The countdown is on: in two days, the lucky lady whose likeness will be featured on the next series of Canadian bank notes will be revealed. Prompted by a petition pioneered by Merna Forster, a scholar of Canadian women in history, the public was asked to send in their nominees for the Canadian historical heroine that they wanted to see printed on our next series of bank notes. The results were plentiful, and after much deliberation, five finalists were chosen by a committee. On December 8, 2016, the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Bank of Canada will unveil the winner. In the meantime, get to know the five women that made it on the short list, because regardless of which of them is selected, all of them deserve to be celebrated. So, read on!
5 Canadian Women in History You Need to Know
PAULINE JOHNSON (1861-1913)
Pauline Johnson (also known as Tekahionwake) was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an Englishwoman, born on the Six Nations Reserve, Canada West. She was raised to be proud of her mixed heritage, and rose to great acclaim for penning poetry celebrating her Indigenous roots. She also wrote for a host of newspapers and magazines, leaving her mark in many media. Mastering the art of spoken word performances, she became a popular ambassador of Canadian culture because of her reading tours and travels throughout Canada, the United States, and England.
Want to get a taste of Pauline Johnson’s poetry? Buy this great collection of her work here: Flint and Feather: The Complete Poems of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)
VIOLA DESMOND (1914-1965)
Viola Desmond grew up in a large family of 10 in Nova Scotia with her Black father and white mother. Despite the rarity of interracial marriage in early 20th-century Halifax, her family was beloved in the community. She became a successful beautician and businesswoman, running her own studio, beauty school, and selling her own line of products.
In 1946, she stopped in at a local cinema to watch a film. When she attempted to purchase tickets for the main floor, she was refused; the cashier insisted she sit on the balcony, where other people of colour sat. But Desmond was determined to sit on the main floor, and it was only the meddling of the manager and the physical force of a police officer that stopped her. She was taken to jail for the night and proceeded to fight for her rights at court. In doing so, she not only brought to light the reality of racial segregation, but her courage also inspired a later generation of activists.
Learn more about Viola Desmond and the history of racism in Canada by reading this great book: Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land
IDOLA SAINT-JEAN (1880-1945)
Idola Saint-Jean was born in Montreal in 1880 and educated at a Catholic girls school run by nuns. She spent a few years in Paris, studying theatre and taking courses at the prestigious Sorbonne. Upon returning to Canada, she took on a post as professor of French language at McGill University.
Federal suffrage had been granted in 1918, but the fight for the female vote at the provincial level was still gathering strength when Saint-Jean came of age. She became an active member of several committees and suffrage groups, contributing to the cause for the remainder of her life. She advocated for women’s rights and social justice via broadcasts, letters, lectures, demonstrations, and the founding of a women’s magazine. Saint-Jean became directly involved in politics herself, and ran as the Independent Liberal candidate for the 1930 federal election in the riding of Montréal-Dorion-Saint-Denis, becoming the first female candidate in a federal election race in Quebec. Finally, by 1940, five years before her death, Quebecois women were granted the vote.
Do you want to learn more about this fascinating Canadian woman? Grab a copy of this must-read book: We walked very warily: A history of women at McGill
ELIZABETH MACGILL (1905-1980)
Elizabeth MacGill was born in Vancouver to a family that shared firm feminist convictions. After an early education at public school, MacGill followed her knack for science to postsecondary school. When she was granted her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto in 1927 and a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1929, she was the first woman in Canada to receive these distinctions. Her work on the Hawker Hurricane fighter planes during WWII marked her as the first woman aircraft designer in the world, and her involvement in feminist organizations in her later years earned her a legacy of importance among the most iconic Canadian women in history.
If you want to know more about Elizabeth MacGill, and other iconic women in Canadian flight history, pick up a copy of this great book: Canadian Women in the Sky: 100 Years of Flight
FANNY ROSENFIELD (1904-1969)
Russian-born Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld immigrated to Canada with her family when she was still in the cradle, settling in Barrie. From an early age, Rosenfield was noticed for her athleticism—in fact, she later recalled winning her first race at nine years old. She quickly found her place in Toronto city sports, and made it to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, where she won the silver medal in the 100-metre dash among other accolades. A few years later, the track and field athlete was forced to retire from competing due to severe arthritis. For the rest of her years, Rosenfield put her pen to practice and became an influential sports journalist, becoming an avid spokesperson for female athletes.
Looking for more about this inspiring lady? Buy a copy of Bobbie Rosenfeld: The Olympian Who Could Do Everything today.
If you want to learn more about Canadian women in history, I recommend grabbing a copy of Merna Forster’s excellent 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces. It’s a must-read for anyone looking for a comprehensive introduction to the history of women in Canada. Plus, it’s thanks to Merna Forster that this petition to get a Canadian woman on our new bank notes happened in the first place! Buy it here on Amazon.
Which Canadian women in history do you think should have made it to the list? Let me know in the comments below!
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