Idola Saint-Jean

Feminist and French language teacher

One of the most prominent pioneers in the battle for women’s suffrage in Quebec, Idola Saint-Jean was a McGill French language instructor and one of the first women to teach at the university.

Saint-Jean’s career at McGill University started in 1906, teaching French diction to vocal arts students at the music conservatory. By the 1920s, Saint-Jean was a member of the Department of Romance Languages and the McGill Extension Program. The extension program was the adult education program at McGill, and Saint-Jean helped recent anglophone graduates hone their skills in the French language to facilitate their stay in Quebec.

She was also one of the most prominent suffragette leaders of the 20th century, founding the Canadian Alliance for Women’s Votes in Quebec in 1927. A strong advocate of social justice and human rights, she gave radio broadcasts, participated in demonstrations and parliamentary hearings, wrote briefs and newspaper articles to advance the feminist cause. In 1930, Saint-Jean was the first francophone woman to run for federal office. Notably, she published a yearly publication called La Sphère féminine in which she and other contributors discussed women’s suffrage and the work still needed to be done in Quebec to achieve the right to vote. While she did not reach parliament, Saint-Jean’s trail-blazing was an inspiration to many.

Her important work changed the face of French education at McGill, and of Quebecois culture, forever. Since 1981 a stamp, a prize, a park and street in Montreal, and a statue in Quebec City have been created to honour her.

Idola Saint-Jean, n.d. Canada Writing Research Collaboratory – Canada’s Early Women Writers.
Mlle Idola Saint-Jean [image fixe / A.J. Rice, Lapres & Lavergne Le Monde illustre, Vol. 17, no 879 (9 mars 1901), p. 749​.