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Celebrating Canada’s most influential women of history

posted March 3, 2017


People in Canada

Canada is a country that is so diverse with such a rich cultural heritage that it comes as no surprise that some truly influential characters have emerged from it. Ahead of International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, Canadians everywhere will be celebrating the strong and intelligent women who shape the country’s past, present and future. While there are more brilliant women in Canada than we could possibly list here, these influential females – who continue to inspire a nation that prides itself on its inclusive attitude – are worth remembering any time you visit Canada. Whether you choose to visit Jeanne Mance’s first Canadian hospital in Montreal, or mimic Nancy Greene on a ski holiday in Canada, learning about these women is a fantastic way to experience this incredible country.

Jeanne Mance (1606-1673)

Jeanne Mance

Jeanne Mance may have moved late to Canada (she didn’t embark on her missionary duties to New France until the age of 34) but her mark on the country is undeniable. Prior to her Canadian calling, she cared for her eleven younger siblings after the death of her mother as well as nursing individuals who suffered in the Thirty Years War and the bouts of plague that swept France.

Upon her move to Canada, Mance was recruited to Société Notre-Dame de Montreal. After wintering in Quebec, Mance and her colleague Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve arrived on Montreal Island in 1642, famously founding the city on the 17th of May. Initially, Jeanne ran a hospital from her home, but after securing other premises in 1645, she created the Hotel-Dieu Hospital, which still stands today. Jeanne returned to France twice in order to raise funds for the hospital and on her second trip she returned with three sisters of The Religious Hospitallers of St Joseph who continued to help her with her project in Montreal.

Despite being burnt and rebuilt three times, The Hotel-Dieu Hospital remains one of the three hospitals to make up the Centre Hospitalier de l’Universitie de Montreal.

Nellie McClung (1873 – 1951)

Nellie McClung

Nellie McClung changed the face of women’s rights in Canada after the First World War. This busy mother of five still found time to take part in the suffragette movement that began in the early part of the 19th Century. While residing in Winnipeg, Manitoba for four years, she used her natural oration skills and playful sense of humour to campaign for women’s rights to vote. Though the movement was only put through after she had moved to Edmonton, Manitoba was the first Canadian province to grant women the vote in 1916, strongly led by her influence.

When she moved to Calgary, McClung focussed on her writing. After the success of her first book Sowing Seeds in Danny, she concentrated on the various magazines and newspapers she wrote for. In 1927 McClung became part of a group that become affectionately known as ‘The Famous Five’ after putting forward a petition to clarify the word ‘persons’ in section 24 of the British North America Act 1867. The clarification of this word and success of their petition laid the foundations for women to enter the political sphere.

McClung was active in many areas of social reform. She championed many women’s causes including property rights for married women, mother’s allowances and dental and medical care for school children.

Lotta Hitschmanova (1909-1990)

Lotta Hitschmanova was born in Prague, Bohemia, and after studying philosophy at the University of Prague and Political Science and Journalism at Sorbonne in Paris, it became apparent she had a knack for languages. After returning to Prague to gain her PhD, Lotta worked at several newspapers, before sentiments that led to the Second World War forced her to leave, eventually escaping to France.

She found herself in Marseilles, and, while working for an immigration service, she fainted and had her first contact with the Unitarian Service Committee, which is a non-profit organisation that works to provide disaster relief and promote social justice and human rights across the globe, it was founded to assist European refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. In 1942, Lotta left Europe, heading initially from Lisbon to New York and then continuing to Canada where she had been granted a visa.

In 1945 she helped form a Canadian Branch of the Unitarian Service Committee that would become her life work. She served as the first Chairperson of the Committee, leading their initial objective: to aid the distressed in France and Czechoslovakia. In 1946, Lotta began touring Canada in an effort to raise money for her initiatives, before touring the countries that were benefitting from the aid the Unitarian Service Committee provided. Over the years, the Committee expanded their support into various countries around the world, while Lotta remained a driving force of the organisation and an avid campaigner, often seen working in her trademark uniform.

Margaret Atwood (b. 1939-)

Margaret Atwood

A renowned novelist, poet, literary critic and environmental activist, Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario. A middle child, she started writing poems at age six, despite having no mainstream education until age eight. Atwood is most famous for her novels, though she has resisted many labels attached to them. She shuns the term ‘science fiction’ in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, instead dubbing them as speculative fiction due to the lack of “talking squids in outer space”.

