The impact of Canadian women in music is extraordinary, not just here at home, but around the globe. Amassing thousands of award wins and nominations and being the creative geniuses behind some of the world’s most beloved ballads, while breaking down barriers and paving the way for the artists who followed in their footsteps, Canada’s leading ladies of song are truly inspirational. March is Women’s History Month, which sees International Women’s Day celebrated annually on March 8th, and Canada will be celebrating the 50th annual Juno Awards later this month, so take a few minutes and get to know some of Canada’s most notable women in music of the 20th century.

1940’s – The Trailblazer

Truro, Nova Scotia’s Portia White made history in the early 1940’s by becoming the first Canadian to sing at New York’s Town Hall performance space. Her beautiful contralto voice would lead her to become the first Black Canadian concert singer to be internationally recognized, performing in Europe, the Caribbean and Central and South America throughout her career. She tragically passed away at only 56 years old, but her legacy lives on: in 2007, the Government of Canada named her a person of national historic significance, and her home province of Nova Scotia continues to proudly pay homage to Portia’s talent and love of music through various annual prizes and awards dedicated to the arts. 

1950s – The Hollywood Starlet

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Gisele MacKenzie would go on to study at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, specializing in singing and violin, and would later climb the international charts with hits like Seven Lonely Days” and Hard to Get”. Music will always be what she is best known for, but her talents also extended to acting and she regularly performed in musical theatre productions and variety hours (including The Ed Sullivan Show!), before landing her very own show – the Gisele Mackenzie Show, which aired in the late 1950’s. Her international success and star power earned her a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

1960s – The Folk Movement

She may sing about California, but internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell (born Roberta Joan Anderson) hails from Fort MacLeod, Alberta, and began her performing career in Saskatoon, which she considers her hometown. Her eclectic musical style, iconic lyrics, and unmatched talent have earned her accolades for decades, including 9 Grammy Awards and 3 Junos. With almost 20 studio albums recorded throughout her career, her music has truly stood the test of time; her records are regularly recognized on lists of the greatest albums ever made and in the late 1990’s, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame.

Buffy Sainte Marie is an Indigenous Canadian-American artist, social activist and humanitarian whose musical abilities took the 1960s by storm. Born in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley, Buffy was a natural talent. After teaching herself to play the piano and guitar as a child, she began performing folk music in coffeeshops in the early 60s and went on to be named Billboard’s Best New Artist later that decade. Her song writing prowess earned her an Oscar for Best Original Song for Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman, making her the first Indigenous person to win an Academy Award.

1970s – The Snowbird

Anne Murray’s career is full of firsts for Canadian women: her sweet yet powerful voice led her to become the first Canadian woman to top the US Charts with her hit Snowbird in 1970, and the first Canadian – and first woman – to win the Country Music Association Awards’ Album of the Year in 1983. And her success didn’t even come close to stopping there: she holds the record for most Juno Awards, with 25 wins of 52 nominations, has been inducted into several Canadian Halls of Fame, including the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame. Anne Murray currently lives in Ontario, but still holds her east coast roots near and dear to heart and remains very involved with her hometown community in Springhill, Nova Scotia, supporting the efforts of the Anne Murray Centre, and the construction of the town’s Community Centre.

1980s – Une Icône Française

Although her staggering commercial success on the English charts wouldn’t follow until the 1990’s, Charlemagne, Quebec’s Celine Dion began her inspiring career in the 1980’s, releasing her debut album (en français) at only 13 years old. She released eight French language albums throughout the 1980’s, two of which went platinum, and collectively sold almost a million copies. 27 studio albums later, this musical powerhouse is an internationally acclaimed artist, having taken home more than 250 awards for her work and contributions to the music scene, including 20 Junos.

1990s – Let’s Go Girls

The 1990’s were an incredibly proud time for Ontarians when superstars like Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, and Jully Black burst onto the scene, proving once again that Canadian women in music can do it all. Ottawa native Alanis’ third studio album, Jagged Little Pill, was a departure from her first two pop albums, and presented the singer in a new edgy, alternative light. It garnered international recognition and, to this day, is one of the best selling Canadian albums of all time, and a much beloved 90s classic. 

Shania Twain (born Eilleen Edwards) grew up in Timmins, Ontario, and her deep love of music blossomed early on. After tragedy struck her family, her musical aspirations were temporarily slowed while she helped look after her younger siblings, but in the mid-1990s, her albums The Woman In Me and Come On Over catapulted her to the top of the international charts, and made her a household name, beloved by both country and pop fans.

In the late 1990’s, Jully Black’s single Rally’n” earned her the first of 10 Juno Awards, and a star was born. Dubbed the Canadian Queen of R&B, she’s not only a vocal force to be reckoned with, she has also collaborated with and written for many other superstars, including Destiny’s Child. In addition to her love of music and phenomenal talent, Jully is a well known philanthropist and champion of social causes, acting as an advocate for female empowerment and equality, the LGBTQ+ community and an ambassador for WE Day – truly a Canadian icon.

The list of important women in Canadian music could go on endlessly, and these are just a few noteworthy names. Their contributions to the Canadian and international arts scene have inspired people for generations, and continue to set the stage for the Canadian stars of today and the future.

Choice Hotels in Canada