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.


subscribe free or become a member

The Great Lakes Raconteur

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 Pennington. 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.

  1. History Articles
  2. History Pages
  3. Agnes Macphail: Political Trailblazer

   Get The Great Lakes Raconteur  -->   

Share this page:

More Grey County 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.

Dr. Anna Henry  from Markdale, was a medical trailblazer for women doctors in Canada, who helped lay the groundwork for the establishment for Women's College Hospital.

Egremont Township endured the usual growing pains of a pioneer community, but its early history records times when it was embroiled in a few contentious issues. 

Euphrasia Township in the early years when spelling the name was a problem for those who called it home and those that wanted settle this new Grey County township.

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

Grey County Heritage: A Valuable Resource which is rich and varied, as an important resource for future use for business, political, and many other purposes.

Grey County's Creation in 1852, laid the framework for organizing a county in the last wilderness in the southern region of what would become in the future the province of Ontario.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 Georgian 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.

Meaford's history is one of hardy and entrepreneurial pioneers carving their lives out of the wilderness of what would become Grey County.

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.

Pioneer Clergyman: John Neelands was the first to minister to the first settlers' spiritual needs riding on horseback through the wilds of early Grey County.

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 Homes in Grey County in the 1840s offered only basic amenities. Homes were basic because clearing the land to earn a living to survive were of paramount importance for those embarking on a new life.

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

A pioneer road surveyor's impact on the local history of Grey and Bruce counties could have been dramatic, if it had not been changed by another surveyor.

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.

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

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.

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.

The Women's Institute is a group of rural women that has made a difference to the quality of both urban and rural life in Grey County and across the country.