Why a coin for female suffrage just glosses over uncomfortable truth

There will be a new loonie celebrating the 100th anniversary of Manitoba women winning the right to vote. Is it little more than a symbolic gesture?

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(Jonathan Hayward/CP)
(Jonathan Hayward/CP)

This week, a minor fracas erupted over perceived delays in the approval of new 2016 $1 coin celebrating a landmark in female suffrage in Canada: the 100th anniversary of Manitoba women being granted the right to vote in provincial elections. Approval of the Canadian Mint’s plans were apparently stalled in Cabinet in July under the Harper government before the federal election and were finally rubber-stamped by the new Trudeau cabinet in early December. Ignored in the ado is a bigger point: that, as wonderful as a coin celebrating female suffrage is, this new shiny token can’t help but gloss over the uncomfortable truth of just how racist, sexist and hard-won that achievement was.

A more accurate “historically commemorative” recognition of female suffrage in Canada would require the Mint to issue a boxed set of at least a dozen coins reflecting vast discrepancies, provincially and federally, in who received the vote and when. That, one would hope, would finally dispel the myth that Canadian women won the right to vote federally in 1918, which is both true and false. Inuit women weren’t given the federal vote until 1950. And wasn’t until 1960 that Ottawa extended the franchise to First Nations men and women. That means any coin properly commemorating all Canadian women being able to vote federally couldn’t be issued until 2060—hardly a shining beacon of a progressive Western democracy (by comparison, Australia was the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote in federal elections and the right to be elected to parliament on a national basis in 1902; New Zealand granted women the right to vote in 1893; the United States gave all female citizens the right to vote federally and in state elections in 1920).

Far more consoling is the feel-good takeaway from a coin that will boast “WOMEN’S RIGHT TO VOTE”, in both official languages, and “1916-2016.”  Celebrations have been twinned to the release of five million commemorative coins in a few months’ time, Canadian Mint spokesperson Alexandre Reeves told Maclean’s: “Themes we choose often coincide with special commemoration plans of the government, which is certainly the case with women’s right to vote.”

Nancy Peckford, national spokesperson for Equal Voice, an Ottawa-based national multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women, welcomes the coin as an symbolic gesture that could usher in what she calls “an important and revealing conversation about women in this country.” The journey of women’s franchise in Canada in the provincial and territorial level is quite complex, says Peckford. “There is no one single anniversary, but 1916 was a watershed.”

In true provincial Canadian fashion, the right to vote reflects regional politics and values. That women in the Prairies were first to break provincial voting barriers (Manitoba was quickly followed by Saskatchewan and Alberta) is seen to reflect recognition of their equal involvement in settlement and homesteading. However, women in Quebec wouldn’t vote provincially until 1940—24 years later—the result of enduring opposition by legislators and prominent Catholic clergy.

Female suffrage federally provides another history lesson in perceived female status. The Wartimes Election Act of 1917 extended  the vote to women close to World War I front lines—nurses, women in the armed forces, and female relatives of military men. (Simultaneously, thousands of citizens naturalized after 1902 were disenfranchised.) The next year, all female “citizens” aged 21 and over became eligible to vote (whether or not they could vote provincially), provided they adhered to conditions set by Elections Canada: “age 21 or older, not alien-born and meet property requirements in provinces where they exist.” That firmly excluded Aboriginal peoples. (According to Elections Canada: “With the exception of veterans, The Dominion Franchise Act of 1934 explicitly disqualified First Nations persons living on reserves and Inuit people from voting in federal elections.”)

Exactly what the new celebratory 2015 anniversary coin will look like is unknown; the Mint doesn’t issue prototypes before release, but a Governor-In-Council Order submitted to government describes it: on one side, Queen Elizabeth; the reverse features “a woman and child, circa 1916, with the woman proudly casting a ballot while the child looks on.” The image was generated within the Mint, says Reeves, who notes their stable of artists and engravers are skilled in “telling a story visibly within the limited confines of a $1 coin.” The child depicted on the coin is a girl, says Reeves, noting she could be viewed as a historic witness, “symbolic of the permanence of that change in history.”

Certainly, the symbolism of what appears a mother-child combo is ripe for speculation: That, even in 2016, visual shorthand for women includes a child nearby, an echo of the “separate spheres” (men’s being the public, women the private or domestic) that kept women from casting their ballot to begin with? That, in 1916, as in 2016, women were juggling civic and domestic responsibilities? That then, like now, good child care was hard to come by? What that symbolic little girl couldn’t have known of course is that, a century later, the fight for female suffrage is still being echoed in unequal female political representation. Or that men and women would achieve equality in the voter’s both but not in equal pay for equal work, or, more to the point, even in terms of what that shiny new loonie could buy them.

Peckford takes a more optimistic view. She sees the coin as a tangible way to broach the topic with her young daughters. “It’s such a good conversation starter,” she says. “It’s not perfect, but it creates and opportunity to illuminate the complexity and difficuty of the journey. If we use it we will be doing justice to history. If we don’t, it will only be a symbolic gesture.”