On March 24th 1890, a child was born on a farm in Proton Township of Ontario’s Grey County, the eldest of three daughters. Then, women did not have the status of ‘persons’ in Canada. However, by the time she was in her thirties, that had changed. By then, this lady’s opinions were reported in newspapers across North America and Britain and she was much in demand as a speaker continent wide. As the first woman Member of the Canadian House of Commons, the farmer’s daughter accomplished enormously for her constituency of farmers and in the field of social progress.
Now, a bronze bust is displayed near the Speaker’s Chambers in Canada’s House of Commons, several schools (one in Flesherton) bear her name, and in a 2005 province-wide competition she was voted The Greatest Ontario Woman. By now you will have guessed who she was: Agnes Macphail.
The early 1900s were hard times for farming, a calling that Agnes later characterised as one of “bent backs, calloused hands and limited rewards … the most arduous and most poorly paid of all occupations.”
Agnes had excelled in her school work, and after a two-year break to help on the farm, at sixteen was on her way to the highly regarded Owen Sound Collegiate where one of her fellow students was Norman Bethune, also destined for later fame. Agnes ended her education at Normal School in Stratford, where she graduated as a teacher. Although offered positions in towns, Agnes Macphail chose to teach in several country schools.
For that time, this would usually have been the end of her story. However, through her landlord, Agnes became aware of broad concerns affecting farmers, and also developed a considerable expertise on the issue of tariffs; so much so, that in December 1919, she was one of several delegates from the United Farmers’ Organisation (UFO) presenting to the Tariff Commission headed by Canada’s Minister of Finance.
Times were changing in rural Canada. The UFO was working to send some of its own people to represent farmers’ interests in Canada’s Federal Parliament. But who among them would have the public speaking skills?
During his campaign for North York, Agnes had been asked to speak on behalf of the inarticulate Sam Foote, whom she described as: “the farmeriest farmer I ever saw.” Soon, Agnes was addressing thousands of farmers and their wives who had converged by horse and buggy on the Durham arena, and later Durham’s Town Hall, where on September 26th 1921 she was chosen by 150 UFO delegates to run as the UFO candidate for South East Grey. Agnes’s campaign speeches across the riding brought out further thousands to listen. When she ended her speeches by re-stating the UFO motto: “Equal rights to all and special privileges to none”, the cheers for “Our Aggie” (respectfully addressed as “Miss Macphail” in public) must have stampeded the horses outside, if they had not been so firmly tethered.
In her private life, Agnes Macphail was enormous fun. Visits from her were accompanied by gales of laughter. Up until now, Agnes had lived a secure life with family and friends, people she never forgot, always keeping in touch with “My Ain Folk” (the title of her autobiography). Just before the election her adored maternal grandmother, Jean Campbell, died at the age of 91. Now, Agnes Macphail must face the next stage of her career even more alone.
A taste of what was in store could be found in the reaction of the press. The election of Canada’s first woman MP made the front pages of newspapers in the United States and, ecstatically, in Grey County. However, this historic fact was noted on the sixth page only of the Toronto Globe under the heading of “Old Faces and New”, a chilling hint of what was to come.
After an initial show of welcome, the bitter resentment and relentless opposition of almost all male Members of Parliament set in. (Notable exceptions were J.S.Woodsworth and Ernest Lapointe.) Even the Ottawa women resented Agnes who, for instance, was not invited to a banquet for the British MP the Duchess of Atholl. The Duchess complained; so Prime Minister King arranged a private lunch with Agnes. Of her early years in Parliament, Agnes wrote: “Perhaps if I owed him (father Dugald) the ability to get into Parliament, I owed her (mother Henrietta) the ability to stand it.”
This hostility was accompanied by a critical press, even from other females. One journalist described her as: “not exactly lovable.” A large daily jeered: “Progressives have no love for Grits or Tories, declared Miss Agnes Macphail in Toronto. Does Agnes know what love is?”
From the perspective of her private life, Agnes certainly did know love. She had already received proposals of marriage from distinguished suitors in Grey County and was soon wooed by fellow MPs Preston Elliott and Robert Gardiner. Prime Minister R.B. Bennett later proposed. However, there was always the problem of equality (or rather inequality) in marriage. Agnes soon lost her less polished look and became well dressed, (in a tailored way while on most public duties).
