How 8 trail-blazing women started the Canadian Women’s Foundation

Nancy RuthBefore they helped the Canadian Women’s Foundation get off the ground, they were politicians, lawyers, and women’s rights advocates. Aside from their contributions to this organization, our eight founding mothers have also left their mark on Canadian history in various ways. Among our founders are the first black woman to be elected to a provincial legislature, Canada’s first openly gay senator, and founding members of some of the country’s most well-known institutions.

For Women’s History Month, we look back to the 1980s to understand how and why these women from different backgrounds came together to start a national charity for women and girls.

The ‘80s were a decade in which women’s rights groups and service providers across Canada were forming stronger partnerships—yet there was a huge gap in funding sources for the women’s non-profit sector. Each of our founders recognized there was no national foundation with a mandate to invest in women and girls in Canada despite glaring and persistent gender inequalities.

Nancy Ruth, Senator and founder of the NaRuth Foundation, had discussed the lack of resources for Canadian women with the late Rosemary Brown, a Member of the Legislative Assembly in BC. Years later, over a cup of coffee with her friend Susan Woods, who was working at the time for the United Church of Canada, Nancy Ruth became convinced of the need for a national women’s foundation and donated $50,000 in seed money from her own foundation. Along with Julie White, Elizabeth Stewart, Kay Sigurjonsson, Dawn Elliot, and Mary Eberts, they helped create the Canadian Women’s Foundation, which officially launched in 1991—nearly 25 years ago.

Here are some interesting facts about our founding mothers:

Rosemary Brown (1930-2003)

  • First black woman elected as a member of a provincial legislature in Canada 
  • First woman to run for the leadership of a federal political party (NDP) in Canada
  • Former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and member of the Judicial Council of British Columbia

Mary Eberts

  • A constitutional lawyer who played a vital role in securing the current language of s. 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees one’s right to “equal protection under the law” and prohibits discrimination “based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”
  • Co-founder of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)

Dawn Elliot (1955-2005)

  • Was actively involved in the early development of Lupus Canada, a national charity dedicated to improving the lives of people living with the autoimmune disease lupus
  • Former president and board member of Ability Online, a charity and network in Toronto for youth living with disabilities and chronic illnesses

Nancy Ruth

  • First openly gay person to serve in the Canadian Senate, appointed in 2005
  • Co-founder of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)
  • Former board member of the Economic Council of Canada, Canada Centre for Arms Control, The Canada-USA Fulbright Foundation, among others

Kay Sigurjonsson

  • Founding member of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women
  • Former director of the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario
  • Former co-host of CBC Weekend, CBC-TV’s flagship series in information programming from 1969-73

Elizabeth Stewart

  • Co-founder of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a specialized clinic for women experiencing violence
  • Former president of the Canadian Association of Women Executives, a networking organization connecting business women across the country

Julie White

  • Former CEO of the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the National Cancer Institute of Canada
  • Worked for more than 25 years in philanthropy and was former CEO of Philanthropic Foundations of Canada

Susan Woods

  • Founding member of Raising the Roof, a national charity focusing on long-term solutions to homelessness, and chair of the board of directors for the St. Christopher House, now known as West Neighbourhood House, in Toronto
  • Former president of the board of directors for the YWCA Toronto
  • As one of the first staff members of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, she guided some of our early planning

Want to learn more about our history? Read more here.


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