Agnes MacPhail, Local Heroine

By Margaret Blair in Community, People

When I heard the Bank of Canada was looking for a Canadian woman to be the first to have her portrait on a Canadian bank note, I immediately thought of Agnes Macphail: “Our Aggie” as the Grey county farmers she championed affectionately called her, “Miss Macphail” respectfully to her face. Encouragement came from a CBC news broadcaster introducing a panel to discuss the matter when he said that his own first choice would be our first woman MP, whose bust is in the Ottawa parliament buildings, Agnes Macphail.

If they were looking for a Canadian woman who had overcome obstacles, Agnes had done that in spades, from her initial stand to be allowed to continue in schooling, to Agnes’ stubborn refusal to be put down by the bitter resentment and relentless opposition of almost all the male MPs horrified at having a woman in their midst. Agnes alone among the MPs went to see for herself the deplorable, insanitary living conditions of striking Glace Bay miners and their families, and the terrible state of those in our penal institutions.

If the Bank of Canada was looking for a woman who achieved much for the betterment of her fellow Canadians, they should look no further than Agnes Macphail. She quickly improved the condition of agriculture across Canada by having tariffs lowered and enabling farmers to market their produce at fair prices. Agnes Macphail pushed through the first reforms of our penal system and even addressed the problem of goitre by having iodine added to table salt. She furthered the rights of wives in divorce, the rights of the handicapped and veterans to pensions and the rights of all to good health care. As the minister at her funeral said “There has been little good social legislation in the past 30 years in which Agnes Macphail has not had a considerable part. She was a friend to the weak, champion of the underprivileged and a protector of the unfortunate.”

In March, when the Ontario legislature voted to have statues of the first two woman MPPs, Margaret Rae Lucock and Agnes Macphail, placed in front of the parliament building, I thought Agnes’ picture on a bank note could not be far behind. But it was not to be – not yet anyway. The long list of 12 names recently released does not contain the one I was looking for.

As I make my annual summer pilgrimage to place a pink rose on the McPhail family grave in Princeville where “Our Aggie” is buried, I won’t feel downhearted: I believe that one day, her image will be on one of our bank notes, another honour Agnes Macphail truly deserves.