Agnes took her public position seriously, soon learning to defend herself and make her point. In debate Agnes developed a bitter sarcasm and biting wit. Her beautiful, low speaking voice reached all parts of the House of Commons. Wilfred Eggleston, Director of Carleton College School of Journalism, said, “She lit into people in a way to rip their hide.” It was just as well that Agnes was no pushover, as she was also years ahead of her male colleagues in her views on social issues, which she soon took up as well as continuing her aim of benefiting farmers.
Agnes quickly bettered the condition of agriculture by having tariffs lowered and enabling farmers to market produce at fairer prices. These actions helped those not only in Ontario, but across Canada. Western grain growers could now choose where to store and ship their grain.
When issues came forward in Parliament, this practical farmer’s daughter went to see for herself. In 1925, on the miners of Glace Bay going on strike against a reduction in pay, instead of merely reading the self-serving reports of the British Empire Steel Corporation and its supporters, Agnes Macphail traveled to where the miners worked. First hand, she found out they had been kept short of work for four years and could not clothe and feed their families, who lived in shacks with deplorable sanitary conditions. This led to a debate in Parliament and later action. Like many other rookie MPs, Agnes Macphail was surprised at the slow pace of the Parliamentary process.
She insisted on seeing round Kingston Penitentiary. When refused entry as a woman, Agnes obtained it in her status as an MP. She saw the beatings with a leather strap, with holes to tear out the skin, men in shackles and solitary confinement. Agnes started the first Elizabeth Fry Society in Canada and through perseverance against bitter opposition, brought about prison reform such as paid work for prisoners and other benefits, which brought down the 72% rate of recidivism. Her most determined opponent was Hugh Guthrie, also from southwestern Ontario, who was the current minister of justice.
Our first woman MP, also the first female member of the League of Nations’ Disarmament Committee, worked for world peace and at home proposed substituting gymnastics programs for those of military training for boys in the schools. With others she changed the laissez faire attitude of Canadians to one of understanding that the whole nation was collectively responsible for the welfare of all its citizens from youth to old age.
She was a one-person whirlwind, privately helping the poor and desperate out of her own pocket, also helping handicapped people and war veterans and their families to obtain pensions, and advocating health care and the rights of women, in particular in divorce. To address the problem of goitre, common in Grey County, Agnes had iodine added to table salt.
Though suffering recurring health problems, Agnes financed her personal charity by becoming a sought after public speaker throughout Canada and especially the United States, and was still pursued by men who wanted her in marriage (there are ardent love letters in the National Archives).
By now hobnobbing with the rich and famous, in the United States with the likes of Henry Ford, in Canada with major movers and shakers including Nellie McClung who was also born in southwestern Ontario, Agnes Macphail did not forget her constituents She sent weekly letters, found funding for Durham Post Office, and provided social events, writing and public speaking competitions for young people, with a trip to Ottawa as the prize – all paid for out of her
In what was to be Agnes Macphail’s last term in Parliament she achieved the most of any term, and what many see as her crowning achievement of prison reform via the 1939 Penitentiary Bill brought in by the new minister of justice, Ernest Lapointe. Partly due to terrible weather which kept her older supporters from the polls, Agnes Macphail lost the 1940 election. She rose again politically, this time as one of the first two female Ontario MPPs, and obtained equal pay legislation for the province in 1951.
But Agnes Macphail had suffered two strokes and died in 1954 just short of both her 64th birthday, and (of) receiving a Senate appointment. Her last written communication about herself was to the Canadian Encyclopedia. Under Special Honours she wrote: “No special honours except the love of people, which I value more than any other”.
Agnes was buried beside her parents in Priceville, Grey County. Typically, her funeral was accompanied by extreme weather. Among the wreaths was one from the Inmates’ Welfare Committee of Kingston Penitentiary. The In Memoriam for Agnes in their newsletter stated: “The changes wrought within these cold grey walls were her handiwork; to her must go our tribute”.
At the funeral, a minister said that Agnes Campbell Macphail had “returned with honour to the county in which she was born… there had been little good social legislation in the past 30 years in which she had not had a considerable part … She was a friend of the weak, champion of the underprivileged and a protector of the unfortunate.” – a fitting farewell for a truly great lady.
Google Agnes Macphail and:
Go to the Agnes Macphail website – Grey Highlands Public Library, which is rich in easy to access information and photographs.
Go to the CBC Archives to hear recordings of Agnes Macphail speaking.