August 18, 2017


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Bring Nellie home

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/10/2009 (2876 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

My husband's French is almost non-existent, but he got my message loud and clear as we surveyed the statues that adorn the facade of the National Assembly in Quebec City.

"Une," I said indignantly.

"No, deux," he corrected, spotting a second woman among the 20 male founders of la belle province.

We knew most of the men, household names in history books: Montcalm, Champlain, Wolfe... We didn't know the two women, Sister Marie Guyart and educator Marguerite Bourgeoys, but it got me wondering -- how many women adorn Manitoba's legislative building?


I circled the legislature one warm autumn night, amazed that I could find only one: Queen Victoria, and she never set foot in Canada, much less this province.

What message does that send to the young women of Manitoba who visit our legislature? Or the record number of female MLAs who today comprise more than a third of the house? That we're invisible? Or that we just don't count?

There is a movement to establish a statue in honour of noted feminist Nellie McClung at the legislature, but it's been six years since we first heard about this effort, and still no statue.

No one was willing to talk with the Free Press about the memorial this week. Perhaps it's because there's so much pressure to say and do the right thing in these politically charged times.

But this one seems so obvious, it's hard to believe it hasn't happened yet.

Public symbols and statues and words matter.

Ask the Métis nation, which struggled years ago to get a statue of Louis Riel, the province's founder, at the legislature.

Ask the Ukrainians, who worked hard to get a statue of their poet and hero Taras Shevchenko on the legislative grounds, or the Scots who managed to enshrine Robbie Burns.

They matter.

Alberta seems to have figured this out.

In honour of the "Famous Five" who won the battle in 1929 to have women declared "persons" under the BNA Act, there are plaques and parks and a wonderful monument of the five women sculpted by Canadian artist Barbara Paterson.

It was unveiled in Calgary in 1999, and a replica established on Parliament Hill in 2000.

Interestingly, all five of the women are dubbed Albertans, including Nellie Mooney McClung.

She was 43 when she moved to Edmonton and helped galvanize Alberta's suffrage movement. But she was "Our Nell" for decades before that. She was raised here, came into her own as a public speaker and novelist in Manitou, and became the most famous women's activist in North America after her family moved to Winnipeg in 1911.

It was Nellie and her passionate, hardworking and outspoken colleagues that made this province ground zero of the feminist movement at the turn of the century.

In 1873, when Nellie was born, women couldn't be lawyers, judges or politicians. They could not vote or hold political office.

And yet, despite the formidable odds, McClung grew up to be one of the most remarkable Canadians in history -- a teacher, mother of five, best-selling novelist, provincial politician, public speaker, syndicated newspaper columnist, and an eloquent advocate for social reform.

She made profound changes in our laws and in our society, changes for which every woman in Canada is grateful. And it's here in Manitoba that she truly came into her own.

She knew that.

When a visitor remarked on her beautiful garden in Victoria, B.C., near the end of her long and illustrious life, the ailing McClung replied: "If I were only a few years younger, I'd move tomorrow to Winnipeg with its blizzards."

Ninety-three years after she fought and won the battle to give Manitoba women the right to vote and to hold public office -- a first in North America -- it's time to recognize McClung where she belongs.

It's time to bring Nellie home.


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