It’s very difficult to follow politics without becoming cynical; reports of lavish expenditures on trips and hotels, meals and perks, wear down even the most fair minded of observers. Recently, the news has been littered with tales of allowances and entitlements taken by Canada’s politicians from Senate to House of Commons to Provincial Legislatures. It would seem that the public purse is always open and available to the elected class, but voters are increasingly hostile to this excess.
When I despair at the mounting evidence of misspending, I regain some mental equilibrium when I recall Agnes Macphail. Remembering Macphail puts me in a tiny minority of Canadians. She’s a largely forgotten politician, who despite her historical anonymity, should figure as a giant in our national imagination. Agnes Macphail was the first woman elected to the House of Commons; she ran as a Progresssive candidate in the election of 1921, and surprised everyone by winning the seat in South-east Grey, Ontario.
The Progressives were a short-lived agricultural party that pushed for political reform and championed rural issues. Macphail survived the demise of the party and would go on to represent Ontario both at the federal and provincial levels for nearly twenty years. Yet Macphail was most unwelcome when she went to Ottawa; sniggered upon, disliked, even hated by some, because her very presence in Parliament was a harbinger of a new age in which women were now citizens of the country, though not equals. Macphail endured her first months in Parliament; she carried on and earned the respect of her colleagues. She was either a spokesperson for, or a supporter of, social legislation and reform measures, from Mother’s Allowances and Old Age Pensions, to prison reform.
She was progressive in every sense of the word, but she was also a parsimonious guardian of the public purse. When she went on her first trip as a Member of Parliament, the expense form that she submitted was so circumspect, she inadvertently embarrassed her colleagues, who submitted much larger claims. Canada has produced many extraordinary parliamentarians over the course of our history, and Macphail figures among the finest.
Unfortunately, as a woman and an independent, she would not receive recognition for her hard work and dedication to the good of Canadians; no appointment to the Senate or a government board – such patronage positions were most often reserved then, as now, for party stalwarts. Nonetheless, she was a politician of character, conviction, and courage.
Agnes Campbell Macphail – born March 24, 1890