Most Canadians can't name achievements of famous women: poll

A new poll suggests Canadians have a lot to learn about the accomplishments of some of the country's most famous women.

The survey conducted by Ipsos on behalf of Historica Canada found the majority of Canadians couldn't name the achievements of such famous women as Emily Carr and Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Only 37 per cent of respondents to the poll could identify Carr's accomplishments as a painter, while only 27 per cent knew that Montgomery's fame sprang from her authorship of such Canadian literary classics as "Anne of Green Gables."

Knowledge levels were next to non-existent when respondents were asked about the accomplishments of some notable Indigenous women, such as painter Daphne Odjig, who co-founded what's known as the Indian Group of Seven. Only two per cent of respondents could account for Odjig's fame.

The other two Indigenous women on the list, 18th-century Mohawk diplomat Molly Brant and Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak, were recognized by three per cent and one per cent of participants respectively.

But the survey suggests Canadians are aware of the knowledge gap, with just 30 per cent of respondents saying the country is doing well at teaching youth about female accomplishment.

Historica Canada says the organization is seeing increasing demand to shine a light on women's issues and successes.

Chief Executive Officer Anthony Wilson-Smith said Historica staff got a clear message from teachers and school boards who were asked where the organization needed to help fill in some key blanks from Canada's past.

"People are saying, 'look, yeah, tell us more about women's history,"' Wilson-Smith said in a telephone interview. "'Tell us more about who are the great Canadian women? What have they done?"'

The poll presented respondents with a list of 15 women drawn largely from the ranks of Canadian artists, politicians and civil rights activists and asked if survey participants were familiar with their achievements.

Wilson-Smith said respondents were not asked to name individual works or recognize specific career milestones, only indicate whether they had a basic understanding of why the women were famous.

The number of poll participants who had never heard of any of the notable women surpassed the number who were familiar with one of Canada's most famous artists.

The survey found 40 per cent of respondents were unfamiliar with any of the women compared to 37 per cent who had heard of Carr, a British Columbia-based painter celebrated for her depictions of Indigenous culture and Canadian nature scenes.

Montgomery, whose books about red-haired orphan Anne Shirley are globally renowned, received the second-highest recognition score of 27 per cent among respondents. Only 16 per cent had heard of suffragette Nellie McClung, who came third in the poll rankings.
Wilson-Smith said he's encouraged by the finding suggesting people want to see more concerted efforts to step up education on women's issues, saying the survey results should not be mistaken for lack of interest in Canada's female icons.

"It's not as though these are deliberate slights by people," he said. "It just shows that ... we have a lot of heroes and just a lot of very accomplished people whose work deserves to be known. We and other places have to continue to do everything we can to put them forward."

The survey also explored Canadian responses to the .Metoo movement, finding that roughly half of respondents feel Canadians are succeeding at making women feel safe from sexual harassment on the job and in society at large. The survey found 51 per cent of male respondents felt Canada was making good progress on this issue, while 45 per cent of women surveyed held that view.

The poll of 1,001 Canadians was conducted online between Feb. 23 and 26. The polling industry's professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error as they are not a random sample and therefore are not necessarily representative of the whole population.

Here's the list of notable Canadian women used in the survey and the percentage of respondents familiar with their achievements:

  • Emily Carr 37 per cent
  • Lucy Maud Montgomery 27 per cent
  • Nellie McClung 16 per cent
  • Gabrielle Roy 14 per cent
  • Viola Desmond 13 per cent
  • Therese Casgrain 10 per cent
  • Rosemary Brown 8 per cent
  • Agnes Macphail 7 per cent
  • Emily Stowe 7 per cent
  • Mary (Molly) Brant, or Konwatsi'tsiaienni 3 per cent
  • Bertha Wilson 3 per cent
  • Daphne Odjig 2 per cent
  • Mary Ann Shadd Cary 2 per cent
  • Kenojuak Ashevak 1 per cent
  • Bobbie Rosenfeld 1 per cent
  • None of the above 40 per cent