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People > Scottish Canadian Politicians > Cairine Mackay Wilson

Scottish Canadian Politicians

"Corkybear" Cairine Mackay Wilson (1885-1962):

Canada's First Female Senator

"If every intelligent woman made it a rule to learn something about her local, state or national government every day, more would be accomplished in a year toward governmental reform than by all the books and pamphlets written in a generation."
~ Cairine Wilson quoting Franklin Roosevelt, 1931
Cairine Mackay Wilson
Cairine Mackay Wilson

Cairine Reay Mackay was born in Montreal to Jane and Robert Mackay, a Liberal senator who emigrated from Caithness in 1855 at the age of fifteen. Cairine's upbringing was surrounded by politics, often accompanying her father on his many trips to Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a close personal friend of her father's, occasionally sat at the Mackay family dinner table; Cairine absorbed the discussions between the two statesmen and grew up with a deep respect and admiration for Laurier.

Although Cairine was bright in school, she, like most girls of her day, did not go on to obtain a university education. At the age of twenty she met Norman Wilson, a Liberal MP for Russell, Ontario, at a state ball at the Governor House, and engaged in a four-year courtship with him. After the pair married in 1909, Cairine adhered to society's traditional gender expectations by raising eight children over the next fifteen years.

When the Wilsons moved to Ottawa in 1918, Cairine's latent ambitions began to materialize. Armed with her husband's support and a sharp desire to serve her society, she plunged into extensive volunteer work with organizations such as the Victorian Order of Nurses, the Salvation Army, and the YWCA. Reflecting back on this shift in values in 1930, Wilson wrote in Canadian Home Journal:

"To many modern women who claim the right of self expression and desire to lead their own lives, my early experiences would not appeal. Almost last of a large family, I was accustomed to being suppressed through my childhood and young womanhood which did not help to overcome great natural timidity.... A blunt doctor finally brought me up with a start. Never had he seen a person deteriorate mentally as I had, he told me, and from an intelligent girl I had become a most uninteresting individual ... at once I made a determined effort not to merit such a consideration and have endeavoured to keep alert."
~ Cairine Mackay Wilson [Canadian Home Journal] 1
A Young Cairine Mackay
A Young Cairine Mackay

Now in her mid-thirties, Wilson's first major endeavor was, unsurprisingly, politics. Rejecting the mundane tasks of most female volunteers, such as pouring tea at meetings, she instead involved herself in riding work. She took her first official step into the political arena as the co-president of the Eastern Ontario Liberal Association in 1921 - the same year Canadian women gained universal suffrage.

Almost from the start, Wilson used her family connections to plunge herself into the centre of new organizations, taking on leadership roles that would earn her admiration for her intelligence, organizational skills, and friendliness. In 1922, she chaired the fifty-member founding committee of the Ottawa Women's Liberal Club, an organization for which she served as president during its first three years.

Wilson and other like-minded politically active women soon saw the need for a women's wing to give them a powerful voice within the Liberal Party of Canada. In 1928, Wilson served as the key organizer for a convention of five hundred delegates from which the National Federation of Liberal Women of Canada was born. Dedicated to educating and involving women across the country in the political process, Wilson's commitment to the National Federation lasted throughout her entire career. She served as its president for ten years from 1938-1948, and was rewarded afterwards by being named honorary president for life.

Having established an organization to represent women's interests and issues in Canadian politics, Wilson moved on to do the same for the youth by founding the Twentieth Century Liberal Association. Wilson received no compensation for her work throughout the 1920s: she served because she was passionate. Her stalwart dedication to working politically with women and the youth was finally recognized in 1930 when William Lyon Mackenzie King appointed her Canada's first female Senator.

From Homemaker to Senator

Unvieling Plaque Commemorating the Persons Case
Unvieling Plaque Commemorating the Persons Case

Her post came as a surprise: she had not expressed interest in the Senate, and had expected the honour to go to Conservative Judge Emily Murphy for her leadership role in the Persons Case that allowed women to hold public office. Mackenzie King, however, recognized Wilson's outstanding work for Liberal Party organizations, and he had been lifelong friends with both the Mackay and Wilson families.

Accepting the post was a difficult decision for Wilson. With seven of her eight children still living at home, she worried that the public wouldn't accept her and expressed her concern to King when he made the offer: "You're going to make me the most hated woman in Canada." 2 Moreover, Norman Wilson, who had been exceptionally supportive of his wife's pursuits, balked at the idea of her taking a salaried position. He went so far as to telephone the Governor General, Viscount Willingdon, and decline the position on Cairine's behalf. Mackenzie King later phoned Cairine personally. After a long conversation, she mused that the senatorial appointment "might mean a divorce," but she would accept. 3

First Women Senator
First Women Senator

The honour did not mean divorce. On 2 March 1930, the day Wilson was admitted to the Senate, Norman was bubbling with pride: "The greatest event in British history as far as women are concerned is now passed," he wrote in a letter to his daughter Janet. "Mother is a full-fledged Senator, has taken her oath, her seat in the Red Chamber." 4

Wilson was pressured to wear an evening gown at her introduction so she would match the other female guests at the reception that was to follow. The long-sleeved powder blue day dress she chose instead showed her independence and kept more with the attire of her colleagues than their wives.

