Celebrating the women who shaped our past

A multi-ethnic group of adult women are posing together. They are in a health center, and they are wearing sports clothing. The friends are all smiling and laughing together.

In collaboration with Denise Reynolds, UCTE Human Rights Officer in honour of Women’s History Month 2023.

On March 8, 2023, we will celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD), which grew from the labour movement to become an annual celebration recognized by the United Nations. In 1908, 15 000 women marched through New York demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote. A year later, the Socialist Party of America declared the first National Women’s Day. On the international scene, the first International Women’s Day was held on March 19, 1911, in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. The United Nations recognized 1975 as International Women’s Year and finally set March 8 as International Women’s Day.

As the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill in 2020, we worried that women would be disproportionately affected, career-wise. We were right to worry; it was worse than we expected. Even as signs of economic recovery take hold, one trend is deeply alarming. The Prosperity Project’s 2023 Annual Report Card on Gender Diversity and Leadership presents a stark reality: The pipeline of Canadian Women moving toward corporate leadership roles has effectively dried up.

The 2023 Annual Report Card presents ground-breaking research that sets a new standard for collecting and publishing data on women who are leaders in Canada for a third consecutive year:

  • Presents intersectional data (women who also identify as women of colour, Indigenous, Black, and/or living with disabilities, and 2SLGBTQIA+) on women in leadership roles that have been collected and submitted to The Prosperity Project by participating organizations;
  • provides a September 30, 2022, snapshot of women’s representation at the leadership level in Canada’s largest organizations; and,
  • analyses the representation of women in board, executive officer, senior management and pipeline to senior management roles. 

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s reflect on some inspirational women in this country’s history, honour their achievements, and learn from their legacy that changed this country.

Jeanne Mance, 1606-1673

Even in the days of the French colonies, women were there to make their mark. Jeanne Mance, a French nurse and New France settler was one of the founders of the city of Montreal. She knew this new city would need a hospital, so in 1645, she founded l’Hotel-Dieu de Montreal, where she provided most care. She returned to France twice to raise more funds for the hospital. The second time she also recruited three sisters from les Religieuses hospitalières de Saint-Joseph, a religious order dedicated to serving the sick. When she died in 1673, she was buried on the grounds of the hospital that she created, and while Hôtel-Dieu de Montreal was moved in 1861, it is still one of three main hospitals in Montreal.

Jeannie Trout, 1841-1921

Jennie Trout, motivated by her own experiences living with illness, decided after being married that she wanted to become a doctor — a revolutionary idea since, at that point, no women were licensed to practice medicine in Canada. She and Emily Stowe were the first women admitted into the Toronto School of Medicine but received demeaning treatment from students and teachers. Trout eventually transferred to the Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania, where she received her M.D. in 1875, making her the first licensed female physician in Canada. She opened the Therapeutic and Electrical Institute in Toronto, treating women and offering a free dispensary for the poor; she was also instrumental in establishing a medical school for women in Queen’s College, Kingston, Ontario. Trout’s experiences at the Toronto School of Medicine were chronicled in a Heritage Minute TV spot by the Institut Historica Dominion Institute.

Carrie Derick, 1862-1941

Carrie Derick began teaching at the age of 15 — and rose to become the founder of McGill University’s genetics department! Derick was born in Canada East (now Quebec) and graduated at the top of her class from McGill in 1890. She later attended the University of Bonn in Germany, where she completed the research for a Ph.D. but was not awarded the degree since the university did not give doctorates to women. McGill then hired her as an assistant professor — making one-third the salary of her male peers. Although she continued to face discrimination because of her gender, her scientific innovation spoke for itself, and her Evolution and Genetics course was the first of its kind in Canada. When Derick retired, McGill made her the first female professor emeritus in Canada. She was a vocal advocate for women’s equality, saying women would rise to any challenge if given the opportunity: “We have come to the time when women’s capacity to do anything well ceases to surprise,” she said. “It is taken as a matter of course.”

Emily Murphy, 1868-1933

Thanks to Emily Murphy, women in Canada were officially declared “persons” under the law in 1929! Murphy became an activist at 40 when she began fighting for women’s property rights in Alberta. She was appointed a magistrate in 1916, the first woman magistrate in Canada and the British Empire. But after her first case, the prisoner’s lawyer appealed her conviction, saying that the judgement was invalid because women were not legally persons. That, plus the question of whether women could be appointed senators, resulted in her recruiting four other women’s rights activists to take the question to the Supreme Court of Canada, then to Britain’s Privy Council. They were called the “Famous Five,” and their 1929 victory in the Persons Case was a significant step for women’s rights. Murphy didn’t live to fulfill her dream of becoming a senator, but in 2009, she and the rest of the Famous Five were named Canada’s first honorary senators.

