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Manitoba History: Letter to the Editor

Number 54, February 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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To the Editor:

As a retired lawyer, I am interested to see that historians and others are still quoting the old joke – probably invented by suffragettes, and possibly by our own Nellie McClung: “No woman, idiot, lunatic or criminal shall vote.”

It is quoted on page 15 of your October 2006 issue [in the article entitled: Three Manitoba Pioneer Women: A Legacy of Servant-Leadership], and on at least six web sites, as if it is the actual wording of an old federal statute. In fact it is not from any statute, but a humorous summary of parts of some old laws. More research could be done but I think the following results of my recent hour in a law library are enough to prove my point:

  • People using the quotation these days don’t always name a federal statute as its source, but when they do it’s usually the Federal Elections Act, the Canada Elections Act, the Elections Act of Canada or the Dominion Elections Act – and the date given is anywhere from 1867 to 1906. In fact, the federal statute dealing with elections in those days was the Dominion Elections Act.
  • The Dominion Elections Act did not contain the qualifications to vote. It (or the federal Franchise Act) stated that the qualifications to vote in a federal election were the same as those established by each province for provincial elections. One must therefore consult provincial laws for details.
  • In Manitoba the qualifications to vote were first established in An Act respecting the Qualification of Voters (S.M. 1872, chapter 5). Section 1 qualifies adult males. Section 4 states. “No woman shall be qualified to vote at any election for any Electoral Division whatever.” The Act does not mention “idiots, lunatics or criminals”.
  • By 1902 the Manitoba legislation (RSM 1902, chapter 52) qualifies adult males (section 16). Women are not mentioned at all, and the silence meant that they were not qualified to vote. Section 19 disqualifies “lunatics, idiots … and persons in [any] public institution as inmates or prisoners”.

Finally, I note that at the end of the “no woman, idiot…” quotation on page 15 of your October issue, the author adds, “only men [could vote]” That’s expressing it a bit too broadly, since some men were ineligible – including (to coin a naughty phrase) judges, idiots and lunatics.

Norm Larsen

Page revised: 6 November 2012

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