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Five women all Canadians should know

By Matthew McRae

 Six red dresses are suspended in air on hangers in front of a backdrop. The backdrop features an image of a birch wood forest with more red dresses hanging in it.

Photo: CMHR, Ian McCausland

Story details

Through the courageous efforts of many Canadian women, human rights have advanced significantly, both in our country and beyond our borders. Their bravery and passion to make a difference has helped make Canada what it is today, and their stories highlight the challenges women continue to face in the pursuit for gender equality. We present to you five of these women, whose stories should be known by all Canadians.

Marina Nemat smiles and stands beside a large digital display screen. She is wearing a red jacket and is looking directly at the photographer. The screen features a picture of people sitting on steps in front of large stone columns.
Marina Nemat

Marina Nemat visited her exhibit at the Museum in November 2014.

Photo: CMHR, Lyle Stafford

Imagine being imprisoned and tortured for speaking out against your government – at just 16 years old. For Marina Nemat, there was no need to imagine. In 1979, she was arrested by the Iranian government for attending protests and writing articles about the new government’s oppressive policies. She spent more than two years in Evin prison, where she was tortured and very nearly executed. In 1991, Nemat emigrated to Canada and eventually decided to speak out about her experience. She has written two books and now regularly speaks at high schools, universities and conferences around the world about our right – what she sees as our duty, in fact – to speak out against injustice. In 2007, Nemat was awarded the first Human Dignity Prize, given annually by the European Parliament and the cultural association Europa 2004 to celebrate those working toward a world free of intolerance and social injustice.

Jaime Black stands in front of red dresses suspended in air on hangers in front of a backdrop. The backdrop features an image of a birch wood forest with more red dresses hanging in it.
Jaime Black

Jaime Black in front ofThe REDress Project in the Canadian Journeys gallery at the Museum.

Photo: CMHR, Matthew Cheung

With a determination to spread awareness and build support for the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, Jaime Black created The REDress Project. Hundreds of red dresses were collected through community donations and installed in public spaces across Canada as a visual reminder of the many women and girls who have died or disappeared. Several of these dresses can be viewed at the Museum, and it is one our most talked-about exhibits. The REDress Project is sparking countless conversations about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. These are conversations that Canadians need to have – and Jaime Black’s artwork is helping move the dialogue forward.

A black and white image of Nellie McClung sitting at a desk.  She is wearing a white blouse and holds a pen in her hand.  On the desk there is a lamp, an inkwell and some paper.
Nellie McClung

Nellie McClung working at her desk.

Photo: Glenbow Archives NA1641-1

Today, women across Canada have the right to vote in all elections. But that right wasn’t just given to women – it had to be won. Nellie McClung was instrumental in making Manitoba the first Canadian province to give some women the vote in 1916 – over a hundred years ago. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. McClung never stopped advocating for the rights of Canadians and worked all her life as an activist, author and politician. McClung was one of the “Famous Five” – a group of women who convinced the courts to finally recognize women as persons under the law in 1929.

Nellie McClung also took some positions that violate human rights by today’s standards. She was an advocate of eugenics, the idea that society could be improved by controlling sexual reproduction. McClung was a supporter of Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act, which led to the involuntary sterilization of thousands of people considered “mentally deficient” until the law was repealed in 1972.

A head-and-shoulders image of Huberte Gautreau. She is sitting in a chair, wearing a shawl and looking at someone who is out of the frame.
Huberte Gautreau

Huberte Gautreau during an interview she conducted with the Museum.

Photo: CMHR Oral History Collection, Huberte Gautreau

A Francophone Acadian nurse who grew up in the tiny New Brunswick village of Pré-d’en-Haut, Huberte Gautreau has travelled the world fighting for the rights of women and communities. Gautreau has fought for health and human rights in many countries including the United States, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and Peru. Her efforts have focused on vital issues like sanitation, clean water, education and women’s equality. Here in Canada, Gautreau has also been very active. Among other achievements, she helped establish a shelter for battered women and counselled people about sexual and gender harassment in her home province of New Brunswick. Today, she continues to work for the rights of women and others.

A head-and-shoulder portrait of a smiling Viola Desmond. She is wearing a light blue jacket with embroidered patterns on it. The jacket is held together at the collar by a large pin in the shape of a hand making a “V for victory” symbol.
Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond.

Photo: Courtesy of Joe and Wanda Robson

When people think of segregation – the enforced separation of racial groups – they usually think of the United States and the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King. But segregation happened in Canada too, and Viola Desmond – a Black Nova Scotian beautician – was one of the first people to challenge it. In 1946, Desmond was already a business leader in her community. That year, she refused to leave a whites-only section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and was arrested as a result. She appealed the arrest and lost her case, but her courageous stand continues to inspire. Desmond is fast becoming more well-known by Canadians. In 2010, then-Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Mayann Francis posthumously pardoned her, removing her conviction from the historical record. In 2018, she became the first Canadian woman to appear on a regular Canadian bank note.

All Canadians should know the names of these five women. If we work their achievements into our conversations with friends and family, we can ensure that their stories will not be forgotten and will inspire others to take action in the quest for gender equality. There are a multitude of other amazing women in Canada and from around the world who are working passionately for human rights. Which ones inspire you?

Reflective questions:

Which woman would I add to a list of human rights defenders?

Which woman inspires me to take a stand for equality? Why?

What are some of the challenges women still face today?