“He took out a feminist icon and replaced her with himself. It’s deeply symbolic. It’s emblematic of Harper’s approach to women’s equality.”
New Democrat MP Niki Ashton, from an article by Dean Beeby of The Canadian Press, July 29.
Thérèse Casgrain has been hailed as “the Canadian activist woman of the century” and as “the person who has been most distinguished in the defence of human rights and the ideals of justice in our society.”
Thérèse Casgrain is shown during a 24-hour silent vigil at Montreal’s war memorial in this Nov. 10, 1961 photo. Casgrain’s name has been removed from a national honour and replaced by a volunteer award bearing the prime minister’s banner.
— Canadian Press file photo
So, why is the Prime Minister’s Office hell-bent on diminishing her legacy?
In 1982, the year after her death, the federal government created the Thérèse Casgrain Volunteer Award to recognize “candidates whose social commitment and persistent efforts have contributed significantly to the well-being of their fellow Canadians,” just as Casgrain herself had done.
And what has Stephen Harper done? Snatched the limelight for himself, shuffling Casgrain’s legacy off into the shadows.
The Canadian Press reported this week that the Thérèse Casgrain Volunteer Award was quietly killed off in 2010 — without consulting the Casgrain family and much to their distress — and has been replaced by the Prime Minister’s Volunteer Award, which gives Harper the chance to mug for a few photos and press the flesh at an annual ceremony.
Casgrain spent her life fighting for the disenfranchised — both women and men — and Canadians should be appalled at the Harper government’s disdain for her many contributions to society.
Casgrain was lauded for her efforts to advance human rights in Quebec, where she became the first woman to head a political party — the CCF, precursor to the NDP.
She also changed her country for the better, helping to improve the lives of women and other marginalized groups through her determination to see people treated equally and with respect.
From the 1920s until her death at the age of 85, she spoke up at every opportunity to protest injustice, blazing a trail for feminists, and inspiring journalists and politicians with her passion and conviction. Among
her many preoccupations: getting women the right to vote — a goal finally achieved in Quebec in 1940.
A website about francophone Canadians, franco.ca, lists Casgrain’s many achievements in a section called “The Canadian French-Speaking World and Some of the People Who Have Contributed to its Greatness,” but her accomplishments affected people far beyond the borders of Canada’s French-speaking world.
As a journalist she spread her messages via Radio-Canada, and those messages resonated. She opposed conscription, befriended trade unionists, castigated the elite, deplored the use of nuclear weapons, helped victims of the war in Vietnam, lobbied for consumer rights and advocated for senior citizens, particularly their right to work beyond the age of 65 if they so choose.
Harper’s office has tried to deflect criticism about its elimination of the Thérèse Casgrain Volunteer Award by pointing out that Casgrain gets a mention in the citizenship study guide.
It’s hardly the same level of recognition. How many Canadian school children do you think will read that?
And Harper didn’t stop with getting rid of the award named in her honour.
As Dean Beeby of The Canadian Press reported on Monday:
An image of Casgrain and her namesake volunteer-award medal also disappeared from Canada’s $50 bank note in 2012, replaced by the image of an icebreaker on a new currency series.
An image of the so-called Famous Five women was removed from the same bank note.
“It was a very difficult thing for the family to see the award disappear all of a sudden,” Michele Nadeau, Casgrain’s granddaughter, said in an interview. “It was a great disappointment.”
So there you have it. With a stroke of his prime ministerial magic eraser, Harper has expunged an important chapter in our history.
Five champions of women’s rights banished from the currency.
And a humanist icon of the 20th century replaced by a picture of an icebreaker. I’m sure Thérèse Casgrain broke through more barriers than that ship ever will.
What’s next in the World According to Harper? Will the Queen be replaced on the $20-bill by an image of dinosaurs cavorting with Adam and Eve?
Seriously — imagine if that was your family’s proud legacy, unceremoniously shoved out of the spotlight and replaced by the Government of Canada logo.
As a girl, the Canadian history I read had few references to female heroes, beyond Laura Secord — better known now as an ice cream and chocolate brand than as a heroine of war.
Girls and young women in Canada need role models, too, not a prime minister who tries to erase them from our past.
I can just hear Stephen Harper now, getting home from the office and greeting his teenage daughter.
“Hey honey, guess what your amazing dad did today? He made another woman disappear.”
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.