Agnes Macphail:
Political Trailblazer

Agnes Macphail was a political trailblazer in a part of Ontario that one could hardly expect such radical action for the era in a rural region.


A political meeting at the Town Hall in the community of Durham is not an unusual circumstance. However, almost none hundred years ago this was the site of a monumental event in Canadian history. On September 26, 1921 one hundred and fifty delegates, all of whom were men, chose a woman, Agnes Campbell Macphail as the candidate for the United Farmers of Ontario in the riding of South East Grey for the forthcoming federal election.

In an interview, fifteen years after that momentous occasion, Miss Macphail told a reporter that she had thought that there was little or no chance that she would secure the nomination to represent her party. She said that the nomination was the greatest thrill of her life in politics.

Agnes Macphail may have been happy, but others around her did not immediately share her enthusiasm. She told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that when she told her father about her victory his first response was “I am sorry”. However, the sentiments which may have provoked this statement from her father were soon dashed and her parents gave her their “heart and soul” throughout the campaign.

The day after this landmark decision in Canadian history had been made, the delegates to the convention awakened to the reality that they had elected a women to represent them in the upcoming federal election. A neighbour indignantly asked one of the delegates “Are there no men left in South East Grey?”. The riding executive met and discussed the possibility of annulling the results of the nomination and holding a new nomination meeting. Ultimately, the shock of electing a woman wore off and the party pitched in to try and do the unthinkable, elect a woman to the Canadian Parliament!

Macphail’s opposition was Conservative Robert J. Ball, a Hanover manufacturer. At first it appeared that the election would be a two-party race, but the Liberals nominated Walter Hastie of Egremont township. The Owen Sound Sun Times reported that the surprise nomination of Liberal candidate sealed Macphail’s fate. “It is tonight conceded, even in quarters friendly to the UFO that his acceptance of the nomination probably spells disaster for Miss Agnes Macphail, who in a two-party contest stood a good chance of securing the seat from the sitting member R.J. Ball”.

In a speech in Hanover Macphail promised to do something which I do not recall ever hearing before or since. She vowed to only accept $2,500 of the $4,000 which each Member of Parliament received each session. Her rationale for such a pledge, saying “The country was up to its ears in debt and Parliament should set the example of economizing and reducing expenditures”.   

The campaign was an arduous journey. She attended fifty five meetings in seven weeks and at each meeting she spoke for at least one hour, often longer. She knew that everyone was waiting for her to fail, but her determination and loyalty to her cause kept her going. The fact that she was a woman entering a bailiwick which had until now been a male-only domain, caused her to have enemies.  

One night on her way to a meeting her driver had to drive into a ditch to avoid being hit by a train. Doris Bennington in her biography of Agnes Macphail reports that “...after the near-miss with the train, certain reporters sent a telegram to Mr. Edward Beatty, President of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and asked him to fire the engineer because `he missed hitting Miss Macphail’”.

The entire campaign must have been an ordeal for Miss Macphail, but she endured and South East Grey returned the first female Member to the Canadian Parliament. In Canada there was excitement at this turn of events, but there was also skepticism, and in some quarters, anger. The editor of the Cleveland News, realizing the historical significance of Macphail’s campaign sent a reporter to cover the events. His comments about Canadian reaction to Agnes Macphail are interesting:

“If we had such a personality in our political life,” he said, “we should make much of her. But your papers seem to ignore her, as if she had no distinctive quality. Can you explain the Canadians’ seeming indifference toward their own eminent people? This girl is full of personality, brains, and statesmanship — and courage.”

Today we take for granted the fact that women can run as candidates for political parties, they can become cabinet ministers, and prime ministers. Canadians should not forget that if it had not been for a young woman from South East Grey and other pioneers the opportunities that we all take too easily for granted might not be so universal today!

Much of the information used in this article came from “Agnes Macphail: Reformer” by Doris Bennington. This book is a “must read” for everyone! 

A version of this story first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.


History Pages

12-year-old Walks to Owen Sound in 1851 from the journal of a teenage boy's experience travelling with his brother in the untamed Upper Canadian wilderness.

1st Grey County Building in 1852 was only built after many hurdles were overcame.

Land Auction in Amabel Township provided the opportunity for settlers to purchase land and begin a new life in Bruce County in the 1850s.

Georgian Bay's 1st pioneer settler arrived on the western shoreline long before any other settler reached the area.

An Unlikely Hero From Grey County (Part 1) found his way from the farming community of Flesherton to missionary work in the Ottawa Valley, and beyond.

An Unlikely Hero Vs. The KKK (Part 2) Our hero from Grey County took his missionary zeal south of the border and ultimately crossed paths with the infamous KKK!

Barn Raising: A Pioneer Economic and Social Necessity as it provided settlers with an opportunity not only to build a barn, but also build a community.

"Barring Out": A Pioneer School Tradition was a custom which the settlers brought to the new world from England, or Scotland.

Baseball History in Southwestern Ontario is rich, and surprisingly longer than one might expect, actually setting historical precedents!

British Peerage a Source for Township Names. It is interesting to check the origin of the names bestowed on pioneer places such as towns, townships and counties.

Census Takers in 1891 Canada faced difficult obstacles to gather the necessary information but the results were revealing then, and today.

Ceylon Ontario: How it Got its Name: It is always interesting how a community got its name, but I doubt any place received its name from a more unique source!

Chatsworth Ontario: First Settlers took advantage of fulfilling the needs of pioneer travellers and built a thriving community in the Upper Canadian wilderness.

Chesley Ontario Welcomes the Krug Brothers who were not only successful, but made significant contributions to the social fabric of their adopted home town.

