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.


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