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History Corner: The Right To Vote in Puslinch

The right to vote was not always guaranteed to all citizens of our township.

In the pioneer days of settlement in Canada, the right to vote was based on the system in England. It was a privilege enjoyed mostly by affluent males, as eligibility was based on the value of property ownership. In 1791, the Constitutional Act set voting rules, establishing the requirements as: male, British subjects, over the age of 21, not convicted of a serious crime or of treason, who met certain property ownership requirements. The property requirements fluctuated throughout the years.

Concerned about their republican sentiments, measures to restrict the vote of the large influx of American emigrants were enacted during 1800-1815. U.S. emigrants, who were not Loyalists, were required to have
been resident in the country for seven years and to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown. With the Act of Union uniting Upper and Lower Canada in 1849, all non-British people residing in the Canadas became
British subjects. Following that time, emigrants could vote after seven years of residency, by pledging an oath of allegiance. Black men were allowed to vote in 1837 but probably few did, due to the property

Despite these exclusive restrictions, there was a lively interest in politics in Puslinch. A Reform meeting on December 18, 1847, was to be held at McMeekin’s Tavern, near Aberfoyle, but as the only room in the inn
capable of accommodating the crowd was not equipped with a stove, the meeting was moved to the Aberfoyle
School instead. Puslinch was a liberal stronghold from the beginning and could be counted on to vote
Reform, the forerunner of the Liberal ticket. Reform candidates were popular speakers and meetings were
well attended in the township, often not ending until midnight.

In 1853, the rules were altered to allow all male British subjects, 21 and over, who were landowners, tenants or occupants of property worth ₤50 or more to cast a ballot. Again, the property value changed throughout

The first voters list was created in 1853 but the practice was abandoned in 1855. Sworn oaths were
substituted. Lists were adopted again in 1859, however, due to the widespread fraud that resulted. In some ridings, triple the number of eligible voters had sworn oaths.

Courts of Revision of the Voters’ List were held for the purpose of appealing exclusions or objecting to
inclusions on the list. The Puslinch Court, which dealt with such revisions, met at the Aberfoyle Hall, with representatives of both Reformers and Conservatives present. Complete reports of the proceedings were published in the newspaper. Some examples of issues with the list and resolutions from 1866 are:

“William Philpott, not tenant, gone to the States – struck off”

“Alex Wood, does not pay sufficient rent – objection withdrawn.”

“Walter Armour, owner – vote allowed”

“Herman Kreig, not resident – struck off.”

“Peter Little, not a British subject – vote allowed, having taken the oath of allegiance.”

“John Iles, not owner now – vote allowed for lack of proof that the place is sold.”

“Philip Crimless, property sold and in St. Joseph’s Hospital – struck off.”

At a Court of Revision held in Puslinch on June 8, 1878, thirty-nine appeals were brought. Twenty-two were applications to have their names added to the list as farmers’ sons. Six names were objected to, as being improperly on the list. Eight requested changes in the property description opposite their names. Three men requested that their names be corrected.

The secret ballot was instituted in 1874. There can be no doubt that this caused voters to feel freer to cast their ballot as they saw fit.

As a result of this long struggle for enfranchisement, the right to vote was cherished by the early Puslinch settlers. William Simpson of Badenoch, on his deathbed in 1887, regretted that he had been unable to vote at the previous election. Alexander McKay of the 3rd concession, aged about 87, who had not been able to be off his farm for six or seven months, in fact, had been confined to bed part of that time, insisted on being taken to the poll to vote on Apr. 22, 1887. As well, Michael Farrell of the 9th concession, about 80, ailing for some time and confined to his home, managed to vote that day. William Graham, at 86, walked from Guelph to Arkell to vote in 1888. Philip Carter, who died in December 1893, had suffered greatly from rheumatism for ten
years but often went out to vote, “when scarcely able to crawl”. At his death in December 1921, it was
written of Alex McAllister, last survivor of the original voters list of Ward 4, Puslinch and probably of the whole township, that “rare indeed were the occasions that he did not cast his vote”.

With the advent of industrialization in the towns in the 1890’s, there was an increase in workers, who could not meet the property requirements. Finally, legislation passed in 1920 dropped all property requirements.

Then, there was the matter of the disenfranchised women. A defeated candidate in Halton County in an 1845 election complained, that seven votes, which counted for his opponent, were cast by women. Indeed, David Stirton recounted that, in 1844 in Puslinch, an elderly lady was brought to vote in a lumber wagon drawn by oxen. Through protestations that this was illegal, she was allowed to vote.

By the 1890’s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union supported the granting of the vote to women, as the organization saw this as necessary to gaining prohibition. A petition submitted to the House of Commons, requesting the vote for women, was voted down in 1894. Women began to attend political meetings. A report on a Reform meeting held at Arkell on May 28, 1890 noted that, “A pleasant feature was about twenty ladies gracing the meeting with their presence.” and on March 3, 1891, another noted that the school was full,
“many ladies being present”. A reporter wrote on Oct. 8, 1908 about a meeting at Arkell, “It was a crowd in which there was a large number of voters, as well as a good proportion of ladies and children drawn out to see the moving pictures…”

Women achieved the right to vote in Ontario plebiscites in 1917, in Federal elections in 1918 and the right to run for Federal office in 1919. The first woman was elected in 1921. As a result of a Court decision, where women were declared to be “persons” in 1929, women became eligible to be appointed to the Senate.

Marion Owens, proprietor of the Aberfoyle Mill Restaurant, was the first woman to run for Puslinch
Township Council, nominated for deputy reeve in the Dec. 5, 1966 election. A Guelph Mercury article of
Nov. 13, 1974 began, “A record number of three women are running for Puslinch Township Council and
Wellington County Public School Board Representative”. Not until 1989 did a woman become leader of a
national political party. It was, indeed, a long struggle.

Originally published by the Puslinch Pioneer in 2013. Re-printed with permission of Marjorie Clark.

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