By Greg Clark, December 31, 1932
Agnes Macphail is not pale. Her pictures somehow give the impression of a severe, pallid lady with horn rim spectacles, who might have a pointer in one hand and a stick of chalk in the other.
But the lady who sat feeing Tom Wilson, the camera man, and me in her little red brick house in Ceylon, Ont., bore no resemblance to her pictures. Her color is almost ruddy, her brows black and her eyes bright gray-blue.
They are notable eyes. You see them in Scottish faces. They are bold, fastening eyes; a cool look comes easily into them; they often flicker with irony. And as she sat in her own home facing us two newspapermen in search of a curious story it was not I she watched most narrowly; it was Tom, the camera man.
Because Agnes Macphail, M.P., hates cameras. They do her dirt.
The curious story we were after was this:
“We’re not going to talk politics, Miss Macphail. With a crash like the fruit shell giving way in the cellar you stepped back Into the front pages the other day. And now you are interesting to tens of thousands of people who never before gave you much more than a passing glance. They want to know about you.
“How do you get this way?” we asked. “How does country girl, born and raised in the real country, on a farm, far from cities, how does a little country girl come to be Canada’s first and only woman member of Parliament?
“What were the moves in your life, as if you were a billiard ball shot around the table, what were the things that you bumped against, one from the other, that directed your life so that here you are a kind of stormy petrel of politics, one of the few passionate personalities in public life today?”
“Do you mean when I joined the U. F. O.?” she asked, doubtfully.
“No, no, far before that! Have you any pictures of yourself as a kid? What kind of little girl were you? Were you a number one pupil, a bright, serious, little teacher’s pet? Did you shine in spelling matches and school debates?”
The ironic look came into Miss Macphail’s eyes. What dizzy kind of interview was this? She wanted to let loose on the aims and objects of the new Commonwealth party.
“Well,” said she, “I’ve got a poor memory. I never can remember people or events. Why do you want to know about those things?”
“Because, we said, “the most interesting thing about politicians is how they became politicians. Then you can understand their polities. One time I went down to Kemptville and traced back Howard Ferguson. I found he spent his childhood and youth in home filled with politics, politics for breakfast, speeches at lunch, political meetings for dinner. Every day, every day. Only a little boy in houseful of big politicians. But what you want to be when you are a little boy you often become, with vengeance, when you grow up. All right, Miss Macphail, how about you?”
And the answer is a romance.
The romance of a little girl of fourteen battling with sarcastic tongue and red-faced indignation against the superiority of the big city pupils of Owen Sound toward the little country boarders in their poor clothes and with their shy, awkward manners.
The romance of a young schoolma’am, crazy about dancing, so crazy she often, up at Black Horse, Bruce county, used to dance till daylight and then go straight to school to teach all day, filled with the wholesome ambition of a clannish countryside, to marry like her sisters and cousins, but who heard a call, a real call, one of those Presbyterian, Highland Scots, “second sight” calls…”
The Country Kids’ Champion
Agnes Macphail told us the story with not a little wonderment. She had never looked back over her life before. She thought things just came. But they didn’t.
If she had not gone certain places as a girl and a young woman, if she had not met certain people who said certain things, Agnes Macphail would be to-day a good farmer’s wife, competently running her household and, perhaps, as she humorously admitted, the affairs of a few of her neighbors.
But here are the things that happened.
First her blood. She is pure Scot. The Macphails and the Campbells were part of one of those Scottish bands who came to Ontario in the middle of the last century and settled some of the most desperate townships in the province. The Macphails and Campbells that united to create Agnes Macphail settled in Proton township. Proton is famous for its black swamps. It is in the core of that high country that looks down on all the rest of Ontario and in whose swamps rise six rivers, the Humber, Credit, Grand, Saugeen, Beaver, Nottawasaga.
Agnes Macphail put us in her little car and drove us out to look at the farm of her childhood and youth.
As we sped along the country roads, she explained that they had sold the farm after her father’s death because Agnes was already in public life. She pointed out the farms we passed, the Muirs, the Fletchers, all part of the clan.
We went into a sideroad and passed a farm where a group of men were standing under a shed. The men waved a full arm salute, like a railroader’s highball. It was a hail from the Muirs to the Macphails.
We came out on a hill and there below us spread the far flat fields to the edge of the distant black swamps of Proton, and in the midst, red brick farmhouse and barns. Nothing fancy or imposing, no trees about it, just a plain Ontario farm, on dark fields wrested from the swamps where six rivers rise.
When she was fourteen Agnes Macphail left this farm to go and board in Owen Sound in order to attend high school. A lot of Muirs and Fletchers and other children of the Scottish clan from Proton went with her.
