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The founding of the Canadian Voice of Women

Women on steps holding signs “No Nuclear Arms for Canada—Pas d’armes nucléaires pour le Canada” © Duncan Cameron / Library and Archives Canada / PA-209888

For the week of Monday, October 18, 2021.

On October 20, 1961, the Globe and Mail published an editorial by Jo Davis, introducing readers to the Canadian Voice of Women (VOW), a Toronto-based activist group that campaigned for world peace and against nuclear proliferation in the 1960s.

At the time, Canada was drawn into the Cold War nuclear arms race through its military alliance with the United States, which promised mutual self-defence against a possible attack by the Soviet Union. Through its commitments to North American Air Defence Command (NORAD), for example, the Canadian government permitted the deployment of 56 American anti-aircraft missiles at North Bay, Ontario, and La Macaza, Quebec. News that these Bomarc-B missiles would be armed with nuclear warheads sparked a wave of anti-nuclear protests in Canada in 1960.

Within the context of mounting nuclear tensions, journalist Lotta Dempsey called for “a summit conference of women dedicated to the welfare of children all over the world” in June 1960. The gathering took place at Massey Hall in Toronto and gave rise to the VOW. Under the leadership of founding president Helen Tucker, the VOW called upon humanity to “find another way than war to settle international differences,” advocating for “construction not destruction.” Jo Davis, Dorothy Henderson, Beth Touzel, and Maryon Pearson, wife of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, were among the roughly 5,000 original members. Within its first year, the VOW established more than 100 local branches across Canada, expanded into Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, and Jamaica, and started to build important contacts with women’s peace movements in other countries.

The VOW was an outspoken advocate for nuclear disarmament in the 1960s. Its Chair of Research, physicist Ursula Franklin, conducted a scientific study of strontium-90 levels in baby teeth that concluded children were more likely to absorb the cancer-causing radioactive isotope. There were elevated levels of strontium-90 in the environment because of low-level atmospheric nuclear weapons testing around the world. Consequently, the VOW petitioned the United Nations in support of the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater. The VOW further advised the Canadian government about the threats of radioactive fallout, and produced informative television and radio shows for the broader public. 

The VOW sought world peace by organizing the International Women’s Council in September 1962 with delegates from the Soviet Union, for example, and campaigning against American involvement in the Vietnam War (1966–1975). Its members organized exchange visits with Vietnamese women, a decade-long knitting project for children and victims of the Vietnam War, and housed young men who left the United States to avoid the draft or desert the American military. Over the years that followed, the VOW continued to advocate for peace and expanded its mandate to include activism on a wider range of social justice causes, including the defense of human rights, civil liberties, conflict prevention, resolution, and sustainable peace.

Massey Hall is a designated national historic site. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, cemeteries, complexes of buildings and cultural landscapes.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, persons and events of national historic significance. Any member of the public can submit a subject to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.

Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.

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