The Edible Woman was published in 1969 and coincided with the second-wave feminism movement, yet Atwood herself is unwilling to call it a feminist text. Atwood suggests that a feminist text can only be written by someone who is working consciously within a feminist framework. Although she often avoids the label, it is clear that themes of empowerment are evident in her work, as many of the strong female characters that Atwood writes resist a patriarchal figure.

Her environmental conscience has led to several patents to Atwood’s name as well as the invention of the LongPen. The LongPen was designed to allow a person to transmit their own handwriting across the world, therefore allowing Atwood to perform remote book signings and thus save fuel and energy.

Buffy Sainte-Marie (b. 1941-)

Buffy Sainte-Marie

This First Nations singer-songwriter is as famous for her work as a pacifist, social activist and educator as for her music. Throughout her prolific career, Sainte-Marie has focussed her efforts on improving the lives of the indigenous peoples of America. Born on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in Saskatchewan, Sainte-Marie was adopted at a young age and grew up in Massachusetts. Despite being self-taught on both piano and guitar, her talents were noticed by the public, and she rose to fame in the 1960s with her protest song “Universal Soldier”, which became an anthem for the grassroots movement against the Vietnam War.

As a gifted songwriter, many of Sainte-Marie’s work has been covered by well-known names including Janis Joplin, Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand. She also gained popularity by regularly appearing on Sesame Street in order to teach children about her cultural heritage. In 2003 she became a spokesperson for UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network in Canada.

Interestingly, there were once allegations of Buffy being blacklisted in the USA during the 1970s. Buffy claims that during this period Lyndon B Johnson was writing letters to the White House praising radio stations for suppressing her work.

Nancy Greene (b. 1943-)

Nancy Greene

Born in Ottawa, Nancy Greene is loved across the country, and was even voted Canada’s Female Athlete of the 20th Century. Nancy is Canada’s most decorated ski racer ever, winning 14 World Cup victories across Canada, the USA and Europe.

Moving to Rossland in British Colombia before the age of three and being the child of two avid skiers probably contributed to her love of the sport. After winning a gold medal in the giant slalom during the 1968 Winter Olympics by one of the largest margins in Olympic history, she was named Canada’s Athlete of The Year for a second time.

After retiring from the sport, Nancy and her family became part of the early development of Whistler-Blackcomb Resort in Whistler, B.C. She also promoted skiing at the Sun Peaks Resort as well as creating the Nancy Greene Ski League which is dedicated to encouraging young children to enter the sport for themselves.

Louise arbour (b. 1947- )

Louise Arbour

Louise Arbour has had a career of legal firsts, from the first prosecution of sexual assault as the articles of crimes against humanity, to calling heads of states to justice. Arbour was born in Montreal, Quebec and spent both her childhood and university years in the city. Moving to Ontario after university, she had to adjust to life in an English-speaking state after an entire upbringing and in French. After a stint in Ontario, Arbour again relocated to teach at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, achieving the position of Associate Professor and Associate Dean before leaving to join the Supreme Court of Ontario in 1987.

In 1996, Arbour was recommended and appointed as the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda in Arusha and the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. This was where the head of state was called to account in front of an international court for the first time.

Since then, Arbour has been part of the Supreme Court of Canada and has been rewarded for her contributions to developing the justice system of Canada and beyond, winning various awards.

Ellen Page (b.1987-)

Ellen Page

Although many of the women heralded as the mothers of Canadian culture are icons of the country’s history, Canada is still producing influential women today. Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Ellen Page truly came into the spotlight after starring in the 2007 film Juno, a role that won her more than 20 awards and put her on the Hollywood map. Beyond her presence on screen, Page has played an active role in social justice demonstrations, being part of an online ad series in 2008 to call an end to the military dictatorship in Burma.

Following this, in 2014 she came out as gay and has since had an active role in the LGBTQ community, recently starring in and producing a film called Freeheld, which follows the true story of a lesbian couple who seek official recognition of their relationship. Page also leads a vegan lifestyle and was voted the world’s sexiest vegetarian alongside Jared Leto in 2014 by animal rights organisation PETA.

 

So, next time you’re on holiday in Canada, be sure to take a moment to appreciate the work of the many brilliant women who made Canada the amazing country it is today.

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