They were poor. They wore plain clothes. Except amongst their own, they were shy and maybe a little awkward.
Now Agnes’ father was not only a farmer. Having a certain forcefulness of character, a shrewd tongue and willingness to talk, he had come forward in the community as an auctioneer at those sales of stock, implements and household goods which are a picturesque and vital part of country life.
Dougald Macphail was the local man to take charge of auction sales amongst those dour, speechless Scots of Proton. He was witty. He could be sarcastic.
“To tell you the truth,” said Agnes Macphail, “my father’s was the only tongue I have ever been afraid of in my life!”
Many a time had the little girl Agnes admired the power her red-moustached father had with his tongue. She saw the fear it bred. Like all the rest of us she imitated the qualities that most impressed her in her admired elders.
And this was the small fourteen-year-old who landed with a colony of other country children to attend high school in Owen Sound, to board from September to July.
Instantly the attitude of the big city pupils of Owen Sound toward the country kids maddened her. Their air of superiority, their good clothes, their snickers at the shyness and clumsiness in the classroom roused in her the sensitive pride of the Scot and loosened the satiric and bitter tongue of Dougald Macphail she had in her mouth. From the drop of the hat, at fourteen years of age, Agnes Macphail, the little country girl who didn’t believe anybody in the world was any better than the Muirs, the Fletchers and the Macphails, was using her wits and her waking dreams and schemes to champion her country friends against the city slickers. And there was a dramatic climax very shortly when Agnes had a public scene with the schoolmaster who was making fun of the shyness of another of the country girls.
“I haven’t remembered that for years!” exclaimed the member of parliament, as she flushed up with recollection of her school days.
Indignant About Life
“Well, we’re getting at it,” said we. “What did you dream about as a girl?”
Agnes Macphail went away on a journey of memory before our eyes. She spoke slowly and hesitantly.
“I was the oldest of the family. There were no boys. I had to be the boy. I brought home the cows across those fields. It was I that had to catch the horse and harness it. Maybe that has something to do with it. I remember now the book I read. The one book we all had. Sarah K. Bolton’s ‘Lives of Famous Men and Women’. I remember being so impatient with the famous women. The most a woman could do was have sons who would do great things like Lord Salisbury. Or have daughters that would have sons. I remember that now distinctly. I can remember going around those fields, bringing home the cows, and dreaming of doing something great. I suppose all girls dream like that.”
But those dreams were the start of that call, that strange elusive disturbance that would enter into her affairs every time Agnes Macphail appeared to be shaping her life toward the regular, routine life of a woman.
She got through high school to her junior matriculation in two years. So she was a smart pupil whether she admits it or not. She went to Stratford normal school and became a teacher. All this time she was a lively, free-wheeling girl, sharp witted and popular like her father Dougald, and full of affection for her own neighbors, like her mother, the Campbell.
Then at nineteen she got a school at Black Horse, as the village of Kinloss is called by all Bruce county folk.
She was three years there. It was there she used to dance till morning. It was there she lived with zest and might have married any sweetheart and settled down to the life thousands of country schoolma’ams are electing at this very moment.
But she lived at the house of Samuel Braden. And Sam Braden, the merchant, was another of those Scots, liberal, advanced, conversational far into the night, whom you meet in Bruce county.
“Aha,” we said to Miss Macphail, “he started you toward a public career!”
“No, but he kept alive the thoughts to which I was accustomed in my own home, and I remember in my early twenties having restless thoughts about life, of being still indignant about life, of feeling hot and cold over any injustice….”
At the Bible class at Black Horse they were studying the Book of Job. And after one rather enthusiastic go at that record of human woe the minister, Rev. Mr. Robinson, happened to remark to the young schoolma’am that she had very bright mind and ought to go to the university.
“I remember that remark,” says Miss Macphail. “Just a. passing remark, innocent and flattering. Everybody meets such things. That remark hit me very hard. It made me intensely proud. For the first time I began to think about doing something about the things that disturbed me.”
She was twenty-three. She had beaux. She was lively, full of life, into everything. And the Rev. Mr. Robinson, considering the Book of Job with the young ladies and gentlemen of Black Horse, thought she had a bright mind. With fresh attention she turned to conversations with Mr. Samuel Braden, who could oblige at a moment’s notice on any subject having to do with the emancipation of mankind.
And then Agnes Macphail was laid out with an illness and spent a whole year at home on the farm painfully recovering, and thinking about having a mind and wondering what she could do with it. Those were the pre-war days of farm distress, of emerging skyscrapers, the development of the motor car and the highway, before they had yet meant anything to the farmer. It was time to foment indignation in a young mind laid up at home.
