On Feb. 15, 1930, a woman took her seat in a vast and beautiful chamber in Ottawa where every other seat was filled with men.
For sixty years there had only been men and although some were happy with her presence and to see change, others…not so much.
Tradition was important to them, and this was a major shift.
The woman at the center of this commotion had seemingly been plucked out of nowhere and thrust into the spotlight.
Some of the men knew of her.
She was well-known in Ottawa for her volunteer efforts.
Her father had sat in this very chamber, and her husband was a Liberal Member of Parliament at one time.
Outside of the capital though, no one knew her name.
They were about to.
Because Cairine Wilson was about to take her seat in the Canadian Senate, as her father once did, and become the first female Canadian Senator in history.
I’m Craig Baird and this is Canadian History Ehx!
Canada became a country on July 1, 1867, and that same day the Canadian Senate was formed.
Modelled after the British House of Lords, the Canadian Senate is the Upper House of our government, with members appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister. Together with the Crown and the House of Commons, they make up the Canadian legislature.
. Within our government, the House of Commons is the dominant chamber, this is where a democratically elected body debates and votes on legislation. When an Act is passed in Parliament, it moves onto the Senate, where it is again voted on, where it could fail but that tends to be rare.
In fact, most people don’t even think about the Senate, except when there is a scandal usually surrounding expenses.
Sir John A. Macdonald believed that the House of Commons represented the population of Canada, while the Senate represented the regions of the country and called it the body of sober second thought that would curb the democratic excesses of the House of Commons.
When the Senate was first formed in 1867, it had 72 seats, 24 each representing Ontario and Quebec, and 12 each for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
As provinces were added, new seats were added so Manitoba was the next with two seats, followed by British Columbia with three seats.
By 1915, there were 96 seats in the senate, a number that would not change again until 1949 when Newfoundland joined Canada and the number increased to 102.
Since 1999, there have been 105 seats in the Senate through changes to the population of some provinces, and the addition of Nunavut.
For the first 63 years of Canada’s history Senate seats were only occupied by men.
Then, everything changed after five women made the case that women were persons under the law, and therefore, qualified to sit in the Senate. Irene Parlby, Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Henrietta Edwards tested the legal definition of personhood and if you’re a longtime listener of this podcast you’ll remember I did an episode on Henrietta earlier this year and covered some of the story there.
Today, these women are known as The Famous Five.
However, the path for women into the Senate began 11 years earlier in 1919.
When Emily Murphy was chosen by the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada to stand as a candidate for the Canadian Senate.
To put that into context, at this point, women could vote in most Canadian provinces and in federal elections.
To test the possibility of sitting in the Senate, Emily put her name forward to then Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden.
Borden stated he was willing to give her his support, but could not legally do it, because the 1876 British Common Law ruled that women were only eligible for pains and penalties, not rights and privileges.
At the time, British law was Canadian law, as we were still a Dominion of the Empire.
Not wanting to take no for an answer, Murphy spent the next eight years seeking more clarification on how women were regarded under the British North America Act of 1867, and what needed to change so women could sit in the Senate.
Enlisting the help of the four other women, the Famous Five submitted their petition on Aug. 27, 1927, and asked the federal government to refer the issue to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Their question was simple,
Does the word persons in Section 24 of the British North America Act of 1867 include female persons.
On March 14, 1928, the Supreme Court heard the case.
On April 24 all five justices ruled that qualified persons under Section 24 did not include women.
There is a common misconception that the Supreme Court held the decision that women were not persons.
In fact, the majority of the Supreme Court stated that there was no doubt that the word persons when standing alone included women.
However, the formal judgement of the court was “Understood to mean ‘are women eligible for appointment to the senate of Canada? The question is answered in the negative.”
At the time, the Supreme Court of Canada was not the court of last resort for Canadians.
Because Canada was still a Dominion, the women were able to take their case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England.
On Oct. 18, 1929, The Lord Chancellor, Lord Sankey, ruled that the meaning of qualified persons could be read to include women.
It was a victory for the Famous Five!
With that decision, women could now sit in the Senate of Canada.
Which brings us to today’s story.
Emily Murphy seemed like the most logical choice as the first woman in the Senate because of her long history with the women’s suffrage movement.
