It was with considerable delight that I read Agnes Macphail is to be one of two women honoured with a statue at Queen’s Park. Macphail was a female politician of uncommon courage. She deserves more; indeed, she’s the obvious choice to put on a bank note. The Prime Minister and Finance Minister’s recent announcement that a woman’s image will be selected for a Canadian bill is a largely symbolic, but nonetheless important step. Many observers have weighed in with suggestions as to who the honoured woman should be, from the suffragist Nellie McClung (the favourite to date) to the painter Emily Carr. The enthusiasm of the response and the number and range of the names suggested is heartening, but “Aggie” deserves the distinction for a number of reasons.
Macphail was the first woman elected to the House of Commons in 1921; she would go on to serve the nation as a MP for 19 years and spend a further five years as an Ontario MPP. But Macphail does not deserve to be on our currency simply because of her political longevity or the fact that she was the first federal female parliamentarian; rather, her dedication to the interests of a wide ranging number of groups – many of which had few advocates, is her real distinction.
As the only woman in the House from 1921 to 1935, she was besieged by letters from those hopeful that she would be kind hearted and concerned with their plight. Elected as a Progressive member– the name of the farmers’ party that represented widespread post-war rural discontent, Macphail nevertheless took on issues well beyond the interests of her party affiliation; she championed women’s issues and supported a plethora of social-welfare measures designed to assist the poor, aged, and unemployed.
When her party’s fortunes waned, Macphail sat in the House as an Independent before becoming a founding member of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in 1933. In the darkest time of the Great Depression, she was among those calling for legislation to assist the unemployed. Measures that Canadians now take for granted, such as Old Age Pensions and Employment Insurance, were championed by Macphail and a small phalanx of similarly-minded reformers, well before government enacted legislation. But Macphail’s call for an end to the physical abuse of Canada’s prison population was her most singular and difficult struggle.
She was vilified by many for calling attention to the practice of paddling and shackling prisoners, and the dreadful conditions within penitentiaries. Demonstrating considerable personal courage, given the hostility she evoked by speaking up for inmates, Macphail called for an end to brutal prison conditions and demanded the government make improvements. Her work embarrassed and annoyed government and prison authorities, but she kept up her criticism in the House, which led towards a more humane system of incarceration and an end to some of the most abusive practices.
When Macphail went to Ottawa, she entered a male house of privilege in which she was an unwelcome gender interloper. She relied on support from reform-minded parliamentarians and the courage of her convictions to help ease the sting of the disdain and dislike she evoked. She persevered – her very presence engendering jeers and heckles; however, over time, she earned the respect of her colleagues and enjoyed the loyalty of her constituents. Her courage and commitment to the betterment of others- whether women, children, farmers, labourers, the elderly, impoverished or imprisoned, in addition to the extraordinary length of her parliamentary career, was exceptional, but sadly, Macphail, largely unknown to Canadians of today, has not made the final cut. The list of twelve women who will be considered, inexplicably, did not include Aggie.