This was doubtless the Y in the road of Agnes Macphail. Look at the pictures we have of the serious, clever-faced girl in the plain black blouse and the dark hair ribbons and spectacles. Look at the quaint and beautiful old pioneer stone cottage with Grandma Campbell, aged 92, standing sweetly before it. You can see the course the ship had to take, even if the ship couldn’t see it.
On recovering from her illness Agnes Macphail got a school out west, in Alberta, chiefly as a means of recovering her health. A poor prairie school at Oyen, Alberta, Agnes did not know she was just fifteen miles from Bob Gardiner, nor did she know who Bob Gardiner was. But the paths of these two, so strangely to cross politically in a few years, came within a twenty-minute ride across prairie trails…
Then full of health, but still without any sense of direction in regard to the impatient urge to get into action in some way, she came back east and took a school at Sharon in York county. Up Yonge street. A much better school than she had had. It might have been just so good a school that any country schoolma’am’s destiny might have been satisfied.
But without knowing it she was now in up to her waist in the hotbed of the U.F.O.
One day she saw in the Farmer’s Sun a letter signed by a schoolma’am saying that any school teacher that had to live at a farmer’s house was to be pitied.
The Touchstone of Her Life
With a cool joy and headful of withering phrases, Agnes Macphail sat down at her boarding house at Sharon and proceeded to write a letter to the editor that would scorch the presses. She did a little more than answer the other letter. She expressed several generalities in defence of farm life. She had no idea this letter was the touchstone of her life.
John C. Ross, the editor of the Farmer’s Sun, immediately wrote her and said he had read her letter with great interest, and the next time she was in Toronto he would be delighted to meet her.
Agnes Macphail kept that letter in her pocket and thought about it every day until she got away one Saturday and called on John C. Ross. She met Burnaby. She met several pioneers of the farmers’ movement.
It was all as if prearranged by fate. Nothing new or startling in the fact that within few weeks she was helping organize farmers’ clubs, speaking at farm women institute meetings, and when 1918 came along she WAS in the thick of the U.F. O. business and was electioneering in a fashion new to North York, a kind of electioneering for which she is since famous.
And then in 1921 she was elected herself.
That’s the story. Just the story of girl with a lot of strong Scot blood, inheriting a temper and gift of speech. She says herself that she would be a clever speaker if it weren’t that seriousness were always breaking in. And with that background and a series of events that shaped her, even as child, into the indignant champion of her own folk, and a series of meetings with people who had disturbing ideas that kept up the pressure on her power of indignation, she was swept, in current, past the rocks and anchorage of marriage and of settling down which would have clipped her neatly, as hundreds of other women must have been clipped, out of public life.
“Oh, I know,” said Agnes Macphail, as we sat in her little home in Ceylon, after we had been boring and probing back into the almost forgotten memories of her childhood and youth, “if I had lived hundred years ago I know exactly the kind of woman I would have been. I would have been one of those pioneer women, with a great big family and concerned about the affairs of nearly everybody in the township!
“And I know, too, that when I am sixty I shall probably look back at this life I have chosen and regret every bit of it, dust and ashes, because I will wish I had married and had children and been a happy country woman. Sure I will!”
She lives with her dear old mother, the Campbell. Her home is not the most pretentious one in Ceylon. It is just a pleasant little pale red brick house. They have a housekeeper. There is a pump at the backdoor. Mostly they eat in the kitchen. Seven men were coming in for a meeting of some farm group as soon as we got out. There was a package of steak, about five pounds of it, for dinner.
They would sit in the living room, where we had done the interviewing, a small, white room decorated in white, with photographs of Dougald Macphail, and mother, and the grandmothers on both sides, and sisters, with their babies.
“I wish the twins were here. I have three nieces, all seven,” said Agnes Macphail. “I’d love you to see me with them.”
A wistful touch, this member of parliament, stuffing back into a corrugated box the old photographs we had asked her to unearth for us in our examination as to how she got this way.
But anyway, you know now that there is a reason why she sits on Parliament Hill, and it has little to do with politics.
Editor’s Notes: This news article looks back at the early life of Agnes Macphail, Canada’s first female Member of Parliament, mid-way through her career.
The U.F.O. is the United Farmers of Ontario, a political party with power an influence in the 1910s and 1920s.
Howard Ferguson was the Ontario Premier at the time of the article.
Sarah K. Bolton was an American author.
Bob (Robert) Gardiner was a fellow Member of Parliament for the United Farmers of Alberta. He was a member of the Ginger Group along with Agnes Macphail, a group of politicians who split from the Progressive Party to advocate for socialism under the leadership of J. S. Woodsworth, the future leader of the CCF.