150+ Canadians Day 48: Agnes Macphail

Agnes Macphail contributed to peace as a champion for women’s rights, prison reform, seniors’ pensions and gender equality. #Canada150

 “Agnes Macphail’s approach was very much equal rights, which is the fact that women deserved the vote not because they’re angels and not because they’re special, but because they are people with those rights, and equal rights are an end in themselves. She went into politics for what she could do, not what politics could do for her.”       –Will Ferguson

Agnes Macphail (1890 – 1954) was the first female elected to the House of Commons. She served from 1921 to 1940 and later as one of the first two women elected to the Ontario Provincial Legislature from 1943-1945. She represented ridings in Toronto and Grey-Bruce.

Prior to her political life in the early 1900s, Agnes was growing up in rural Ontario surrounded by farmers talking over the issues of the day. While living in Sharon, Ontario, she was caught up in the increasing enthusiasm of the agrarian community who were feeling that their needs were inadequately represented in Parliament. It wasn’t long before Agnes became involved in local farmer’s organizations and soon joined the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO). The war effort meant Canadian farmers were urged to produce crops and foodstuff as well as give up their young men to conscription. By 1917, their frustrations had peaked; 5,000 farmers travelled to Ottawa demanding reform. The UFO rose to meet that demand by formally entering politics in 1919 with a landslide vote. Agnes Macphail’s represented her County by representing farmers honestly and clearly, demanding that their hard work and productivity be recognized and valued accordingly.

Macphail worked for two separate parties and promoted her ideas through column-writing, activist organizing, and legislation. The issues that she championed included pensions for seniors and workers’ rights and she was successful in forcing Ontario to adopt its first equal-pay legislation in 1951. Macphail was also the first Canadian woman delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland where she passionately supported disarmament.

In her honour, Agnes Macphail’s name has been attached to schools, awards, a public speaking contest, parks, playgrounds, a youth centre, a food bank, a townhome development, an apartment, a cairn and bronze bust, and a region in Ontario.

In a 2005 contest, Macphail was voted as the Greatest Ontario Woman and in 2015, she appears in an episode of Murdoch Mysteries as a supporter of suffragettes.

Editor’s bonus content: Here is Agnes’ Canadian Heritage Minute on youtube.

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