privilege and pleasure to have met in friendship with my fellow WI ladies who join me together on this momentous occasion and enjoy tea together with you ladies remembering the past and going forward together as one embracing the future,” said Baird. “Long may our voices be heard.”
Pam Sayne, a Minden Hills councillor, spoke of her participation in the 1981 debates to bring women into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“When the Constitution was coming forward from Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1981, women were not included in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said Sayne. “At that point, there was a great deal of discussion among women of all backgrounds and concerns. It brought together, one of my favourite politicians, Flora MacDonald and Margaret Mitchell, Pauline Jewett and also Senator Martha Bielish, who all worked with all of their resources at Parliament Hill to bring women across Canada together, the first time there’s ever been a public meeting in our parliament buildings, I might add. They expected 250 women, they got 1,300 women.”
Sayne said she had to be at the momentous event, and that it has inspired her to pursue a role in politics.
“I was around such incredible, rooted, confident women that I think that’s where I am today, is saying, if they can do it, I’ve got to ground my feet into this earth and speak regardless of the consequences,” she said. “I think it’s really important that all of us find those places inside of us that we felt silenced and we bring those forward. Silenced in any way, within the home, within our opinions, it doesn’t mean we need to be right, it just means we have to be heard, for all of us, whatever that might be.”
Reverend Canon Joan Cavanaugh, who attended the celebration alongside Reverend Martha Waind, doesn’t often tell her own story, but was inspired to do so at the event, sharing her history of moving the church forward for woman and encouraging young women to come and be priests.
“I have a bachelor of theology, I have a master of divinity, and hopefully I’m going to be a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto,” she said. “I just say that because 90 years [ago] that would have been impossible. … None of these things would have happened without women going before us.”
Wilkinson reminded the audience at the celebration to vote.
“Don’t say, I won’t bother this time,” she said. “This is definitely the day to remember those who fought so hard for our right to do just that. We cannot elicit change without our vote.”
In her speech at the Village Green, Wilkinson as Haile said, to acknowledgement from the crowd, “There has been much struggle to get us here, and there will be much more to come.”