At the time of Canada’s founding in 1867, full citizenship was only accorded to men. Voting was limited to those who were white and male. A series of changes began to correct this gross inequity in early 1916 with the granting of provincial voting rights to women, including those in Manitoba.
Down the road in Manitou, you can visit the childhood home of Nellie McClung, one of the Famous Five. That group of women was instrumental in pressuring the government to recognize women as “persons” under the law which then led to them being able to vote, run for political office and own property.
It took until 1951, when the Northwest Territories finally acquiesced, for women across Canada to get the vote. First Nations residents of this country were given that right in 1960 under the government of John Diefenbaker. Prior to that, they could only vote if they gave up their treaty rights and Indian status.
Across the world, we’ve seen what appeared at times as an inevitable march toward universal democracy falter and sputter. The Arab Spring that erupted 9 years ago was cheered by many, as citizens of countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen and Libya toppled oppressive regimes and demanded full participation in their governments.
The outcomes of these hopeful revolutions were depressingly grim. Syria descended into a brutal civil war. The conflict raging in Yemen has become one of the worst humanitarian disasters. Egypt is still a military dictatorship despite the removal of Hosni Mubarak during the uprising in 2011. And Libya is essentially a failed state, torn apart by tribal rivalries.
The world watches with trepidation as protesters march in Hong Kong, demanding, among other things, the universal right to vote. Since its handover by Britain to Chinese rule in 1997, the tiny region has been given a certain level of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” principle.
When a law was proposed in March that allowed Hong Kong to extradite people to mainland China to face trial under communist-controlled courts, all hell broke loose. Many of the protests have ended in violent clashes with police.
Tiananmen Square echoes in the not-too-distant past. You may recall that pro-democracy protesters, many of them Chinese university students, were met with overwhelming force. Thousands were killed and the uprising came to a swift and ruthless conclusion.
While we may cheer from the sidelines, we wonder how long the Chinese regime will permit the Hong Kong protests to continue before they too are met with the overwhelming might of the Army of the People’s Republic of China.
At times, I’ve heard and read people make the argument that citizens of a repressive regime should just rise up and take power from their oppressors. They naively believe such noble heroics are possible if only the people wanted it badly enough. History tells a different story. Tales of the overthrow of despots and cruel regimes are far fewer than we sometimes imagine.
Canada’s relatively nonviolent democratic history is very much in the minority. Rather than being forged in war and blood, our revolutions have mostly been waged with words and peaceful protests. It should not be taken for granted.
Last November, we held local elections for our municipal councillors and school trustees. Next month, voters will be choosing their federal Member of Parliament. As citizens of Canada, we not only have the right to vote, we have the responsibility to make informed decisions about who we elect to represent us.
Many have worked hard and dedicated their lives to ensuring we have this right. Far too many have sacrificed their lives to defend it. Casting a ballot every four years might seem like a small act, but it represents a fundamental desire of human beings – the right to determine who makes the decisions that affect us.
Elections matter. Voting matters.