Trish Summerhayes

Maria Grant

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I have just sold my private home care business after spending a lifetime nursing and caring for others. During that time I have also been a wife, a mother and a grandmother. I was a "ban the bomber" in London in the sixties and a part of the back to earth movement of the seventies here on Vancouver Island. These experiences have made me who I am. I am me. I am an Island Woman.

Probably the first Canadian woman to vote, Maria Grant was the first to hold public office.

Maria Heathfield Pollard (Grant) wasn’t the first female social reformer to fight for women’s rights in British Columbia but she was one of the earliest and, ultimately, one of the most influential.

Born into an establishment family in Lower Canada in 1854, she moved to Victoria with her parents the year that B.C. joined Confederation, married marine engineer Gordon Grant three years later and promptly bore nine children. A founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, she sought to curb the widespread alcohol abuse of a Gold Rush saloon society.

Her mother was already an activist, founder of the British Columbia Protestant Orphan’s Home. Grant carried on. She founded a mission for destitute men, a refuge for prostitutes seeking escape from the brutal sex trade, a home for unwed mothers and a day nursery for mothers forced to work.

But the injustice that rankled most was one she learned as a little girl told that women could not vote.

“I determined that when I grew up I should do my utmost to work for women’s suffrage.”

She organized, circulated and delivered to the provincial legislative assembly the first province-wide petition demanding the vote. Every year for the next 32 years she personally walked to the legislative assembly from her home to deliver the petition. She bombarded local newspapers with letters. She personally lobbied members of the legislature.

She disrupted the electoral process itself. In 1872, she learned that a newly passed provincial act extended property rights to married women — and property holders were already permitted to vote in municipal elections without reference to gender.

So in 1875, she showed up at the polls and insisted as a property owner on her legal rights — and voted, perhaps the first woman in Canada to do so. In 1894, she ran for school board. She was the first women elected in Canada.

She formed and was first president of the Political Equality League, dedicated to promoting female enfranchisement. In 1912, she led 72 women to confront the premier and handed him a petition with 10,000 signatures.

On April 5, 1917, women obtained the franchise.

“It is good just to have lived to see this day,” she said. She was 63. She had fought for half a century.

Today, the lieutenant-governor, the premier, the speaker and several senior cabinet ministers are women. Victoria’s mayor is a woman. All owe the privilege to Grant’s relentless and unshakeable determination.

Written by Stephen Hume.
Printed in the Vancouver Sun.

 

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