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politician Grace MacInnis

by Ann Farrell | August 25, 2000

In Canada, we celebrate Labour Day as we have since it was made official in 1894. We honour the paid and unpaid work of women by featuring Grace MacInnis. The sole woman Member of Parliament in the Canadian government from 1968–1972, while refusing to call herself a feminist, Grace earned a reputation as a fighter for both women’s equality and consumer rights, as well as for being an eloquent defender of the poor and elderly. She also did at home with her spouse what she advocated publicly – shared housework, a feat in itself.

To my mind the one thing this government lacks to deal with the housing crisis is the will to deal with it. The most essential ingredient that is lacking is the will by this government to give housing the top priority it ought to have.

Sound familiar? These words come from a speech in the House of Commons in 1967 given by socialist Member of Parliament Grace MacInnis, who for four years – 1968–1972 – was the sole woman MP in the Canadian Parliament. She was only the seventeenth woman elected to Parliament, the first having been Agnes Macphail in 1921.

Her family called Grace the “yeller kid” because, even as a baby, she knew how to get the attention of the floor. Winona Grace MacInnis, born in Winnipeg on July 25, 1905, was the eldest of six children born to Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, later the New Democratic Party) founder James Shaver Woodsworth and his wife Lucy.

By the time Grace died on July 10, 1991, in Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, she had made an outstanding contribution to democratic socialism in Canada both as an elected representative on provincial (B.C.) and federal levels, and often as a back-room facilitator. A charter member of the CCF founded by her father in 1933, she was a westerner who spoke French and had a particular sensitivity to the aspirations of Quebec.

The characters and lives of Grace’s parents to a great extent inspired her ideals as a politician, as a socialist, and as a human being. Woodsworth (J.S. to his friends, James to his wife), had followed in his father’s footsteps and at the time of Grace’s birth, he was minister of a comfortable Methodist parish. However, it was not long before his anguish over the plight of the poor and his subsequent drive to find solutions led Woodsworth to abandon his ministry for a lifelong fight to achieve reforms.

Lucy (Staples) Woodsworth was a teacher, an independent thinker, and a staunch supporter of a husband who proved to be an indifferent provider, and a partner whose decisions were often accompanied by controversy, struggle and disappointment. Whether James was being threatened with imprisonment during the Winnipeg strike of 1919, or barely surviving as a longshoreman on Vancouver’s docks, Lucy managed to feed her brood of six, providing them with a home that was nevertheless rich in love and fulfillment. She also had her own causes, advocating for the enrichment of disadvantaged children, teaching birth control (illegal in her time – birth control wasn’t legal until 1969).

The Woodsworths read to each other over breakfast. Discussion was a norm in their household, something the children were encouraged to share so long as they could offer informed comment – books and pamphlets were always left lying around to stimulate knowledge and opinion. Although Grace was the only child who became a politician, it was only after she had started out as a school teacher like her mother. However, when her father needed a secretary (unpaid) in his parliamentary office, she joined him there having learned to type with encouragement from her journalist brother Charles.

Grace revered her father, and admired her mother. As the eldest, she was able to observe her mother’s courage and practical wisdom, coping with a husband famed for fiery eruptions, although otherwise a kindly man. Lucy was the stable anchor for the family in a life of sudden and frequent change. Always a loving and dutiful daughter, Grace’s strong, stubborn nature was sometimes sorely tried by Lucy’s demands in her later years. Lucy lived to be 102.

The Woodsworth clan was expected to share chores without regard to the gender bias prevalent at that time. Boy or girl, they could also count on the same interest and encouragement from their parents in whatever they chose to study, or to become. They were persons in their own right, deserving of respect, sure of love and acceptance. Not that it was a placid home, or one without rules.

In 1932, Grace married a man 21 years older than herself, Angus MacInnis, who represented a Vancouver riding for 27 years. She had already “had her eye” on him in her father’s office when her parents asked her to look after the younger children in Winnipeg while they went off to Europe on vacation. A courtship by correspondence followed.

From the very first I was taken by Angus as being one of the few original minds I had ever encountered ... my whole life up till then had been with professional people (Angus had started his working life as a motorman in Vancouver). I was used to their “Perhapses” and “Maybes” and their fence-sitting generally ... and here was someone who knew where he stood on things and it might be wrong but at least he had the right to be wrong.

She also knew he was “going through a lot of torment” in the House. Because of his lack of academic background, he was having trouble “getting grammatical English. I recognized this and I recognized also I wouldn’t trade his original mind for any of this stuff.” She also supported her husband’s crusade against the treatment of Japanese Canadians during World War Two. She commented: “If this kind of racist hatred persists we might as well call off the war now because it wouldn’t be a fight for democracy.”

The MacInnis’ home was in Vancouver. After her marriage, she continued to work for the CCF, serving as B.C. president from 1958–1960. In 1941, she represented Vancouver Burrard in the B.C. Legislature, but was defeated in the following election in 1945. She had two unsuccessful attempts at election as alderman and in 1948 was part of a ten-woman committee to report on post-war problems of women in Canada. She also found time to work on a biography of her father, J.S. Woodsworth: A Man to Remember (MacMillan of Canada), which won an award made annually by the University of British Columbia. She spoke and organized in every province except Newfoundland. She was on a four-member team which travelled throughout British Columbia, laying the groundwork for the NDP. In 1946, she was one of six Canadian delegates to the International Assembly of Women, convened by a committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt and held at South Kortright, New York. It was attended by delegates from 55 countries who discussed post-war problems facing the world.