After all she’s the one that carved out the legal path to changing the rules for the Senate.
Then there was Nellie McClung, the writer and activist instrumental in getting women in Manitoba the vote and becoming the first province to do so.
But the first woman in the Canadian Senate wasn’t Murphy, or McClung, or any of the Famous Five.
Instead, the first woman would be well-known in political circles in Ottawa.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed… her name was Cairine Wilson.
Born into a wealthy and influential family in Montreal on Feb. 4, 1885, she was one of nine children.
Her parents June and Robert MacKay were very well connected within the political elite. Her father was a friend of future Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and would himself sit in the Canadian Senate from 1901 to 1916. In 1870, a decade-and-a-half before Cairine was born, Robert founded the Mackay Institute for the Deaf due to his commitment to public service.
The house was loving, but also strict and formal. This caused Cairine to grow up shy and reserved, with a strong sense of warmth and compassion for others.
As a father, he impressed on his children to follow his example to have a lucrative career and an active social life of helping others.
“Father felt that girls should do something purposeful, study, become something, go beyond the fashion magazines.”
Her mother June was of Scottish and French-Canadian descent and the daughter of a prominent lumber-baron in Quebec.
According to Cairine later in life, her upbringing was very privileged with nurses, child specialists, tutors, music teachers and governesses.
Cairine attended finishing school in Montreal at the Trafalgar Institute, but despite her good grades, she did not pursue higher education.
At the time, it was generally not acceptable for women of the upper class to pursue education because it was expected they would marry into a prominent family and begin families of their own.
That is exactly what Cairine did.
In 1905, while attending a state ball in Ottawa, Zoe Laurier, the wife of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, introduced Cairine to Norman Wilson.
Norman Wilson was a Member of Parliament from 1904 to 1908, and in 1909, the couple married.
Over the next ten years, they had eight children, five girls and three boys.
The couple initially lived in Rockland, Ontario, near Ottawa, where they were part of the English-speaking minority.
Cairine, however, honed her French while living there and followed her father’s advice for public service by being active in the church and Red Cross.
During the First World War, she knitted clothes for soldiers overseas.
For the most part, during the first decade of marriage, Cairine focused on keeping a home, and raising the couple’s children.
“My marriage brought great happiness but deprived me of practically all outside companionship and for ten years I devoted myself exclusively to the management of three houses and the care of my children.”
As her children aged, and became more self-reliant, Cairine focused on volunteer work, especially after the family moved to Ottawa in 1918.
She helped underprivileged children, refugees, and the poor.
Her commitment to refugees and the poor could’ve been inspired by her family who was cleared out of the Scottish Highlands by the British government in the 1810s, and eventually made their way to Canada.
She also believed that the public demands of a woman were an extension of maternal responsibility and the moral superiority of women.
In 1921, she became the co-president of the Eastern Ontario Liberal Association.
The following year she founded the Ottawa Women’s Liberal Club.
As women gained the right to vote, Cairine worked to get more women involved in politics and co-founded the Twentieth Century Liberal Association and the National Federation of Liberal Women of Canada.
Cairine however, was never involved in the women’s suffrage movement in Canada like the Famous Five were.
It’s important to note that she didn’t become active in volunteer work and activism until after the First World War and by that point, women could vote in half of the provincial elections and in federal elections, well…white women at least.
By 1922, women could vote in every province in Canada, except Quebec, and that didn’t happen until 1940.
Nonetheless, on Feb. 15, 1930, only four months after the judgement on the Persons Case was handed down Cairine Wilson was appointed to the Canadian Senate,
The appointment surprised many because Emily Murphy seemed like the obvious choice. She was famous across Canada, was the first female magistrate in Canadian history, and like I said earlier started path to the senate.
The problem was, Murphy was a Conservative.
(small beat/break/ let the information land)
Just like today, partisanship rules politics.
Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, wanted to ensure that his party held power in the Senate and would not appoint a Conservative to the post.
Like I said earlier, the Senate can block legislation from being passed, so you always want numbers on your side.
As a result, he gave the honour to a life-long Liberal from a Liberal family.
