Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email: Scribbles@cogeco.ca

Cairine Wilson, Canada’s First Woman Senator

Cairine Mackay Wilson dedicated her time to bettering the lives of women, children and refugees

Cairine Wilson was born Cairine Reay Mackay on February 4, 1885 to the upper-class Mackay family who made their home in Montreal, Quebec. They were a strict Presbyterian family of Scottish background. Her father was Robert Mackay, politician and member of the Canadian Senate from 1901 until his death in 1916. While politics formed the background of her whole life, Cairine was not interested in being a politician herself. She was concerned about women’s rights, though did not participate in the efforts of suffragettes. Nor was she part of the Famous Five, who in 1929 eventually managed to achieve women’s rights to be “persons under the law” in the “Persons Case.”

But as an adult, Cairine was active in the underpinnings of politics. Volunteering, she was president of the Eastern Ontario Liberal Association then helped found the National Federation of Liberal Women in Canada. She also gave her time to the Victorian Order of Nurses and the YWCA. Though unpaid work was permissible, it was not “proper” for a married woman to have paid employment.

Women Now “Persons”

By February 1930 at age 45, Cairine Wilson had been living in Ottawa for nearly ten years. The wife of former MP Norman Wilson, she was the mother of 8 children.. Four months earlier, in October 1929, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of England ruled that women were “persons” in Canada; Women could at last take part in the Senate of the Government of Canada. It was fully expected that the leader of the Famous Five, Judge Emily Murphy, would receive a post as Senator in the Upper House for the years of effort she put in to facilitate change. Instead, Prime Minister Mackenzie King made the call to Mrs. Cairine Wilson.

Canada's first woman senator 1930-1962

Canada’s first woman senator 1930-1962/Library and Archives Canada

Friends with the Prime Minister and many others in high government, Cairine Wilson was still taken by surprise. She did not know she was under consideration; before she was even asked, the announcement of her impending appointment was leaked in the Ottawa Evening Journal, said Valerie Knowles in her book, First Person: A Biography of Cairine Wilson, Canada’s First Woman Senator.

“The appointment of Canada’s first woman Senator is likely to go to Ottawa. It was being forecast today in well-informed political circles that Mrs. Normal Wilson, wife of Norman F. Wilson, ex-M.P. for Russell County, is to receive the vacancy in the Upper House …,” noted the article.

Canada’s First Woman Senator

At first, Cairine Wilson hesitated. According to the Prime Minister’s notes, said Knowles, “Mrs. Wilson seemed confused, said she was flattered to be asked but said she could do more out…” Her husband also balked, but after discussions with Prime Minister King, Cairine agreed to the offer stating that it “might mean a divorce but she wd accept.” The official announcement was made on February 15th. There was no divorce and her husband became her staunch supporter. Cairine Wilson was ceremonially welcomed to the Senate on February 20, 1930 with her husband and two of their children in the audience. She hid her nervousness and appeared outwardly serene.

While there was general agreement with the new Senator’s appointment, there was some fuss raised, that a woman with children had no business in the Senate House, said coolwomen.ca. Undaunted, Cairine made her first speech to the House on February 25, 1930. Though not a natural public speaker, she spoke well in both French and English, and in her message, paid tribute to Emily Murphy and the Famous Five for their commitment to the Persons Case.

Her serene personality seemed to be part of the reason Prime Minister King selected Cairine for the senatorial position. While determined and dedicated, she was soft-spoken and peaceful, not “a militant politician like Agnes McPhail, the hard-working, sharp-tongued pioneer, who had become Canada’s first female MP in 1921”, said Knowles, and Cairine was “a woman of wealth with high ideals and a social conscience.”

As a Senator, Cairine was placed for life; only dire actions could cause removal from office, such as criminal conviction, missing two consecutive sessions of the Upper House or treason, as a few instances. The remuneration for a Senator at the time was $4,000 per 65-day session of Parliament.

Senator Wilson a Humanitarian

Cairine’s contributions to improving the lives of Canadians were many. Health insurance, infant and mother mortality, easing divorce laws, education and working conditions, and trying to expand immigration for desperate Jewish refugees and orphaned children from war-torn countries were the greatest issues for Senator Wilson. She was dubbed “Mother of the Refugees” for her kindhearted if not always successful endeavors.

The firsts for Cairine Wilson only began with the Senate seat. In 1949, she became Canada’s first female delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, the first woman to chair the Senate Standing Committee on Immigration and Labour, according to Collections Canada, and the first woman to chair the Canadian National Committee on Refugees. She earned the honour of being the first woman to become Deputy Speaker of the Canadian House of Parliament in 1955.

For her tireless efforts on behalf of Canadians and immigrants, Cairine received several awards:

Honourary Doctorate in DCL from Acadia University, 1941

Honourary Doctorate from Queen’s University, 1943

Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honour, from France, 1950

Named “Mother of the Year” by the American Mothers Committee of New York

B’nai B’rith Woman of the Year, 1960

The Honourable Cairine Wilson died on March 3, 1962 at 77 years old. She was a member of the Senate for 32 years. Over that time, she suffered cancer, osteoporosis, two broken hips and a shoulder from falls. Her beloved husband Norman died in July, 1956 at age 79. Cairine’s accomplishments as a female pioneer in the Senate forged a solid path for many Canadian women to follow.

Book:

First Person: A Biography of Cairine Wilson, Canada’s First Woman Senator, by Valerie Knowles, published by Dundurn Press Ltd, Toronto 1988.

This article first appeared on Suite101.com in February 2008.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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