Our Founding Mothers: Eight Trailblazing Women

The Canadian Women’s Foundation is indebted to its founding mothers. These eight trail-blazing women formed a national organization that has galvanized feminist philanthropists and advanced gender equality in Canada. To learn more about how the Foundation got its start in 1991, read Our Story.

Nancy Ruth

Nancy Ruth is recognized as Canada’s first “feminist philanthropist” and she served as a Senator from 2005 to 2017. While on the Senate, she drove the auditor general’s reports on gender-based analysis and pushed for a gender-neutral version of Canada’s national anthem, “O Canada”. Nancy was also a prominent benefactor of many women’s charities, including Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University. Along with being a founding mother of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Nancy was a co-founder of LEAF: Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, the Charter of Rights Coalition, and played key roles in the launch of The Linden School and The Women’s Future Fund. Nancy was invested into the Order of Canada in 1994 for her activism and feminist philanthropy. Image: Courtesy of Senate of Canada

Mary Eberts

Mary Eberts is recognized nationally and internationally for her work on equality and human rights as both a constitutional lawyer and professor. She served as the Gordon F. Henderson Chair in Human Rights, University of Ottawa, from 2004 to 2005 and the Ariel F. Sallows Chair in Human Rights, University of Saskatchewan, from 2011 to 2012. In 2014, Mary was the Constitutional Litigator-in-Residence at the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights at the University of Toronto. She also co-founded LEAF: Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund. She has served as a long-time counsel to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and worked in the area of aboriginal law and equality rights. Mary was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2018 for her contributions to the nation’s intellectual capital. Image: Courtesy of University of Saskatchewan

Rosemary Brown (1930-2003)

Rosemary Brown was the first Black woman elected as a member of a provincial legislature in Canada, serving for the New Democratic Party from 1972-1986. She was also first woman in Canada to run for the leadership of a Canadian federal political party, a breakthrough that inspired many women to run for political office. As an MLA during the 1970s, Rosemary was instrumental in introducing legislation that prohibited discrimination based on sex or marital status, helped to establish the Berger Commission on the Family, and formed a committee to eliminate sexism in school textbooks and curricula. She was also the chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission from 1993-1996. As an advocate for women’s rights, she was Ombudswoman and co-founder of the Vancouver Status of Women Council. Rosemary was recognized with the United Nations’ Humans Rights Fellowship in 1973, was appointed to the Order of British Columbia in 1995, and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1996.

Dawn Elliot (1955-2005)

Dawn Elliot was actively involved in the early development of Lupus Canada, a national charity dedicated to improving the lives of people living with this autoimmune disease. She is the former president and board member of Ability Online, a charity and network in Toronto for youth living with disabilities and chronic illnesses. In addition, Dawn was involved with Cliffcrest Community Services, West Hill Community Services, and Emily Stowe Shelter. She is a recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Award (nominated by the Health Charities Council of Canada) and of the YWCA Women of Distinction Award.

Kay Sigurjonsson (1933-2016)

Kay Sigurjonsson was the Associate Executive Director of the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario and founding member of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in 1972. She served on the Ontario Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee, on the board of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and as National President of the Canadian Association in Support of Native Peoples. From 1969-73, Kay was co-host of CBC Weekend, CBC-TV’s flagship series in information programming and participated in the panel during the 1984 federal election debate on women’s issues—the first and only federal election debate on women’s issues in Canadian history. Kay was named a Woman of Distinction by the YWCA for her work. Image: Courtesy of Linda Silver Dranoff

Elizabeth Stewart

Elizabeth Stewart co-founded and served as Communications Chair of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which serves women who have experienced violence. She was also President of the Canadian Association of Women Executives, a networking organization connecting business women across the country. At the Canadian Women’s Foundation she held the Director of Marketing role from 1991 to 2001, and served informally on the Foundation’s National Council of Advisors. She was a member of the YWCA of Toronto Board of Directors, serving as secretary and chair of the development committee. She also served as a facilitator in the executive volunteer program at the YWCA of Canada. Elizabeth is currently an instructor in the Design Management Program at Ryerson University and the owner of Stewart Associates, a marketing consultancy. Image: Courtesy of Elizabeth Stewart

Julie White

Julie White is the former CEO of the Ontario Trillium Foundation and of the National Cancer Institute of Canada/Canadian Cancer Society. She worked for more than 25 years in philanthropy and was CEO of Philanthropic Foundations of Canada. Julie has won many accolades for her contributions to philanthropy in Canada, including a Diamond Jubilee Medal from the Governor General, a YWCA Women of Distinction Award, an Outstanding Public Contribution Award from the Schulich School of Business, and the Changing the Face of Philanthropy Award from the Women’s Funding Network. She served as the first board president for the Canadian Women’s Foundation. Julie is currently the owner of Long Point Honey Co., an organic artisan honey company in Prince Edward County, ON. She has served on the board of directors of the Ontario Beekeepers Association since 2011.

Susan Woods (1941-2021)

As the first staff member of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Susan guided some of the organization’s early planning. Susan was also a 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 Neighborhood House, in Toronto. Susan is also the former president of the board of directors for the YWCA Toronto. She was recognized in 2009 by the Havergal Old Girls’ Association for outstanding achievements in issues relating to social consciousness and community-building. Image: Courtesy of Susan Woods

Rosemary Brown

Until all of us have made it, none of us have made it. (Founding Mother, Hon. Rosemary Brown)