On Feb. 11, 1930, He wrote in his diary,
“We came to agreement on Mrs. Norman Wilson as the first woman Senator to be appointed. She has taken a leading part among the women — speaks English & French & is in a position to help the party and will. Was a close friend of Lady Laurier’s, is a lady & there will be less jealousy of her than of any other person.”
A quick side note, although King was Cairine’s family friend of Cairine, over time their relationship fractured and eventually there wase no love lost between the two.
Before that happened though he appointed her for the senate seat and like others, she was shocked about it and initially she was reluctant but accepted in the end.
Her appointment faced plenty of opposition from those who wanted Murphy instead from those who wanted a French Canadian, from those who were unhappy she was a mother, and from those who were angry a woman had been appointed at all.
Emily Murphy was vocal of her opposition and told the Ottawa Evening Journal,
quote “Mrs. Wilson is the very antithesis of the shorthaired reformer, that unlovely type which talks of Freud and the latest novel and poses as an intellectual. She is of the much more appealing and competent kind who make a success of taking care of a home and family before meddling with and trying to make a success of everything else.” end quote.
Regardless Cairine Wilson would become the first woman to take a seat in the Senate.
and although she had been appointed to the Senate by Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, by the time she was sworn in on the federal election had come and gone, and the Liberals lost so as a result, Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett swore her in.
Cairine was the first woman after 63 years of men in the senate and some of her colleagues did not want her there.
Her appointment brought a lot of attention to the Senate. The Ottawa Citizen stated that interest and enthusiasm was at a high pitch as she arrived at the Senate Chamber.
Much of the press focused on what she was going to wear as she was sworn in, rather than her credentials or her unique point of view.
Newspapers devoted quite a bit of space to debating if she should wear a glamorous floor-length gown, or something that would mute her femininity to blend in with the men. When she wore a powder blue lace gown with satin shoes and holding a bouquet of orchids as she walked into the Senate, the Ottawa Journal wrote quote:
“Feminine invasion of Canadian Senate was peacefully consummated today.”
Prior to this moment there was also debate about whether she should be called Mrs. Wilson, Mrs. Norman Wilson, or Senator Wilson.
That was answered when Senate Speaker Hewitt Bostock ruled in front of all the other Senators that she would be addressed as the Honourable Senator Cairine Wilson.
In her first speech s, she spoke in French stating that she would fulfill all the responsibilities of her new position, without neglecting her domestic duties.
quote “I trust that the future will show that while engaged in public affairs the…mother of a family by reason of her maternal instinct will remain the guardian of the home.” end quote.
Despite the fact she had just made history, newspapers often referred to her as Mrs. Norman Wilson, rather than her official title as senator.
Cairine began to refuse interviews and said,
“All this publicity overwhelms me.”
The Honourable Senator Cairine Wilson was progressive and favoured giving women more rights and independence, during her time she helped reform divorce legislation, and implemented a national health insurance scheme.
She also denounced the Nationalization Act that took Canadian citizenship away from women that married men from other countries.
She committed to meeting with anyone from the public that wanted to speak with her.
A former private secretary said she never turned away people from her office.
Prior to becoming a senator, she was relatively unknown but that quickly changed as she made a name for herself.
Despite bringing her in as Senator, her friendship with King slowly deteriorated as she became outspoken for things that were important to her.
In one diary entry on Jan. 14, 1935, he stated he sat next to her for an event and said, quote:
“She was the least interesting of persons, repeating herself continually and always on some subject of politics.”
In 1938, she was appointed as the president of the League of Nations Society of Canada which at the time, was like the United Nations and was created after the First World War to bring peace to the world and prevent further conflict.
You don’t have to be a history buff to know that didn’t happen.
Cairine spoke out publicly against the Munich Agreement, which she saw as a way to appease Hitler and did so shortly after William Lyon Mackenzie King made a highly publicized trip to Nazi Germany, where he met with Hitler in the hopes of keeping the peace in Europe.
She said in an interview, quote:
“The new barbarism represented by Germany may now be free to extend to the Black Sea and other continents. Our leaders continue to subscribe to a concept of anarchy which actually permitted the World War of 1914, and which might well have permitted its repetition in the last few hours.”
History proved her right but at the time she made the statement she was harshly criticized for her opinion.