Krug Impact on Chesley Ontario was immense not only in terms of the community's social fabric but with regards to community's economic growth.

Clearing Trees a Daunting Task for Settlers as they worked to fulfill their obligations for their land grant.

Billy Crawford: Pioneering Spirit Personified. If you take the time to consider the people you have met during your life you too may know or have known, someone with pioneering spirit just like Billy Crawford.

Bruce Road 3: A Colonization Road  linked prospective settlers to undeveloped Crown Lands and a new life.

Dornoch: or is it Smithville? Originally it was Smithville, then it became Dornoch. But, surprise it is still, in reality Smithville!

First Pioneer in Durham: Archibald Hunter established his family, and a hotel, in what would become the centre of the town of Durham.

Durham Ontario Influenced by the Saugeen River. This river provided a means to create new industries, but especially in the spring it can also pose a menace to the community.

Frozen Rivers & Lakes can be Hazardous: Icy waterways offer many benefits such as ice fishing, but beware weak, or thin ice is not easily detected and can spell disaster.

Grey County Bylaws to the 1890s reveal a lot about the financing of local government, especially education in the early days of the region.

John Muir, the legendary naturalist, who promoted the idea of protected nature spaces, spent time in Ontario and I went to help find evidence of his stay in the Owen Sound area.

The Glorious Twelfth: A Tradition from Across the Pond which served to both unite and divide pioneer communities.

A Heroic Woman From Grey County who made great changes as a doctor in China in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Jesse James: In Grey County? An interesting question. Did the notorious gangster hide out in Proton Township? We will never know. But it is fun to speculate!

Kilsyth's Train Engine was one for the history books. It brought an evening of joy followed by disappointing news soon after.

Kincardine Ontario's First Settlers using a bit of savvy and some luck created a future form themselves and their families on the Lake Huron shoreline.

The Knight's of Meaford have long history in that Grey County community. Their business forged by early settlers employed many locals and supported the economy.

Leith: Tom Thomson's Birthplace is part of the rich heritage of this community located on the east shore of the bay north of Owen Sound.

The Leith Golf Course has provided many families with great memories. The history of this golf course starts, and ends, with the generosity of one family.

Agnes Macphail was a political trailblazer in a part of Ontario that one could hardly expect such radical action for the era in a rural region.

Markdale Ontario: The Beginning: originally known as Glenelg East, but the coming of the railway and the name of owner of the land for the station led to a change of identity.

Maple Syrup: A Pioneer Necessity and a trading commodity for indigenous peoples is now a Sunday morning breakfast treat with pancakes!

Meaford Ontario, first called Peggy's Landing located on the shores of Georgian Bay has a rich history.

Meaford vs Purdytown. Conflict over the name of a new community was not unusual in early Grey County but electing a school trustee was the "hot button" issue in this rivalry.

Mildmay Ontario overcame competition from other communities to claim its spot in Carrick Township on an important settlement route to the Lake Huron shoreline.

Paris Ontario: Who Knew this community had such a unique origin and how the local citizens used that history to protect the environment of their region?

Pioneer Doctor: Dr. James Smith, a local boy who became a doctor and served his community for his entire life was a testament to Grey County community spirit.

Pioneer Healthcare in Grey and Bruce counties was not administered by doctors, nurses, or pharmacists, no it was the responsibility of the women of the community.

Pioneer ingenuity created many labour-saving devices and methods and quite often helped to create a sense of community.

Pioneer Christmas: A Family Tradition as told to me by may grandparents who experienced Christmas as children in the 1880s and 1890s.

Pioneer Settlement in Arran Township was encouraged through the offer of inexpensive land for sale, but the offer of free land was another enticement offered elsewhere.

Pioneer Settlement Plans for Grey County began almost two decades before the rest of Grey County was available for settlement.

Pioneer Diaries Provide Interesting Information about many topics, but sometimes information about the weather can be quite surprising!

Pioneer Teachers in Grey and Bruce Counties had a long and arduous task, not to mentions strict and confining job requirements for very little salary.

Plowing Match in Grey County in 1933 the first International Plowing Match held in Grey and Bruce counties and it's success led to more such events in Grey.

Port Elgin Ontario Started with a Storm. A ship forced to seek refuge from Lake Huron's stormy wrath signalled to one man the idea of starting a new community.

Settling Osprey Township: Parts of Osprey were considered too rugged to settle, but today they are prime real estate because of the great view!

Southampton Ontario Suffered a Major Fire in 1886: The havoc was created by a furious high wind storm that spread the flames over much of the town.

Swamp College: Proton Township: this colourfully named institution of education in Grey County has provided many stories to the heritage of the region.

Sydenham Township's First Council undertook the often difficult task of creating a new municipal infrastructure.

Tara Ontario mill was founded in 1851 by John and James Tobey. In later years, under different ownership, the Tara mill would be the site of important innovations. 

"Thank You to a Veteran" - should be something everyone of us should think, and especially say, every day!

The Impact of Snow is not what is Used to be! As snow removal equipment has improved the impact of snow on our lives has reduced significantly from previous eras.

Unique Characters: Nathaniel Herriman lived in Grey County and owned an inn to provide food and and accommodation to early travellers. Each day he performed a unique practice.

Unique Maps: Quilts Guided the Underground Railroad to enable runaway slaves to escape to Canada and freedom from the shackles that enslaved them.

Walkerton Ontario: The Beginning of this Bruce County town is the result of the drive and determination of one man, Joseph Walker.

From Lochnaw to Manitoulin - A Review this book details through a soldier's diary a trip from Penetanguishene to Manitoulin Island in 1839.

History Pages introduces the readers to interesting people, places, and events that I have researched and written about in my writing career that spans more than three decades.

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