Three Brave Women You Need to Know

Friday, April 20, 2018

How does one person make a difference? How do people excluded from circles of power enact positive change? For women, who have been historically excluded from these circles, the answer is often in challenging the very structures that have served to keep them outside. As part of our newest exhibition, Rights of Passage: Canada at 150, we explore the work of several important women whose tireless efforts have led to lasting change. Thérèse Casgrain, Carrie Best, and Ellen Gabriel: if you don’t know these incredible women, you should! Their brave struggles, at different times and in different places over the last 150 years, have fundamentally challenged the status quo and led to important changes for all women, and particularly women further marginalized by factors like economic, political and legal status.


Black and white portrait of a woman.

Thérèse Casgrain campaigning for office, Quebec, 1967. Casgrain was appointed to the Senate at the age of 74. Photo: Library and Archives Canada, Yousuf Karsh

Thérèse Casgrain, born in 1896, was the first woman to lead a political party in Quebec. Involved in political, social and labour activities all her life, Casgrain was passionate about many issues, notably women’s suffrage in Quebec, which had not instituted the provincial franchise for women at the same time as many other provinces. From 1928 to 1942, she served as president of the League for Women's Rights, leading the 20-year struggle for women’s suffrage, and winning, in 1940, Quebec women’s right to vote provincially. Casgrain was not dissuaded by failure: from 1942 to 1962, she ran nine times for public office, both federally and provincially, without winning once. She was elected leader of the Quebec wing of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1951, becoming the first woman to head a political party in Quebec. From that point on, she continued to advance human and women’s rights in national and international forums, as well as global peace, and in 1970, became an independent Senator. In her 1972 autobiography, Casgrain maintained that the most important thing was to continue to ask difficult questions, to challenge the status quo: “All of my life, I have recommended that one must ask questions, take a position, and act upon it.”


Woman reading a newspaper.

Carrie Best, founder and editor of The Clarion, the first Black-owned newspaper in Nova Scotia. The newspaper emphasized issues of racial justice and equality. Photo: The Chronicle Herald

Carrie (Prevoe) Best, born in 1903, was an anti-racism activist, publisher, editor and writer from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. In 1941, she and her son Cal challenged the segregated seating policy of their hometown’s Roseland Theatre – five years before Viola Desmond’s historic visit. Though the legal challenge was unsuccessful, Best continued her activism when she co-founded and edited The Clarion, the first Black-owned newspaper in Nova Scotia. In the late 1960s, she was hired by the Pictou Advocate to write a column on human rights. In it, Best wrote about the treatment and living conditions of Indigenous peoples in Nova Scotia. She also began an investigation, reported in the Advocate, about higher property tax rates paid by Black Canadians living on a certain street in New Glasgow. Best discovered that the higher taxes were an attempt to force Black Canadians to sell their homes to make way for a development project. Her investigative journalism on this issue became the basis for a report she submitted to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. In 1975, Best formed an organization that funded Black women’s educational pursuits. Her activism was acknowledged by numerous rewards including the rank of Officer of the Order of Canada as well as the Order of Nova Scotia.


Man looking towards the camera with binoculars standing next to a woman, who is also standing.
Ellen Gabriel, negotiator for the Mohawk Nation, looking down from the barricade as troops move in near Kanehsatà:ke (Oka) in the summer of 1990. Photo: The Montreal Gazette, John Kenney

Ellen Gabriel, also known as Katsi’tsakwas, is an activist and artist from Kanehsatà:ke Nation and a member of the Turtle Clan. Gabriel has fought for Indigenous people, and women in particular, both in Canada and internationally, by advocating for causes like an investigation into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the adoption of the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and other issues. In 2004, Gabriel was elected president of the Quebec Native Women’s Association. But perhaps the struggle she is best known for is the one that continues to animate much of her activism: the struggle to retain Mohawk lands and protect them from illegal development. Gabriel was a negotiator during what is known as the Oka Crisis of 1990, when the police forces of Sûreté du Quebec and the Canadian military were deployed to dismantle a barricade erected by the Mohawk people of Kanehsatà:ke to stop development in one of their most sacred sites. In the tradition of the Longhouse, women are the protectors of the land who uphold traditional knowledge in the fight against illegal development. She fights to this day for the lands that belong to the Mohawk people and is an inspiration for the ongoing activism that thousands of Indigenous women in Canada continue for this generation and for future ones.  

Thérèse Casgrain, Carrie Best, and Ellen Gabriel: three women whose activism continues to inspire Canadians. As their stories demonstrate, action begins with conviction and a desire to enact positive change. Change-makers come from many walks of life, and many different backgrounds, but are united in their common determination and drive to make Canada a more just place.