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On tour: Their Votes Counted
Jul 03, 2017, By: Kierra Jones
Nurses at an military site
Library and Archives Canada/Ministry of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada fonds/a005544
Canadian Hospital in Orpington during election

A travelling exhibit focused on the first group of Canadian women to vote in a federal election — the nursing sisters of the First World War — showcases the pivotal role of nurses in women’s suffrage.

Supported by CNA, Their Votes Counted was spearheaded by the Victoria County Historical Society (VCHS) in Lindsay, Ont.

The exhibit explores the political background of voting rights and the individual stories of the first nursing sisters to cast a ballot, explains curator Ashley Creed. “It addresses not only the history of the First World War, the nursing profession and the suffrage movement but also how those three stories converged 100 years ago.”

Before the 1917 federal election, Prime Minister Robert Borden’s government passed the Military Voters Act in a bid for more votes. This temporary war measure extended the right to vote to all Canadians serving overseas, including the nursing sisters. Borden also introduced the Wartime Elections Act, which granted the vote to female relatives of military men.

More than 500,000 women voted on Dec. 17 of that year. Due to the time difference, first to the polls were nursing sisters Alma Finnie, Jean Bennett and Oda Weldon, who were serving at the Ontario Military Hospital in Orpington, England. A government photographer captured the historic event.

It was this image that inspired Their Votes Counted. According to Creed, when a VCHS researcher came upon the Library and Archives Canada photo, the names of the people pictured and the fact that the first women to vote federally had been nurses were not commonly known.

The bilingual exhibit includes information panels, photos, a nursing sister’s uniform replica and an electronic quiz that allows visitors to determine whether they could have voted in 1917. An accompanying website provides online access, including information on how to apply to host the exhibit.

“CNA become involved because we believed it was important that the ongoing contribution of nurses be made known to Canadians during this anniversary year (Canada 150),” says Marc Bourgeois, CNA’s director of Public Affairs and Member Engagement.

CNA financially supported the travelling component of the exhibit and the official launch on Parliament Hill during National Nursing Week. The event was sponsored by Peterborough-Kawartha MP and Minister of Status of Women Maryam Monsef. She had announced $250,000 of federal funding for the exhibit in November 2016.

“We know the invaluable role that Canadian nurses play in the provision of quality health care in Canada,” Monsef said in a statement to Canadian Nurse. “It is no surprise that it was a nurse who was the first woman to help build a healthier democracy by casting her vote.”

The exhibit emphasizes nursing’s part in achieving universal suffrage, says David Wesley, heritage director for VCHS. “The fact that these women were professionals who had voted and were used to being treated as equals added impetus for all women to get the vote.”

Most women in Canada who had reached age 21 were granted universal voting rights in 1918 and were eligible to vote in the 1921 federal election.

Wesley says the goal is to bring Their Votes Counted to spaces outside the museum circuit. “We’re trying to get it out into the health-care community so more people can see it, whether it’s hospital lobbies or nurses’ conventions,” he explains, adding that the plan is for the exhibit to tour Canada throughout the rest of the Canada 150 celebratory year.

Kierra Jones is a freelance journalist in Vancouver.