The government of Canada first officially recognized October as Women’s History Month in 1992. It is celebrated in October to coincide with Persons Day, making Canada’s Women’s History Month distinct from other countries that recognize it in March. This year’s theme is Women Making History Now, recognizing amazing women who have made a lasting impact in Canada during the pandemic and continue to advance reconciliation.
Below are Canadian Women who have challenged the status quo and worked for a better Canada and world.
Canada’s Famous Five lobbied strongly for Persons Day, which was the day in 1929 when women were added to the legal definition of “persons.” This designation allowed women to be appointed to Senate and ultimately increased their participation in representative politics. Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Irene Parlby, and Emily Murphy were integral in lobbying for this change. This day is recognized on October 18th. Learn more from Women and Gender Equality Canada.
Viola Desmond was a community leader, civil rights activist, beautician, and businesswoman who challenged racial segregation in Nova Scotia in 1946. Her refusal to leave a movie theater resulted in her arrest, jailing, unjust conviction, and inspiration for subsequent civil rights activists. She has been honoured for her work by being featured on the Canadian $10 bill. Learn more from the Bank of Canada.
Margaret Jean Gee, born in 1927 in Vancouver, British Columbia, was a woman of many firsts. Earning a degree in law from the University of British Columbia, Gee became the first woman of Chinese descent to graduate from law school in 1953, the first woman of Chinese descent to be admitted to the bar in Canada, and the first Chinese Canadian woman to become a lawyer in British Columbia. Gee was also the first Canadian woman of Chinese heritage to have served as a Pilot Officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force Reserves. Learn more from the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Mary Two-Axe Earley challenged laws discriminating against First Nations women. She plunged into activism at age fifty-five, despite considerable opposition from her community. Earley lost her Indian status by marrying a non-Aboriginal and was barred from going back to live on her reserve. For more than two decades, Two-Axe Earley lobbied to have the discriminatory law reversed, and in 1985 she succeeded. Her efforts benefited about sixteen thousand women and forty-six thousand first-generation descendants who can now retain their First Nation identity regardless of marital status. Learn more from the National Film Board of Canada.
Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Mary May Simon, is the 30th Governor General of Canada and Commander-in-Chief. She was installed as the first Indigenous Governor general in July 2021 during a ceremony that included an Inuk elder lighting the qulliq in the Senate Chamber. As Governor General, she confers honours, represents Canada as she meets with heads of diplomatic mission, senior public servants, military officials, elected officials, representatives of organizations, and viceregal representatives. Learn more from the Governor General of Canada.
Sheila Watt Cloutier is an environmental and human rights activist who, in 2007, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on the impact of global climate change on human rights. She also is the recipient of the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the UN Champion of the Earth Award, and the Norwegian Sophie Prize. In her writing, she situates readers in her Inuit culture and how those and other neglected voices can affect environmental change. Learn more from the Writers’ Trust of Canada.
The Honourable Bardish Chagger was born in Waterloo, Ontario, and is of South Asian descent. Minister Chagger, elected in 2015 as the Member of Parliament for Waterloo, was the first woman to serve as Government House Leader in Canada and is the first Minister of Diversity and Inclusion. Minister Chagger has participated in policy conferenced on many issues, such as advancing same-sex marriage rights and a national manufacturing strategy. She considers herself part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms generation. Learn more from the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Nominate a Woman of Impact
Women of Impact in Canada is an online gallery that celebrates achievements through photos, biographies, and quotations from more than 100 women and girls. It features a series of photographic timelines highlighting historical milestones and an interactive map of Canada, showcasing the remarkable women from coast to coast. Nominate a Woman of Impact here.
Learn and Support
You can help ensure that notable women in Canadian history are not forgotten. Here are a few ideas for celebrating Women’s History Month in Canada – in October of any time of the year!
- Read a book about a notable woman in Canadian History – perhaps someone you’ve never heard of! For more information about women in Canadian history, consult the book 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces.
- If you have discovered the existence of a woman who may be of national historical significance, check out the commemoration program of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. You can send a proposal – but keep in mind, unless they were a Prime Minister, the people must have been deceased for twenty-five years before they can be considered.
- Take a quiz to test your knowledge of women in Canadian history.
Canada’s Great Women – Canada’s History
View the Women in Canadian History Timeline