Secondary Lessons


Universal Suffrage

Guiding Questions

How have voting rights evolved in Canada? Is equality essential to democracy?


The right to vote has been withheld from many groups throughout history based on gender, race, background and religion. Universal suffrage is the right of all citizens to vote in elections and it took decades of people and groups campaigning for equality for this to be achieved.

In this lesson, students reflect on democratic rights in Canada, as well as the importance of equality, political tolerance and citizen participation in a democracy. After reviewing an overview of history of voting rights in Canada, students form groups to investigate the actions of individuals and groups that contributed to universal suffrage and improved accessibility to voting. In the culminating discussion, students have the option of assessing the most important turning point in the evolution of voting rights in Canada or articulating why equality is essential in democracy.


By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Explore issues related to personal and societal rights and responsibilities (Citizenship Education Framework – Attributes);
  • Explain the actions of individuals and groups that led to universal suffrage in Canada (Concepts of Thinking – Cause and Consequence);
  • Work in a collaborative and critically thoughtful manner with their peers to gather, analyze and communicate research;
  • Assess the significance of the pathway to universal suffrage in Canada and democracy today (Concepts of Thinking – Historical Significance);
  • Develop attitudes that foster electoral participation and civic engagement (Citizenship Education Framework – Attributes).


  • I can explain the democratic rights we have in Canada and the significance of key democratic principles;
  • I can use the concept of cause and consequence to explain the actions and impact of individuals and groups that led to universal suffrage in Canada;
  • I can work collaboratively with my peers to research, analyze and effectively communicate information;
  • I can use the concept of historical significance to analyze the universal suffrage movement;
  • I can explain the importance of equality in democracy.


CHC2D – A1, B2, B3, C1, D1, E1, A1.5, B2.4, B3.1, C1.4, D1.4, E1.4


1. Ask students if they know what democratic rights we have in Canada. In summary, our democratic rights include the ability to participate in political activities and to have a democratic form of government.

There are three related sections in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

  • SECTION 3: Every Canadian citizen, 18 years of age or older, has the right to vote in a government election, and become a candidate and serve as an elected representative.
  • SECTION 4: Governments must hold elections at least every five years.
  • SECTION 5: An annual sitting of legislatures is required as a minimum (elected representatives must at least once per year).

2. In addition to democratic rights, other aspects contribute to Canada’s democracy. Review the principles of democracy (Handout 1.2) and connect our democratic rights to specific principles (equality rights, free and fair elections, citizen participation, political tolerance). Even in a democratic county such as Canada, there have been times when one or more of these principles have not been upheld or they have been limited to specific individual or groups. It is important for students to understand that democratic rights are limited when principles of democracy are not upheld or equally applied.

3. Facilitate a discussion about voting rights and democratic principles.

  • Why is equality important in democracy?
  • Why is political tolerance vital for democracy?
  • Why is citizen participation essential in a democracy?
    • Give students time to reflect on the questions and consider events they have studied previously (e.g., first wave feminist movement, War Measures Act, internment of specific groups, disenfranchisement of specific groups over time, historical citizen participation to bring about change).
    • Divide students into groups of three and assign each group member one specific question to investigate and then share findings with their group.
    • Give groups time to discuss all three questions.
    • Conclude by having a class discussion on the three questions.

Teacher note: Be sensitive to issues at home that may challenge perspectives around democratic participation, such as religious reasons or traditions followed by certain groups.


1. Explain to students that the right to vote in Canada has not always been universal. Many groups have been excluded throughout history based on gender, race, background and religion. Watch the ‘Right to Vote’ video (3:21 min) and review Handout 2.1.

Video clarification: Although women gained the right to vote by 1918, there were still many exclusions due to race, ethnic origin and religion. Universal suffrage for all women was not achieved until the 1960’s.

