Thérèse Casgrain is best known as the first woman to be elected the leader of a political party in Canada. From 1982 to 1990, and again from 2001 to 2010, the Thérèse Casgrain Volunteer Award was given to volunteers “whose social commitment and persistent efforts have contributed significantly to the well-being of their fellow Canadians” (Canadian Encyclopedia). From 2004 to 2012, an image of the Casgrain award medal also ran on the reverse of the Canadian $50 note, alongside the Famous Five sculpture by Barbara Paterson. The dissolution of the Casgrain award and the removal of the medal from the bank note has led to criticism of the Harper government.
Thérèse Casgrain [July 10, 1896-Nov. 3, 1981] entered the public sphere during the federal election of 1921 when she conducted a highly successful campaign for her husband who was prevented from doing so by illness. She became sole president of the Provincial Franchise Committee (later, the League For Women’s Rights) in 1928 – a position she held for 14 years. In November 1929 she appeared before the Dorion Commission which had been set up to look into such things as a woman’s right to her own earnings the right to bring law suits without her husband’s consent, etc. One of the main obstacles to winning suffrage in Quebec was the lack of support from rural French women. She was able to reach many of them through her radio program “Femina,” which was broadcast over French and English networks, and by speaking at conventions.
Following the war and the final achievement of the vote in 1940, she continued faithfully to press for child protection laws, prison reform, government appointments for women and amendments to the civil code. She became vice-president of the National Federation of Liberal Women and in 1948 resigned to join the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation Party. She soon became vice-chairperson of the national CCF executive and in 1951 was chosen Quebec Social Democratic Party leader, which she held until 1957 – the first… woman party leader anywhere in Canada.
When the NDP succeeded the CCF in 1961, Casgrain continued her active support, holding the position of national vice-chairperson. “I can’t imagine a woman who has the best interest of her children at heart not taking an interest in politics,” she says.