Remembering Agnes Macphail: March 24: Snapshots in History

March 24, 2018 | John P.

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Women from all backgrounds and walks of life have made their contribution to Canada. This is true in the political realm as well. On March 24 and beyond, take a moment to remember the contributions and life of Agnes Campbell MacPhail (Born: March 24, 1890 in Proton Township, Grey County, Ontario; Died: February 13, 1954 in Toronto, Ontario). Macphail was the first woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 1921 (serving until 1940) as a member of the Progressive Party and of the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO), and the first one of two women elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1943 (serving until 1945 and again from 1948-1951) as a member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner to the New Democratic Party (NDP).  

Macphail was an advocate for reform of the penal system. Following a 1923 riot at the Kingston Penitentiary, Macphail, as a Member of Parliament (MP), investigated conditions at the prison and began calling for less corporal punishment, increased outdoor time and exercise for inmates, mandatory education for illiterate inmates, introduction of a system of prison labour, rounded out by qualified personnel trained in psychology and penology. Ultimately, following the 1935 election, the federal Liberal government of Prime Minister WLM King set up a Royal Commission to Investigate the Penal System of Canada. In 1939, the Penitentiary Bill recommended 88 changes to the penal system, although implementation of these changes only began in 1945.

A champion of women’s rights, Macphail supported gender equity and fought against legal discrimination towards women, including on the issue of divorce. As a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP), Macphail witnessed the passage of Ontario’s first equal pay legislation, the Female Employees Fair Remuneration Act, in 1951 prior to the provincial election in which Macphail was defeated for the final time.

Following her political career, Macphail had limited financial means and poor health to deal with but continued to work on issues important to her such as a report on women’s status in the province of Ontario.

The Globe and Mail, in its February 15, 1954 issue on page 4, published an obituary article entitled “Militant Miss Macphail Was First Woman MP”. Here is an excerpt from that article:

“Agnes Macphail…died Saturday at Wellesley Hospital…she was 63, the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons and a former member of the Ontario Legislature for York East…She wrote a column for The Globe and Mail for a time…Regardless of party, Agnes Macphail always spoke her mind…hated war. She attacked cadet training and once moved that an expenditure of $59,000 for this purpose be reduced to $1…Although differing politically with Premier Leslie Frost, Miss Macphail frequently expressed her admiration of the Ontario Premier – but not openly to Mr. Frost…A heart attack ended her life. She had been told in 1938 that she ‘must take it easy.’ ‘So I don’t live that long,…But I’ll live what’s left doing what I want to do.’…”

The Globe and Mail also carried in its February 15, 1954 issue on page 1 a photograph of Macphail with the following cutline:

“Miss Agnes Macphail…Veteran CCF politician who died Saturday in Toronto at the age of 63. Obituary on page 4.”

To view the articles in full, please access the Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card.

On page 34 of the February 15, 1954 issue of the Toronto Daily Star, an obituary was published in one of the Deaths columns under the name “MACPHAIL, Agnes C.” Here is an excerpt from the obituary:

“On Saturday, Feb. 13, 1954, at Wellesley hospital. Agnes C. Macphail, in her 64th year, of…Leaside, beloved daughter of the late Dougald and Henrietta Macphail, dear sister of Mrs. Meredith Reany (Gertha)…and Mrs. Hugh Bailey (Lilly)…Funeral service at Don Mills United church. O’Conner drive and Pape Ave., Monday afternoon…”

To view the obituary in full, please access the Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card.


Agnes Macphail 1922 ts_1_b_347_macphail001

Agnes Macphail; Picture, 1922; Caption: Political Woman: Macphail in front of Parliament buildings in 1922. (Credit: Toronto Star Archives; Rights and Licenses: Public Domain; Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection).


Consider the following titles for borrowing from Toronto Public Library collections:



Agnes Macphail  reformer Canada's first female MP    

Book, 1989                                                                                       


Agnes Macphail champion of the underdog


Book, 2000