On her first day at Parliament Hill, Wilson set the pace for the modern woman trying to balance family and work. She rose early to send the children off to school, tend to some housekeeping details, and do a bit of grocery shopping before taking her place at a board meeting. Despite early misgivings - "Soon I fear I shall lose my head entirely, for to take an inoffensive woman from comparative obscurity and give her the full glare of publicity is somewhat overwhelming," she wrote to Mackenzie King - the Senate chamber soon reverberated with her impact. 5 Her attentions concentrated on women and children: she spoke in favour of progressive divorce legislation, promoted Medicare, and fought for women's rights in the workplace. It didn't take long for Wilson to find her voice:

"We women wish to develop the political strength that comes from organized association and discussion and the spirit that arises from that activity ... as women we wish to use out powers to redress existing evils and in every respect to promote legislation which will benefit the greatest number."
~ Cairine Mackay Wilson 6

As a champion for women and children at home, it was perhaps a natural step for Wilson to move into the international sphere on their behalf. A confirmed internationalist and subscriber to collective security, she believed that the League of Nations was the most effective organization to securing world peace. She rose through the ranks of the League of Nations Society of Canada and served as its president for six years starting in 1938. Her resoluteness shone when she risked her reputation by speaking out against the appeasement policy European leaders were taking with Hitler, and attacked the Liberal party's approval of the Munich agreement.

Unveiling Commemorative Bust of Agnes MacPhail
Unveiling Commemorative Bust of Agnes MacPhail

As president of the League of Nations Society, Wilson took up the banner for Jewish refugees seeking escape from Germany and founded the Canadian National Committee on Refugees in 1938. With depression and unemployment rampant at home, Canadians were reluctant to open their country to large influxes of immigrants; the nation as a whole was hostile to the concept of a liberalized immigration policy. Nevertheless, Wilson persisted in her fight for Canada's acceptance of Jewish refugees and orphans. Ottawa conferences grew into heated debates as the CNCR lobbied for liberalized immigration. Although Mackenzie King was sympathetic to the Jewish plight, he did not feel he could risk the political ramifications involved with the immigration issue. He instead advised the CNCR delegation to approach provincial governments for assistance.

Frustrated but not discouraged, Wilson and her Committee members organized speaking tours, study groups, and fund-raising initiatives. At the CNCR's second annual meeting in March 1939, it once more petitioned the government to lower immigration barriers. Then in September 1939, while Wilson was on holiday with her family, Canada declared war on Germany.

The Nation at War: Remembering the Forgotten Ones

Wilson in Evening Gown
Wilson in Evening Gown

Three of Cairine's children enlisted: Angus joined the Royal Signal Corps; Robert served as an Observer with the Royal Canadian Air Force; and Peggy was accepted into the first group of the Canadian Women's Army Corps. Son-in-law Charles Burns, husband of Janet, served as a Wing Commander with the RCAF while Olive's husband, Alan Gill, went to England on an armaments mission.

Wilson did not tire in her efforts with the CNCR, but instead shifted its focus onto securing Canadian admission for individuals and single family units. Their labours were relentless and their successes minimal. Quebec leaders opposed a modest program to bring over two hundred families from the Iberian Peninsula, but the CRNC was able to locate and support twenty-two families to resettle in Canada. The most successful accomplishment was the rescue and resettlement of one hundred orphaned Jewish children from Germany, although the project initially hoped to save nine thousand. Wilson was at least able to use the experience when she organized the settlement of British children seeking refuge in Canada during the bombing of Britain.

When the war ended in 1945, immigration problems only escalated. Over one million refugees and displaced persons, including concentration camp survivors, were housed in United Nations camps across Europe. The Canadian government still refused to open its doors, so Wilson focused on bringing the refugees' plight to public attention. Slowly, the doors creaked open for Europe's homeless, and the Canadian National Committee for Refugees, its important goals having been met, dissolved in October 1948. Wilson turned her attention to Czechoslovakian refugees fleeing from the Soviet invasion.

In 1949, Prime Minister Luis St. Laurent asked Wilson to act as a member of the Canadian delegation to the fourth General Assembly of the United Nations. She continued her refugee work, making the plight of displaced Eastern Europeans facing Communist rule at home a contentious issue. Eventually the UN General Assembly took the official position that these people had a right to self-determination. France awarded Wilson's work with child refugees in 1950 with the Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honour.

Wilson made parliamentary history again in 1955 when she became the first female Deputy Speaker of the House. Her beloved husband died the following year, and her own health faltered thereafter. Heart problems, uterine cancer, and osteoporosis prevented her from going to Toronto in 1960 to receive the B'nai B'rith Woman of the Year Award. But even during these tenuous years she continued to keep her refugee work alive. In 1961, not a year before her death, the seventy-seven year old Wilson hosted a garden party for 125 people to raise funds and awareness for refugee issues in Europe.

Painting of Wilson
Painting of Wilson

"You could never expect a Scottish woman to express all that I feel," Cairine Wilson had warned an elated audience at the Local Council of Women's reception gala in March 1930. The spontaneous function, at which practically every women's organization in Ottawa was represented, had been put on not only to honour Wilson's senatorial appointment, but to celebrate the newly-granted status of women as "persons". Standing at the podium, she was visibly moved by the tribute. "I know my great-grandchildren are going to grow tired hearing about this day," she joked. Her next words, unknowingly, hinted at the legacy she had begun to create that day: "You see I am expecting to live a long time in the Senate." 7

  1. Wilson, Cairine. Canadian Home Journal, June 1930. p.7
  2. Knowles, Valerie, First Person: A Biography of Cairine Wilson, Canada's First Woman Senator, Dundurn Press: Toronto, 1996. p.79
  3. Knowles, 81. cf. National Archives of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King collection, Diaries and Papers. King diary, 15 February 1930
  4. Norman Wilson to Janet Wilson, 2 March 1930. Letter in possession of Janet Burns
  5. Cairine Wilson to William Mackenzie King, 20 March 1930. Library and Archives Canada, Mackenzie King personal correspondence. MG 26, J8, vol. 41, file 3
  6. Wilson, Cairine, Montreal Star, 24 November 1930
  7. Knowles, 96. cf. Brantford Times, 21 March 1930
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