2. Divide the class into groups to research the major developments in the history of voting rights in Canada. Groups could focus on one particular period or be assigned a specific group, within or across periods. For example:

  • Strand B (1914-1929) – Women’s suffrage movement (1916-1918)
  • Strand B (1914-1929) – 1920 Dominion Elections Act (1920)
  • Strand C (1945-1982) – First Nations suffrage movement (1960)
  • Strand D (1945-1982) – Universal suffrage (1960) and/ or Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982)
  • Strand E (1982-present) – Persons with disabilities
  • Strand E (1982-present) – Inmates and prisoners

Using Handout 2.1 as a starting point, have each group conduct research into which historical action or condition was most responsible for their designated group achieving the right to vote.

  • How notable was the event at the time? What was the impact on the period?
  • How widespread and lasting were the consequences? Is it still significant today?
  • How symbolic or representative of historical issues or trends were the consequences?
  • How does it help us understand why voting rights evolved in Canada?

Teacher note: Two versions of Handout 2.1 have been provided. Version 2 is written at a lower reading level.

3. Have groups share their research through a classroom presentation or through a jigsaw method where findings are shared within groups. Depending on the method used, the presentation could incorporate different multi-media formats or be shared through a skit.

4. Through a closing discussion, have students rank the significance of the events on universal suffrage. Ask students to consider the following questions to help justify their rankings:

  • How does each group’s pathway to suffrage compare or differ?
  • Were suffrage movements linked to one another? If so, how?

Teacher note: Review the concept of cause and consequence with students. This concept requires students to determine the factors that affected or led to something and its impact/effects. Students develop an understanding of the complexity of causes and consequences, learning that something may be caused by more than one factor and may have many consequences, both intended and unintended.


Select one of the following activities to consolidate the learning. Give students the choice of which one they would like to complete. The activities can be completed in small groups or individually, depending on available time. The completed task should be shared with the whole class, through a Gallery Walk or pairing students or groups to present their completed tasks.

1. Choose one moment that you think marked the most important turning point for voting rights and Canadian democracy. Make two arguments to support your choice.

2. Read the parliamentary debates from the women’s suffrage era and the arguments made by Members of Parliament against granting women the right to vote. Ask students to write a rebuttal to one or more of the members outlining two reasons why women should have the same voting rights as men.

“The case against ‘woman suffrage’” (The Toronto Star, October 11, 2008)

Selected quotes:

“I say that woman suffrage implies not only the casting of the ballot, but the entering of women into the field of politics. Politics is modified war. There is struggle, strife, contention, bitterness, heart-burning, excitement and agitation, all things which are out of harmony with the true character of womanhood.” (Rodolphe Lemieux, Liberal MP, Gaspé, Quebec)

“Far from being a step forward for women, this so-called emancipation will mean disaster to those on whose behalf it is granted, as well as to the nation at large. Let us consider the social position of women in the state. Everywhere they are tendered respect, admiration, attention; in a word, they are idealized. This admiration is extended to them because we all recognize their sublime mission; that is to say, the moral and intellectual development of our children. I believe that it is a dangerous experiment to take them away from our homes.” (Marie-Joseph Demers, Liberal MP, St. John’s‑Iberville, Newfoundland)

“Woman’s place is not at political rallies, on election committees or in the polling booth. The ideal spot for woman is the family fireside. Isn’t she, in all truth, the angel of the hearth?” (Joseph-Emile D’Anjou, Liberal MP, Rimouski, Quebec)

“The reward offered the women of Canada by the Prime Minister will become the instrument of their torture and the cause of their downfall. It will injure women physically. Who shall say that at all times they will be equal to the excitements of caucus rows, campaign slanders, briberies, inflammable speeches, torch parades and balloting on stormy days?” (Charles Fournier, Liberal MP, Bellechasse, Quebec)

“The physiology of woman, the anatomy of woman, reveals that she is in this world for the purpose of love and motherhood and not for the purpose of political strife.” (Jean-Joseph Denis, Liberal MP, Joliette, Quebec)


Ask students to answer the following question (either formative or summative assessment).

Question: What is the most significant historical event that contributed to universal suffrage in Canada?


  • Handout 2.1: History Of Voting Rights In Canada (Version 1) [PDF]
  • Handout 2.1: History Of Voting Rights In Canada (Version 2) [PDF]

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