Seven Women in Ontario Who Impacted and Shaped Canadian History

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Seven Women in Ontario Who Impacted and Shaped Canadian History

March is a season of growth and change. That makes it a great month to reflect and have a look at our past, including the events and people who shaped and changed everything. In honour of Women’s History Month and International Women's Day (IWD) this March, Teachers on Call’s in-person and online tutoring team are delving into our province’s history. For the occasion, we are looking at seven historic women who lived in Ontario that you may not have heard of. They were not just local heroines—they had a tremendous impact on Canadian rights, education, and culture. Read on, to learn more about the “herstory” of Canada.

Jean Lumb (1919–2002) – Toronto, Ontario

Jean Lumb was born Jean Toy Jin Wong in Nanaimo, British Columbia (60 km from Vancouver), before her family moved to Ontario in the early 1930s. She was a remarkable Chinese Canadian community leader and the first woman of Chinese descent to receive the Order of Canada. Lumb made significant contributions to Canada's cultural landscape, particularly in advocating for the rights of Chinese Canadians and preserving Chinese culture in Toronto.

She played a pivotal role in changing Canadian immigration policies in the 1960s, which led to the reunification of Chinese families and the abolition of the discriminatory "head tax" against Chinese immigrants. As a restaurateur and community activist in Toronto's Chinatown, Lumb was instrumental in organizing community efforts to preserve the area's cultural and historical identity amidst urban development pressures. Her dedication to community service, cultural preservation, and social justice not only improved the lives of many Chinese Canadians but also left a lasting impact on Canada's multicultural fabric.

Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld (1904–1969) – Barrie, Ontario

Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld was a Canadian athlete whose versatility and spirit made her one of the country's most celebrated sportswomen. Born in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, and raised in Barrie, Ontario, Rosenfeld excelled in numerous sports, including basketball, hockey, tennis, and athletics. She is best remembered for her outstanding performance at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, where she won a gold medal in the 4x100 meters relay and a silver in the 100 meters, showcasing her exceptional speed and athletic prowess

Beyond her Olympic success, Rosenfeld was a staunch advocate for women's sports, contributing significantly to the development and recognition of female athletes in Canada. Her sportsmanship, coupled with her role as a sports columnist, where she often highlighted women's achievements in sports, solidified her legacy as a trailblazer for gender equality in athletics.

Fun fact, Barrie’s mayor, Alex Nuttall, has proclaimed August 30, Bobbie Rosenfeld Day. A plaque in her honour has been re-dedicated in her honour at Five Points Theatre in downtown Barrie (Five Points Theatre).

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823–1893) – Windsor, Ontario

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was an African American educator, abolitionist, journalist, and lawyer, renowned for her trailblazing activism and literary contributions in the fight against slavery and for women's rights. She was born in Delaware to free African American parents and moved to Canada following the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

In Canada, she established herself as the first female African American newspaper publisher in North America, founding The Provincial Freeman in Windsor, Ontario. Shadd Cary’s paper advocated for abolition, temperance, and emigration to Canada by African Americans seeking freedom. She was also the first black woman to complete a law degree at Howard University. Her work as an educator, publisher, and later as a lawyer, broke racial and gender barriers, making her a pivotal figure in the histories of both Canada and the United States in the nineteenth century. Her legacy lives on, in January 2024 Canada Post issued a Mary Ann Shadd stamp for Black History Month.

Edith Monture (1890–1996) – Brantford, Ontario

Edith Monture was celebrated for her contributions to nursing and Indigenous rights. She was born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. She was the youngest in a family of eight children of Mohawk descent, where she studied at day school on the reserve and earned a high school diploma from Brantford Collegiate Institute (120 Brant Ave, Brantford, ON N3T 3H3).

From there she became the first Indigenous woman in Canada to become a registered nurse. In 1917, during World War I, Monture had to volunteer and serve as a nurse overseas with the American Army Nurse Corps, as Canadian military services did not accept Indigenous nurses at the time.

Beyond her nursing career, Monture was a passionate advocate for Indigenous rights and health care, working tirelessly to improve conditions for Indigenous communities in Canada. Her achievements not only paved the way for future generations of Indigenous healthcare professionals but also marked significant strides in the fight for Indigenous rights and recognition in Canada.

Laura Secord (1775 – 1868) – Niagara Falls, Ontario

Laura Secord is celebrated as a Canadian heroine of the War of 1812 for a remarkable act of bravery and determination. While born in Massachusetts, she moved with her father to the Niagara region after her mother died.  In June 1813, she overheard plans of an impending American attack on the British forces stationed at Beaver Dams (near Thorold, Ontario). Secord took a perilous journey of approximately 32 kilometers through difficult terrain to warn the British and their Indigenous allies. That warning was crucial for a British and Indigenous forces' victory at the Battle of Beaver Dams.

Laura Secord’s legacy was kept alive and memorialized in the sweetest way in 1913 when Frank P. O’Connor opened a small candy store in Toronto where he sold hand-made chocolates. He named his store after her, the symbol of courage, devotion, and loyalty.

Dr. Emily Stowe (1831-1903) – Norwich, Ontario

Known for being the first female public-school principal in Ontario and the first female physician in Canada, Dr. Emily Stowe was born in Southwestern, Ontario in Norwich Township, Oxford County. Initially an educator, she was hired as principal of a Brantford, Ontario public school where she remained until she got married.

Unable to study medicine in Canada, Emily Stowe earned her degree in the United States in 1867. The same year, she returned to Canada and opened a medical practice in Toronto, Ontario on Richmond Street that specialized in treating women and children.

Fun fact, 2 public elementary schools are named after her, in her hometown of Norwich Township (1 Jerdon St, Norwich, ON N0J 1P0) as well as in Courtice, Ontario (71 Sandringham Dr, Courtice, ON L1E 1Y9). Her legacy lives on as she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2019.

Rose Wolfe (1928–2016) – Toronto, Ontario

Rose Wolfe was a distinguished Canadian woman from Toronto, Ontario, celebrated for her extensive service in both the community and the field of education. She served as the Chancellor of the University of Toronto from 1991 to 1997, where she was known for her passionate advocacy for students and her efforts to make higher education more accessible to diverse populations.

Beyond her contributions to academia, Wolfe was actively involved in numerous community organizations, including her work with various charities and Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto (600 University Ave, Toronto, ON M5G 1X5). Her dedication to public service and community welfare earned her several honors, including the Order of Canada. Rose Wolfe's legacy is marked by her profound impact on the University of Toronto, her tireless work in the community, and her lifelong commitment to advocating for the marginalized and promoting education as a force for good.

These seven women’s contributions across various fields have not only shaped the province's history but also continue to inspire future generations to pursue justice, innovation, and equality. As we celebrate Women's History Month, let us remember to seek out and honour the stories of women of both Ontario and Canada, both known and unknown, who have shaped our world.

Find and Celebrate More Local Heroines for Women’s History Month

Teachers and students in Ontario interested in uncovering the stories of local heroines can start the journey right in their communities. Local libraries and archives are treasure troves of information, housing collections of newspapers, personal letters, and diaries that can provide insights into the lives of remarkable women. City websites are another great resource with information on events. The City of Thunder Bay is a great example with their Women's History Month Exhibit and related Art Bus. You can also check out these women we recognized previously for International Women’s Day for more reading!

Engaging with local historical societies can also offer guidance and access to resources specifically related to women's contributions in the area. Additionally, online databases and digital platforms dedicated to Canadian history can be invaluable tools for research, offering a wider lens through which to view the contributions of women to Ontario's rich history. 

Did you find an amazing local heroine you want to share? Let us know!

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