Canadians widely unaware of accomplishments of famous women, poll suggests

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

Canadian artist Emily Carr is shown in an undated photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/CP

The organization behind Canada’s Heritage Minutes says provincial education systems need to do a better job of teaching students about the country’s most historically significant women, pointing to a new poll that suggests the majority of Canadians have a lot to learn.

An Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of Historica Canada posed a dozen true or false questions about Canadian women’s history.

Some of the questions included statements such as “Canada has never elected a party with a female leader to form the federal government” and “Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Lucy Maud Montgomery are among Canada’s best-known authors” — both of which are true.

Historica says 55 per cent of those who took the quiz failed, with only three per cent answering well enough to score an A.

A regional breakdown indicated 62 per cent of Alberta respondents failed the quiz, followed by 57 per cent of British Columbia respondents and 56 per cent of both Ontario and Quebec residents polled. Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Atlantic Canada all tied with the lowest fail rate of 45 per cent.

The organization’s Chief Executive Officer Anthony Wilson-Smith said the poll’s findings, similar to other such surveys, point to persistent gaps in the various provincial education systems.

“It’s very hard to expect people to know things which they have not been taught,” Wilson-Smith said in an interview. “Not only do we feel that there’s an ongoing absence of focus on Canadian history, but certainly it’s even more pronounced when it comes to the teaching of accomplishments by women.”

Related: Margaret Atwood on alliteration, new ‘Wandering Wenda’ show, being a teen puppeteer

Related: Most Canadians can’t name achievements of famous women: poll

Wilson-Smith noted that his organization wasn’t “wagging a finger at anyone” with the results of the survey.

“Education is a provincial jurisdiction and that’s what prevents us from having the kind of national narrative that would make people more familiar,” he said. “We do see evidence that once people are made aware of and given the opportunity more easily to learn about them, that they do retain.”

Historica says the fail rate for its survey was highest among women, with 59 per cent of those polled getting at least half the questions wrong. It says 52 per cent of men surveyed did not pass.

The most recent poll echoes findings of a survey conducted earlier this year that asked respondents to name the specific accomplishments of women such as Emily Carr and Montgomery. Once again, the majority of survey participants were unable to do so.

Only 37 per cent of respondents could identify Carr’s status as an acclaimed 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.”

If given the option to sit down for a meal with these historical figures, the most recent survey indicates the majority of respondents would take a pass.

The survey asked participants to name the Canadian woman they would most like to share a table with, regardless of whether she was alive or dead. Present-day pop-culture luminaries were the most popular choices, with 10 per cent of respondents picking Quebec singer Celine Dion, six per cent choosing country-pop star Shania Twain and four per cent opting for Atwood.

Other women chosen as prospective dinner guests include Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, actress Rachel McAdams, Carr, and Margaret Trudeau, mother of the current prime minister.

The online survey, conducted between Sept. 27 and Oct. 1, surveyed 1,003 people from across Canada.

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.

Michelle McQuigge , The Canadian Press

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