23 "Firsts" for Women Working in Ontario

March 8, 2018 | David

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Lines of female recruits of Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching with Canadian flags
Photo courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive

In history class, we learn about the first women who break into certain jobs or achieve certain milestones — think Margaret Thatcher, Amelia Earhart or Marie Curie. But what about the "firsts" in Ontario, for jobs big and small? 

Below are photos — almost all from Toronto Public Library's Digital Archive — of 23 female trailblazers who worked in Ontario, even if only for a short time. Of course, this list is just a small selection and is not even close to complete. Take a look at researcher Sally Simpson's enlightening list of trailblazing indigenous women, which features women born anywhere in northern Turtle Island (Canada).

Go ahead and add the names of more "first" women in the comments! 


1. Lillian H. Smith, first professionally trained children's librarian — male or female — in the British Empire (1912)

Portrait of Lillian H. Smith
Photo from 1935

"Children's books do not exist in a vacuum, unrelated to literature as a whole. They are a portion of universal literature and must be subjected to the same standards of criticism as any other form of literature" - Lillian H. Smith (source)


2. Agnes Macphail, first woman elected to the parliament of Canada (1921)

Portrait of Agnes MacPhail in old-fashioned hat and coat
Photo from 1922

"Whenever I don't know whether to fight or not — I always fight" - Agnes Macphail (source)


3. Mildred Kane, first woman to own a horse which won the King's Plate (1940)

Mildred Kane holding trophy
Permission from Tina Harvey-Kane


4. Ellen Fairclough, first woman to serve in the Canadian Cabinet (1950)

Portrait of Ellen Fairclough at 83 years old
 Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1988

"Canada needs a woman's voice" - Ellen Fairclough's campaign slogan (source)


5. Anne Grossman, first female news vendor in Toronto (1955)

Three men happily greeting Anne Grossman at her newspaper stand
 Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1973


 6. Margaret Birch, first female cabinet minister in Ontario (1971)

Margaret Birch at the head of a large table
Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1972

“If I’m good enough to sit in this cabinet with all these men, surely I’m good enough to be a member of the Albany Club” (which did not allow women to join) - Margaret Birch (source)


7. Lorraine Wilkin, first female telephone installer for Bell Canada (1973)

Portrait of a smiling Lorraine Wilkin
Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1973


8. Joan Loftus, one of the first 10 female Ontario Provincial Police officers (1974)

Joan Loftus in uniform in police car
 Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1974


9. Cathy Dekking, first woman to become probationary constable in the Whitby detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police (1974)

Cathy Dekking doing police business on the street  talking to a man in a car
 Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1974


10. Jean Woolley, first female boarding officer at the Port of Toronto (1975)

Jean Woolley standing on staris on a pier
Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1975

"I'm out of the office and enjoy the sense of freedom, and being near far-away places" - Jean Woolley (source)


11. Grace Hartman, first female leader of a major labour union (Canadian Union of Public Employees, or CUPE) in North America (1975)

Portrait of Grace Hartman posing inside a room
Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1981

"The task we have before us is no less than the preservation of a decent, caring, civilized society" - Grace Hartman (source)


12. Leah Mosher, one of the first women to be a pilot trainee in the Canadian Air Force (1979)

Captain Leah Mosher on the controls of a flight simulator
Photo of flight simulator in Trenton, Ontario, Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1979

"I've been flying high ever since I heard the news" - Leah Mosher, on becoming a pilot trainee (source)


13. Rita Woodman, first female disk jockey for CHUM radio (1980)

Portrait of Rita Woodman
Toronto Star Photograph Archive, date unknown

"My philosophy is can the flowery language and lay the cards on the table" - Rita Woodman (source)


14. Mary Dawson, first female prison warden in Canada (1980)

Mary Dawnson standing in front of Warkworth penitentiary
Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1980

"I don't think there is a major difference [between men and women] except that women in positions like this seem to feel they have to try harder" - Mary Dawson (source)


15. Roberta Bondar, first female Canadian astronaut (selected in 1983)

Roberta Bondar in space jumper infront of a space-inspired mural
 Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1991

"I am offended if someone would only consider me a female subject. I am a professional. That's No. 1" - Roberta Bondar, on being asked by the Soviet Space Agency to participate in a study about how weightlessness affects women (source)


16. Anne Cools, first black senator in Canada, male or female (1984)

Portrait of Anne Cools
Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1984

"I always object to social injustice, my mother trained me that way" - Anne Cools (source)


17. Maria Iannuzziello, first female police cadet in Durham (1986)

Portrait of Maria Iannuzziello at 19 years old in police cadet uniform
Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1986

"I'm honored to be the first, although it does put you in a bit of a weird position because you're paving the way for others. Everybody seems to take an interest in how I'm doing" - Maria Iannuzziello (source)


18. Dianne Oland, first female firefighter in Toronto (1986)

Dianne Oland in a firefighter uniform carries a water hose as she fights a fire
Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1986

"I got a lot of warnings that there would be strong resistance, but generally, once they know you can do the job, they can learn to trust you" - Dianne Oland (source)


19. Mary Sullivan, believed to be first woman in a Canadian tactical squad (1987)

Mary Sullivan holding a rifle in front of a Hamiliton-Wentworth Regional Police truck
Sullivan of the Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Police, Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1987


20. Ethel Blondin-Andrew, first Aboriginal woman (Dene) elected to the Parliament of Canada (1988)

Image of Ethel Blondin-Andrew standing next to two other politicians wearing white hats
Blondin-Andrew, middle. Courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1994

"Everybody falls sometimes... But only champions get up" - Ethel Blondin-Andrew (source)


21. Irena Lawrenson, first woman appointed sergeant by the Ontario Provincial Police (1988)

Portrait of Irena Lawrenson in uniform in the workplace
 Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1988

"I thought it would be interesting to be a pioneer" - Irena Lawrenson (source)


22. Susan Weaver, first female executive chef at a major Canadian hotel (1990)

Susan Weaver being held up be other staff  all with chef hats
Weaver was executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Yorkville, Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1990

"I started out as a hotel butcher... I'll never forget that 18-wheel truck filled with meat, fish and poultry to be cleaned and trimmed — all of it with my name on it" - Susan Weaver (source)


23. Yasmin Ratansi, first Muslim woman elected to the House of Commons  (2004)

Portrait of Yasmin Ratansi
Photo used with permission from Office of Yasmin Ratansi

"Canadians can look back with pride on their history and achievements. It is a history of palpable patriotism, progress and prosperity, though sometimes punctuated with pain and peril" - Yasmin Ratansi (source)


Bonus!  Kathleen Wynne's milestones are perhaps too recent to include in the list, but it only makes sense to include Ontario's first female premier and first openly gay premier of any province (2013).

Portrait of Kathleen Wynne
Photo credit: Libby Adder

"Social justice is what drives me; it’s why I’m here" -- Kathleen Wynne (source)


I know there are so many more women who deserve recognition, for low-profile and high-profile jobs — remember to add more "firsts" in the comments!

Also, my colleagues and I debated whether Canada's first female Prime Minister, Kim Campbell should be included in the list, since she did work in Ottawa, though for such a short time! What do you think?