Today is International Women’s Day. A day to celebrate the political, social, economic and cultural achievements of women. A day to remember, honour and acknowledge their impact. A day to bring awareness to the still present gender inequality that exists in too much of the world’s nations and a call to action to change that imbalance.
While National and International Women’s Days have been around in various parts of the world for over a century now, 1975 was the first time that The United Nations celebrated it on March 8th, which was International Women’s Year. It was two years later, in 1977, when the UN General Assembly invited the member states to adopt March 8th as the official date for this annual event.
While it is impossible to list even a fraction of the amazing women that Canada has been impacted and shaped by, the names below are a great glimpse and starting point to spark some time spent looking into the accomplishments and achievements that women have made, and continue to make, in our country.
Some of the names are instantly recognizable but it is my hope that many more are unknown to you and that this serves to remedy that fact! Here is a small peek into some well-known and lesser known, women of impact in Canada:
- singer/songwriter/activist Buffy Sainte-Marie
- Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013) whose famous artwork, Enchanted Owl, was used on a postage stamp in 1970 to mark the centennial of the Northwest Territories.
- Marcelle Ferron (1924-2001) a Quebec painter and stained glass artist
- Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake (1861 – 1913), a poet known for celebrating her heritage of First Nations descent.
- Margaret Laurence (1926 – 1987), a writer whose work captured the female perspective of life for women at a time when they were breaking out of traditional roles. She also actively promoted world peace through Project Ploughshares and was a recipient of the Order of Canada.
Business and Politics
- Mary Shadd Cary (1823 – 1893), the first black female newspaper editor in North America. She was an advocate for black emancipation, women’s rights and universal education.
- Doris Anderson (1921 – 2007). Newspaper columnist and long-time editor of Chatelaine magazine. She was also integral in the creation of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women which paved the way for rights of equality for women in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
- Agnes Macphail (1890 – 1954), the first woman elected to the House of Commons. She was later elected to the Ontario Legislative Assembly where, in 1951, she initiated the first equal-pay legislation.
- Ga’axstal’as, Jane Constance Cook (1870 – 1951). A Kwakwaka’wakw women, cultural mediator and activist. She lobbied for First Nations rights to retain access to land and resources. She testified at the 1914 McKenna-McBride Royal Commission and was the only woman on the Allied Indian Tribes of British Columbia in 1922.
- Madeleine Parent (1918 – 2012). She led the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, launching historic struggles for workers rights. Her tireless activism of behalf o workers, minorities and women saw her convicted – and later acquitted – of seditious conspiracy.
- Spencer O’Brien, Snowboarder. Born in Alert Bay, BC, she won gold medal in slopestyle at the 2013 FIS Snowboarding World Championships. A First Nations woman, she is involved with the Nike S7, a program that promotes health and wellness in Aboriginal communities and she has donated equipment to the First Nations Snowboard Team.
- Myriam Bedard, Biathlete (retired). As of 2018, she holds the title for being the only Canadian biathlete (male or female) to win an Olympic medal. She is also the only North American biathlete ever to win Olympic gold. She won two gold medals at the 1994 Lillehammer games and a bronze at the 1992 games in Albertville.
- Marilyn Grace Bell Di Lascio, long distance swimmer (retired). From Ontario, Marilyn was the first person to swim across Lake Ontario on September 8, 1954. She later swam the English Channel (1955) and the Strait of Juan de Fuca (1956). Her crossing of the lake was designated a National Historic Event in 2005 by the national Historic Sites and Monuments Board.
- Hayley Wickenheiser, Hockey. Widely regarded as one of the best female hockey players in the world. She led the Women’s Olympic Team to four gold and one silver medals. At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, she was named the flag bearer for the opening ceremonies. It was during those games that it was announced that she had been elected to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Athletes Commission.
- Angela James. Hockey. In the 1980’s and 1990’s she led the Canadian team to four world championships. As one of the first three women to be inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame, she is also one of the first two women, the second black athlete and the first openly gay player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Special Mention goes to Viola Desmond. With the recent change of face on our currency, the question often asked is: Who is the woman on the ten dollar bill?
Viola Desmond (July 6 1914 – Feb 7 1965) born and raised in Halifax, was a woman of colour who became synonymous with the early civil rights action in Canada. Her legal fight for equality began in 1946 when she refused to leave the main floor area of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Having bought a ticket for the movie, she was unaware that persons of colour were restricted to the balcony and not permitted in the main floor seating area. The basis for her charges stemmed from an obscure tax law, which claimed that she paid for a ticket for the balcony, not the main floor, and was then in violation of the tax law. Viola Desmond was forcibly removed, receiving an injury in the process, jailed overnight, convicted without legal representation, and forced to pay a fine of $20.00. Within a few days of the event, Viola decided to challenge the charges in court. While her court challenge was not successful in reversing or pardoning the charges against her, her actions were integral in sparking the civil rights movement to end segregation in Canada. She received a posthumous pardon in 2010 and was named a National Historic Person by the Canadian government in 2018.