Gender Equality in Canada: Why Women’s History Does Not Live in the Past

by Mary Gannon on 07 Mar, 2023

The article focuses on why learning about women in history is important, using detailed examples from Nellie McClung, to Viola Desmond, to Autumn Peltier. These women highlight the progression of women in history and how it inspired and connects back to our society today. 


Canadian Women in History Course




  • International Women’s Day helps highlight the many strides and achievements women have made throughout Canadian history
  • Activist Nellie McClung was pivotal in cementing women’s rights in Canadian legislation, from gaining the right to vote to establishing personhood for women in Canada
  • Viola Desmond represents the continual fight for equality as she persevered through racial discrimination and segregation to inspire others in the civil rights movement
  • Indigenous activist Autumn Peltier has advocated her whole life for clean drinking water, including speaking at the UN. Peltier helps highlight that women’s efforts in society benefit everyone.


International Women’s Day


As International Women’s Day approaches, one can't help but think of all the wonderful friends and family in their lives. Women are incredible forces who have taken tremendous strides for equality over the past 150 years, but work remains that keeps the fight for gender equity alive. As learners push forward in their education they should know who paved the path, as everyone benefits from the innovations and perseverance of women. 


In today’s age, the field of STEM is more important than ever. We see industries from healthcare to education in need of technological and forward-thinking solutions from diversified backgrounds in STEM. Today each individual is afforded opportunities to pursue their passions that simply would not exist without the women who came before. 


Women make up half the population and contribute to society in immeasurable ways, yet they have often been omitted from history books. The Canadian Women in History course by Women and Gender Equality Canada features the impacts and accomplishments of influential Canadian women and people while highlighting their strides toward equality. Although Women’s History Month has passed, it is important to remember women and their vital role in our society every month of the year. 


Nellie McClung


Nellie McClung


Canada leads the world in women’s rights, from the Canadian Human Rights Act to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These documents help ensure women’s rights and solidify their role in Canadian democracy. However, would you be surprised to learn that women were not even legally considered persons, defined as those unable to hold political office or appointment to the Senate, less than 100 years ago?


The fight for gender equality has a long history, and Canada is no exception. Nellie McClung, born October 20th, 1873, was a pioneer of women’s rights. From humble beginnings as a teacher, she went on to become an author and advocate, most notably known for her work as a suffragette. In 1914, McClung, along with other members of the Political Equality League, held a mock parliament in Manitoba, where they reversed gender roles and satirically contested why men pose a threat to the vote. Two years later, in 1916, women across Manitoba won the right to vote, and in the following years, each province followed suit. 


McClung was an activist to her core, so after her great victory, she persisted in her quest for equality. In 1929, McClung, along with four other influential activists of the time, dubbed “The Famous Five,” contested the status of women as “property” under the British North American Act and soon cemented women as “Persons” in Canada. This change, along with women gaining the right to vote, redefined the democratic landscape of Canada. 


Though McClung paved the way, she is far from the only woman to fight for equality in Canada. The Canadian Women in History course further highlights the incredible impacts of women like Nellie McClung while exploring the rich history and milestones of Canadian women. The course dives into key moments throughout history while addressing racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and more which continue to affect women and people of all backgrounds today.


Viola Desmond


Unequal Pay


In today’s society, Viola Desmond is a symbol of the fight for equality. So much so that she is the newest face of the Canadian ten-dollar bill. As a black woman living in Nova Scotia during the time of segregation in 1946, Desmond entered a movie theatre and sat on the bottom level, unbeknownst to her that the section was reserved for white people only. When Desmond was asked to relocate to the other section, on the balcony, she refused, and was subsequently dragged out of the theatre and brought to jail. 


Desmond knew that what was happening to her was unjust, and so with the support of her friends and family, she fought back against the conviction. Desmond joined the fight against segregation and her legacy in protecting minority rights and fighting racism continues to this day. 


Desmond is proof that when fighting for justice and equality, what is right is not always easy. The case brought great loss to Desmond, whose marriage ended and who abandoned her business in Nova Scotia. Despite losing the case, Desmond’s conviction in fighting injustice inspired others and helped pave the way for Canada’s civil rights movement.


From Laura Secord to Dr. Roberta Bondar, women have persevered through adversity and societal challenges to change Canadian society for the better. If you want to learn more about these women, check out the Women in Canadian History course, which helps you explore the issues that affect women and all people every day. Furthermore, discover ChatterHigh modules on many topics from mental health awareness, to women’s history, diversity, equity and inclusion, and more. 


Autumn Peltier 


Autumn Peltier


Despite Canada’s advancements in women’s rights, there are still barriers in our home country. The battle for women’s rights itself has not been equal to all women, and while great strides have been made to improve the quality of life for women in Canada, certain groups continue to disproportionately suffer.


Indigenous activist Autumn Peltier, born September 27th, 2004, is a water and environmental rights activist. She has been advocating for access to clean drinking water for Indigenous communities and communities around the world since she was only 12 years old. The fight for clean drinking water in Indigenous communities is not new, but Peltier is shining light and importance on the issue. In 2019, she was appointed Chief Water Commissioner by the Anishinabek Nation, where she used her role to speak at the United Nations.


Peltier said she will continue this work for the rest of her life, hoping to provide communities around the world with clean drinking water. Toxic water affects everyone in a community, demonstrating how women’s efforts in society are beneficial to everyone. Peltier’s work has been successful, as over 50 boil water advisories have been resolved since 2015. 




Women have ushered in an age of equality, and their advancements have helped redefine Canadian society, from advocating for the Canadian Human Rights Act to joining Canadian space exploration and even acting as Prime Minister. As educators and learners, we must learn from the past to help understand the importance of women in history and the roles that have yet to be fulfilled in the fight for gender equality. Equipped with knowledge and confidence, anyone can help change the future for the better.


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