Her husband retired in 1956 with a serious illness, and died in 1964. This period proved to be a tremendous drain on Grace’s energies. It was during this time that her rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually led to her death, first appeared. There were long periods when both Grace and Angus were confined to their home, nursing each other as best they could, frustrated that they could not enter fully into the political scene.

On Angus’ death, Grace took over his seat in the House of Commons. It must have been important for her finally to emerge from the shadows of her illustrious father and husband. She moved into a place of memories, Room 639C in the Parliament Buildings, previously the office of first her father and then her husband.

(When you’re in Ottawa, go and have a look at Room 639C, and remember all the work Grace did for us.)

When she took her seat, she was one of 20 NDP members in a Parliament of 131 Liberals under Lester Pearson, 97 Conservatives led by John Diefenbaker, 5 Créditistes, and 2 Independents. Always a strong, effective speaker, Grace soon espoused women’s issues in ringing tones. Her emphasis was nearly always on poverty because, in her estimation, poverty was a major stumbling block for women, particularly as it generally went hand-in-hand with a poor education. (I think this is still true in the 21st. century ... don’t you?)

One of her first recommendations was wages for housewives, causing an uproar both in the House and in the newspapers. As would often be the case, her suggestion was ahead of its time. Grace’s rationale not only took women into consideration, but it also included their husbands – she was an advocate of husbands and wives sharing child care, each working half a day.

Grace earned a reputation as an eloquent defender of the poor and elderly and a fighter for women’s equality and consumer rights. All the same, she did not accept the label of feminist. There have been varying interpretations of this. Likely it arose in part from her upbringing, where a Wooodsworth child was always accepted as her own person, and also as a result of her four years as a sole woman member in the House. During that period, Grace told an interviewer she always had to be careful “to come down the middle,” that is, present an opinion that stood in its own right rather than one that demonstrated a woman’s perspective.

She was a courageous advocate for birth control measures and women’s right to safe abortion, at a time when both were severely restricted by federal law (abortion did not become legal in Canada until 1969). She often said that all children should be wanted and loved, and the decision was solely one for a woman with her doctor. When she was heckled by male colleagues, she once called them M.C.P’s; later explaining that, of course, she meant “members of the Canadian Parliament,” (not male chauvinist pigs).

She encouraged low income people to organize and press for their rights to child care, jobs, decent housing, and a say in decisions affecting their lives both at work and in the home. Grace also advocated pay for parenting.

Grace’s brother, Bruce, said she felt that in Canada she was free to speak and fight for her ideals – she believed this wasn’t pie in the sky, if she fought hard enough and long enough these ideals would become a reality, they would be of benefit to others.

Grace pursued a “squeaky wheel” strategy. She was a firm believer in letter-writing campaigns by her constituents, keeping an issue in the limelight, networking amongst the constituents.

“I just pushed, and pushed and pushed, and so did my caucus.”

Modest about her achievements, she measured them sometimes by the thanks she received from sectors for whom she had worked. “It was the day to day work in Parliament and in committees” that Grace believed was important. Her methods weren’t devious but she was recognized for taking a stand and refusing to budge – “once she got the bit between her teeth,” according to one caucus member, “she will sit tight to hell freezes over to get her point across.” According to Grace, it might not have led to “concrete things” but they were “worthwhile.”

As her arthritis eventually forced her to resign her seat, Grace felt her work for women was incomplete, but she recognized her triumphs in the area of consumer legislation and in the labour field, making it possible for women to be paid while they took “manpower” courses, something men had always received, but women had not because, it was claimed, “they didn’t need it!”

In retirement, Grace handled the crippling pain of arthritis with great courage. At the Regina Convention in 1983, when the NDP was very low in the polls, Grace and Tommy Douglas, both frail and in poor health, came out of retirement to inspire New Democrats with their eloquence and supreme optimism. As one woman delegate commented: “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

more to consider

Grace MacInnis was awarded the Order of Canada, the Persons Award, honourary degrees from six universities, and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Award for Outstanding Service to Humanity. She left a lasting legacy in creating the Lucy L. Woodsworth Fund which she established in memory of her mother to enrich the lives of disadvantaged children.

In the words of her then-colleague Margaret Mitchell (Vancouver East): “Grace MacInnis will remain an inspiration to future generations for her pioneering efforts in the CCF-NDP, her courage and integrity as a politician, her love of Canada and all its people, and her dedication to achieving a peaceful and caring world for future generations.”

Grace MacInnis was comfortable being described as a socialist but refused to describe herself as a feminist. She nonetheless devoted a good part of her time and energy to working for things that really count in women’s lives:

  • economic independence
  • education
  • reproductive freedom
  • housing
  • recognition of housework and child-rearing.

Maybe they really count for the quality of many men’s lives too but many men don’t or won’t get that.

It is interesting how Grace MacInnis herself said that she had “to come up the middle” when she was the only women in the House of Commons and she wanted to have some effectiveness. The choices and consequences that faced Grace MacInnis some decades ago are just the same today – how do women advocate for change?

Do we “come up the middle” or do we stake out our territory in our terms?

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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