Nellie McClung, 1873-1951

“Never retract, never explain, never apologize — get the thing done and let them howl!” These words sum up the stamina and determination of this politician and social activist. A devoted feminist, Nellie McClung was instrumental in making Manitoba the first province to give women the right to vote and run for public office. She fought for various social causes, including medical care for children, women’s property rights, factory safety, etc. McClung was also a member of Emily Murphy’s Famous Five, all named honorary senators in 2009. Her devotion to changing sexist laws is summed up in her famous comment about the need for equitable divorce laws: “Why are pencils equipped with erasers if not to correct mistakes?

Lucy Maud Montgomery, 1874-1942

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved Avonlea books–featuring Anne of Green Gables–are just part of her literary work, encompassing 20 novels and over 500 short stories and poems, as well as her diaries and letters. She began her professional writing career in 1897 while working as a teacher — a job she had taken to allow herself time to write. Between 1897 and 1907, she published over 100 stories. Anne of Green Gables was initially published in 1908 and was an immediate success in Canada and abroad. Montgomery was invested in the Order of the British Empire in 1935. Her writings, primarily set in her home of Prince Edward Island, continue to draw new readers and visitors to that beautiful province.

Elsie MacGill, 1905-1980

Daughter of Helen Gregory MacGill, British Columbia’s first woman judge, Elsie MacGill became the first Canadian woman to receive a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1927 and the first woman in North America (and possibly the world) to obtain a Master’s degree in that subject in 1929. By 1938, she was the Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry, the first woman in the world to hold such a position. When CC&F was selected to build Hurricane aircraft for Britain’s Royal Air Force, her work perfected the design and ensured fast production for the war effort. Her role in the production of this plane made her famous, and she was nicknamed “Queen of the Hurricanes.” MacGill was also a member of the Ontario Status of Women Committee, and for her work there, she received the Order of Canada in 1971.

Pitseolak Ashoona, 1907-1983

Pitseolak Ashoona began creating art in the last two decades of her life — and helped found a modern form of Inuit art! She was one of the last generations of Inuit raised in a traditional nomadic hunting lifestyle. Still, after her husband, Ashoona died in the early 1940s, Pitseolak made an unusual choice for an Inuit widow and did not remarry. An arts and crafts program in Cape Dorset introduced her to drawing and printmaking in the 1960s; her captivating artwork depicted “the things we did long ago before there were many white men,” and her work became enormously popular. Fortunately, she was also prolific, creating over 7,000 drawings and prints during her career! Pitseolak was named to the Royal Academy of the Arts in 1974 and received the Order of Canada in 1977. “I know I have had an unusual life, being born in a skin tent and living to hear on the radio that two men have landed on the moon,” she said. “I am going to keep on [making prints] until they tell me to stop… If I can, I’ll make them even after I’m dead.”

Hide Hyodo Shimizu, 1908-1999

When the government of Canada forced Canadians of Japanese ancestry into internment camps, Hide Hyodo Shimizu ensured their children still had the chance to go to school. Shimizu, born in Vancouver, British Columbia, was one of the first Nisei, Canadian-born children of Japanese immigrants, to receive a teacher’s certificate. Shimizu was a vocal advocate for the enfranchisement of Asian immigrants and their Canadian-born children. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Canada detained citizens of Japanese ancestry in camps, Shimizu recruited 120 Japanese Canadians — many still students — and trained them to teach. Thanks to her work, 3,000 children were able to continue their studies. In 1982, Shimizu was awarded the Order of Canada. She challenged Canadians to keep telling these problematic parts of their country’s history: “I am a Christian woman, so I have forgiven, but it is very difficult to forget.”

Viola Desmond, 1914-1965

Viola Desmond, a black Nova Scotian woman, was a successful business owner when she bought a movie ticket at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, NS, in 1946. After sitting down, she was told the main floor was “whites only” and her less expensive ticket was only suitable for the balcony. Desmond offered to pay the difference, and when her offer was declined, she refused to move. Desmond was forcibly removed from the theatre and charged — with tax evasion because of the one-cent tax difference between the two tickets. She was fined $20 plus $6 in court costs, and through all her appeals, the courts refused to acknowledge the racist seating policy. Desmond’s case is now considered one of many significant civil-rights cases of the mid-20th century, and in 2010 Lieutenant Governor Mayann Francis granted Desmond Canada’s first posthumous pardon.

