The “unruly” women who fought for Canadian liberty

Canadian women who care about liberty often look to our cousins in the United States for women who have contributed to the liberal tradition. Among libertarians it’s common to look to Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane, and Isabel Paterson, the “founding mothers” of libertarianism.

Elinor Ostrom, still the only woman to win a Nobel Prize in Economics, advocated grassroots community management of common-pool resources rather than centralized government control. Like Ostrom, Jane Jacobs’ work on urban development showed how decentralized governance and “humble people [solving] humble problems” are superior to top-down solutions. These, and many others, are remarkable women whom we ought always to look to for inspiration.

Although Isabel Paterson and Jane Jacobs were also Canadian, too many Canadian champions of liberty are often overlooked. It should be no surprise that Canadian women helped make our country freer. Learning more about them, we can draw inspiration from their achievements.

This International Women’s Day, we’d like to take a closer look at four incredible and overlooked Canadian women who worked relentlessly for the cause of freedom: Chloe Cooley, Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie, Mary-Ann Shadd, and Viola Desmond.

Chloe Cooley

Chloe Cooley was a Black slave from Upper Canada who resisted her American Loyalist enslaver, a white farmer named William Vrooman.

In 1793, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe tabled the first legislation in the Anglosphere to limit slavery. Though it didn’t accomplish total abolition, this legislation made it illegal for new slaves to be brought into Canada and freed the children of slaves when they turned 25. Vrooman was worried that the legislation would force him to free Cooley. Rather than risk losing his “property”, he sold her to a man in the United States. Not as complacent as a piece of property, Cooley boldy resisted: kicking, screaming, and shouting to be let go while many looked on. It took Vrooman and two other men to restrain Cooley. They severely beat her, tied her up, and forced her into a boat before Vrooman could complete the sale. Her fierce resistance and brutal treatment caught the attention of Peter Martin, a Black Loyalist who witnessed the abduction. He brought a white man who had also witnessed the assault and seizure of Chloe Cooley to the Executive Council of Upper Canada to report what they’d seen.

Simcoe’s anger when he heard about her treatment and sale inspired him to present a bill that would prohibit slavery outright. Unfortunately, 12 members of the 25-person government owned slaves and the bill was doomed—but it paved the way for the 1793 Act Against Slavery. The declaration of this Act that all slaves who entered Canada became free paved the way for thousands of American slaves to escape to Canada.

Cooley had a history of fighting her bondage. She regularly protested by behaving in an “unruly manner”: stealing from Vrooman, resisting work assignments, and leaving the property without permission. This time her resistance drove the first stakes in the Underground Railroad. She was never heard from again after being sold, but the legacy of her resistance was freedom for countless others.

Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie

Marie Lacoste (later Maire Gérin-Lajoie) was born into a prominent 19th-century Catholic family in Quebec. Her resistance to the deeply entrenched disenfranchisement of women in their homes, in the workplace, and in public life led to major improvements in women’s lives in Quebec.

Catholic universities in Quebec did not accept women, so she educated herself. With access to extensive legal libraries through both her father and her husband, she became an expert in the legal rights of women in Quebec. She advocated successfully for a change in Quebec’s Civil Code to give women legal control over their wages. She worked tirelessly to ensure that women had access to and understood their rights. Her book Traité de droit usuel / A Treatise on Everyday Law was used by teachers to ensure students knew their rights when the provincial government refused to add legal studies to the school curriculum.

Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie founded the first classical college for girls in Quebec (in 1911 her daughter would become the first French Canadian woman to receive a B.A. in Quebec) and helped found the Fédération nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste in 1907, which campaigned for social and political rights for women. She wrote extensively to advocate for causes that would improve the lives of women, including allowing women to learn and practice law and increasing women’s decision-making power within their families. She was also one of the first advocates of women’s suffrage in Quebec, and her efforts helped bring about the vote for women in Quebec, the last province to extend it, in 1940.

Mary-Ann Shadd

Mary-Ann Shadd was born free in Delaware, a slave state, to abolitionist parents who ran a station of the Underground Railroad. Her parents moved to Pennsylvania where she and her siblings could attend school. When the second Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, even free Black Americans were in danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery and so the Shadds moved to Canada where their freedom would be secure.

Mary-Ann Shadd, a teacher, moved to Sandwich in Canada West (now part of Windsor, Ontario) and opened a school for the fugitive slave population. From there her abolitionist activism only grew.

In 1852 she published A Plea for Emigration; or Notes of Canada West, a pamphlet urging Black Americans to move to Canada where they could be free. In 1853 she began publication of The Provincial Freeman, an antislavery newspaper that made her the first Black woman in North America to establish and edit a newspaper and one of the earliest women to start a newspaper in Canada.

The Freeman fought back against the popular presentation of Black people as poor, downtrodden, and in need of charity. Shadd believed what they needed was freedom. Most fugitive slave refugees were, after all, able to quickly establish themselves and become self-sufficient in Canada. She believed self-reliance was key and encouraged Black Canadians to insist on equal treatment. The Provincial Freeman also promoted the work of important women activists—both feminist and abolitionist. Shadd was also instrumental in forming the abolitionist group The Provincial Union, which was run for and by the Black community.

Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond has finally gained prominence as the first Canadian woman to appear on a banknote, but when she was chosen many were left wondering who she was. She’s sometimes called “Canada’s Rosa Parks”, but Viola Desmond refused to give up her seat in the white section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia nine years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the white section of an Alabama bus.

Desmond took advantage of the fact that many beauty schools in the early 20th century refused to take Black students. After receiving her education in Montréal, Atlantic City, and New York, she returned to Nova Scotia to open a beauty salon that could cater to Black clients in Halifax as well as The Desmond School of Beauty Culture to educate other Black beauticians, providing them with the skills to open their own businesses and employ other Black women in their communities. She also established a line of beauty products.

Although her business carved out a place for entrepreneurial and independent Black women in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Québec when discrimination and segregation were still rampant, Viola Desmond is most often remembered for her legal battle over a movie ticket. Stuck in New Glasgow on a business trip, she went to the movies. She tried to buy a more expensive main floor seat, but the theatre refused to sell her anything but a ticket for the cheaper balcony seats. She persisted, taking a seat on the main level, where the manager first told her to leave and then dragged her from the theatre. The manager had her arrested and charged with tax evasion for failing to pay the one-cent difference in tax between the floor and balcony tickets—a reminder that although Canada did not have legal segregation or explicitly racist laws, the government found ways to discriminate against people of colour well into the 20th century. Although Desmond was convicted and fined and her legal fight did not result in a change in the law, this “unruly woman” and her aggressive defence of her dignity was an example to the black community in Nova Scotia in the fight for equal rights.

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Women have always been a part of the fight against oppression and for a freer world. This is no less true in Canada. International Women’s Day gives us an opportunity to reflect on the incredible work of those who came before us to make life freer. Although they were disadvantaged by their gender, Canadian women like Mary Ann Shadd, Viola Desmond, Chloe Cooley, and Marie Lacoste Gerin-Lajoie resisted injustice and worked for a freer Canada. They are a testament to the importance of ensuring that all people are free to contribute to our society and our world.

Co-authored by Sabine El-Chidiac and Janet Bufton