King wrote in his diary that she was wrong, and that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had saved civilization by ceding part of Czechoslovakia to Germany with the Munich Agreement.
A year later the Second World War began, and refugees from Europe streamed out of the continent looking for safety.
Many were Jewish, and Canada was not a welcoming place.
The country denied entry to nearly all Jewish refugees and the government policy operated on the belief that quote, “none was too many”.
On June 7, 1939, 907 Jewish refugees arrived on Canadian shores on the MS St. Louis
They were denied entry and had no choice but to return to Europe where 254 died in the Holocaust.
To put all of this in perspective…
Between 1933 and 1945, the United States admitted 200,000 Jewish refugees and Britain welcomed 70,000.
How many did Canada welcome?
Not even enough to fill a hockey arena.
Only 5,000, and 100 of those are thanks to Senator Cairine Wilson.
The Honourable Senator Cairine Wilson wasn’t about to let that stop her from helping refugees.
Going against government policy she arranged for 100 Jewish orphans to come to Canada during the war.
It was not much, but it was at least something.
Senator Wilson also opposed the internment of Japanese Canadians during the war which took thousands of Japanese Canadians from BC to camps in the Canadian Prairies.
Entire families, including Canadian academic, science broadcaster, and environmental activist David Suzuki’s, were uprooted, lost their homes, businesses, and savings.
Senator Wilson actively campaigned against anti-Semitism throughout her life and sat as the chair of the Canadian National Committee on Refugees from 1938 to 1948.
The work was tough, and involved meeting with cabinet ministers and bureaucrats, speaking across the country to raise awareness and hosting fundraising events.
William Lyon Mackenzie King wrote in his diary on April 2, 1943, about her efforts, stating,
“Had a talk with Cairine Wilson about refugees and matters she is interested in. She looks very worn and tired. Is killing herself by taking on a lot of foolish speaking. It is vanity.”
He often wrote about her physical state, stating she was a wreck, or that she should be out of public life.
A year after her tenure with the e Canadian National Committee on Refugees ended, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent appointed Senator Wilson as Canada’s first female delegate to the United Nations General Assembly in 1949
France made her a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1950 for her work helping refugee children.
In 1955, Senator Wilson made history once again as the first female Deputy Speaker of the Canadian Senate.
But as her efforts and career soared personally, she was hit a heavy blow when her husband Norman passed away in 1956.
Senator Wilson’s work with the Canadian National Committee on Refugees created a change towards a more humane immigration policy and1957, Canada welcomed 280,000 immigrants, 37,000 of which were fleeing Hungary after the failed Hungarian Revolution. She tirelessly championed many causes while battling uterine cancer. She was diagnosed in 1960 and over the next two years her health deteriorated until March 3, 1962, when the Honorable Senator Cairine Wilson died of a heart attack.
She had spent three weeks at the Civic Hospital in Ottawa due to complications from hip fractures.
Upon her death, Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson said quote:
“her activities encompassed everything that made for a better Canada.”
Her story is an important one, but there was someone else who also played an important role for women in the Senate.
Cairine Wilson was the first woman to sit in the Canadian Senate, but five years later, Iva Fallis became the second.
She had been involved in politics since the early-1920s, when she became the first president of the Peterborough Conservative Women’s Association and advocated that men and women seek to change politics.
In 1930, she became a key member of the campaign team that helped R.B. Bennett win the federal election to become prime minister.
As repayment she was appointed to the Senate in 1935 where she remained until her death in 1956.
And thanks to women like The Famous Five, Cairine Wilson and Iva Fallis the Canadian Senate is not made up of mostly men.
On Nov. 11, 2020, the Senate had an equal number of men and women for the first time.
On Oct. 2, 2022, women exceeded men for the first time.
As of July 6, 2023, 54 percent of the sitting members of the Canadian Senate are women.
Not bad, considering 93 years ago, there was just one, The Honorable Senator – Cairine Wilson.
[OUTRO] Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Heroines.ca, Convivium, Historical Society of Canada, Wikipedia, Government of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, York University, Library and Archives Canada, Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald, Regina Leader-Post, Owen Sound Sun Times, Ottawa Journal, Montreal Gazette