Joan Bamford Fletcher, 1918-1979

At the end of WWII, 2,000 Dutch civilian captives from a Japanese prison camp in Sumatra marched to freedom — with Joan Bamford Fletcher in the lead! When the war broke out, Fletcher travelled to England and joined the first aid nursing Yeomanry, an all-women volunteer uniformed organization, where she worked as a driver for the exiled Polish army. In 1945, she was sent to help move prisoners of war to safety, which required travelling through territory patrolled by hostile members of the Indonesian independence movement. To do so, she realized she would need help from the surrendered (but still armed) Japanese soldiers. As reported, she marched into the local army detachment, spoke to the officer in charge, and left with trucks and a party of 70 soldiers for protection. Her feat captured the media’s imagination, and she was named a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire —the captain of the Japanese soldiers was so impressed by her that he gave her a 300-year-old samurai sword belonging to his family.

Margaret Atwood, b. 1939

Margaret Atwood, a poet, novelist, essayist, and literary critic is one of the most-honoured authors of fiction alive: she is the recipient of over 55 awards both in Canada and internationally. Atwood started writing at age 6, and by 16, she knew she wanted to write professionally. Several of her books, including 1969’s The Edible Woman and 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale, feature female characters dominated by patriarchy, although Atwood has said that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist author. An environmentalist, Atwood campaigns for greener living through her writing (both fiction and non-fiction) and politically; she even invented a device called the LongPen that allows authors to speak via Internet chat, then sign books at a distance so that authors can interact with fans without expending fuel for book tours.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, b. 1941

Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree singer-songwriter, artist, educator, and activist, began her performing career in the mid-1960s; she quickly became known as a gifted songwriter, and her songs have been covered by diverse artists, including Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Neil Diamond, and Barbra Streisand. Her protest song Universal Soldier famously became an anthem for the anti-Vietnam-war movement. Sainte-Marie has worked throughout her life to teach people about indigenous cultures; she appeared many times on Sesame Street, and her Cradleboard Teaching Project hopes to improve the self-identity of Native children by giving them — and their fellow students — enriching and accurate information about Native people. Sainte-Marie has received many awards and honours, including a 1981 Academy Award for Best Song for Up Where We Belong; she is also an officer in the Order of Canada and has a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. And she is still making music today; her most recent album, Power in the Blood, received the 2015 Polaris Prize.

Roberta Bondar, b. 1945

Roberta Bondar is best known as Canada’s first woman in space after a 1992 mission on board the shuttle Discovery. However, her accomplishments go far beyond eight days spent in space! Bondar holds an extensive array of degrees, including the neuroscience and medical degrees that lead to her selection by NASA. After her shuttle flight, Bondar stayed with NASA as their head of space medicine for more than a decade; in that role, she led an international team in studying data from astronauts returning from missions, striving to understand better how the body recovers from time spent in space. She also founded a non-profit, The Roberta Bondar Foundation, in 2009; the Foundation is dedicated to “cultivating in all ages a sense of awe, respect and appreciation for other life forms that share our planet….through the fusion of art and science.” In 2011, Bondar received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, becoming the first astronaut to receive that honour.

Hayley Wickenheiser, b. 1978

Fans of Olympic hockey will recognize Hayley Wickenheiser: she has represented Canada five times, bringing home four gold medals and one silver. She also represented Canada at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games on the women’s softball team. Wickenheiser started playing hockey in Saskatchewan when she was five and was named to the national women’s hockey team in 1994 at fifteen. She played with them in multiple World Championships, earning spots on that tournament’s All-Star team four times, and continued on the team after women’s hockey joined the Olympics in 1998. Wickenheiser is the first woman to score a goal playing professional hockey, and, in the EA Sports video game NHL 13, she became one of the first female characters in EA’s NHL games. She has sought to give back to people in her community through organizations like JumpStart, KidSport, Project North, Right to Play, Ovarian Cancer Canada, and more. Wickenheiser retired from professional hockey in 2017, but she continues to be a great role model for girls breaking new ground in sport, both in Canada and worldwide, telling them: “People would say, ‘Girls don’t play hockey. Girls don’t skate.’ I would say, ‘Watch this.'”

“Here’s to strong Women. May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.”

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