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Cairine Wilson

by Ann Farrell | May 9, 2001

Cairine Wilson, Canada’s first woman senator, was appointed by Mackenzie King in 1930. Prime Minister King had long refused to appoint a woman. His government argued that the power to “summon qualified Persons to the Senate,” as provided in the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act, 1867), did not include women.

Eventually, five Canadian women – the “Famous Five” – obtained an interpretation from the highest court for Canada that women were indeed “qualified persons.” Many thought that the first woman Senator would be Emily Murphy – one of Famous Five and the woman who had done most of the work – but Prime Minister King decided otherwise. He chose a Liberal woman.

Cairine Wilson was someone who believed in justice for human beings regardless of their gender. She is remembered above all for her passionate defence of refugees.

Today Wilson’s approach to her work as a senator would likely be described as “working within the system,” mindful of her family’s Liberal roots and the establishment mores of that period. However, when she believed the situation called for it, Wilson proved she had a mind of her own and the courage to act as she thought was right, regardless of popular opinion or what her stand might cost her personally. She was recognized and admired by such avowed feminists as Nellie McClung and Agnes Macphail because of her ability to take an independent stand.

Canada’s first woman senator – “a qualified person” – daughter, wife, mother

Cairine Wilson was born in Montreal in 1885, seventh of eight children, to Robert and Jane Mackay. She came from proud, hard-working, ambitious Scots-Canadian stock – staunchly Presbyterian and rigidly principled. The daughter of a Liberal senator – the Honourable Robert Mackay – Cairine Wilson grew up amongst the elite of Montreal. Leaders of commerce, and well-known politicians including Prime Ministers Sir Wilfred Laurier and Mackenzie King, were friends of the family.

Although a good student, Cairine did not go to university, in keeping with the expectations of that time that a daughter’s destiny was as a wife, a mother and a homemaker. As a young woman she did travel to Europe. However, a meeting in Berlin with Susan Brownell Anthony, pioneer leader of the United States women’s suffrage movement, was not an encounter that impressed her enough to rate a mention in her travel diary!

Cairine did early on became knowledgeable about politics, particularly Liberal politics, as her affluent father was a friend and financial supporter of its leaders.

Cairine met her husband, Norman Wilson, in 1905 at a state ball at Government House (still the official residence of the Governor General) in Ottawa. She was 20 years old and described at that time as being 5’6” in height, slender, reserved, but with a twinkle in her deep blue eyes.

Norman was an eminently suitable suitor, being both a Liberal and a Presbyterian. He also came from a large family, one of 13 children. His father, William Wilson, was an entrepreneur who had Scottish forebears. Norman was a graduate of the Ontario College of Agriculture in Guelph, and was the Liberal Member of Parliament representing Russell County in eastern Ontario at the time he met Cairine. He retired in 1908, before they married.

He and Cairine were married in February 1909. They set up house in Rockland, a small town outside Ottawa. She spent the next ten years as chatelaine of a large home. When Cairine decided her future lay beyond the confines of domesticity, Norman acquiesced. For this positive attitude he deserves recognition, for it was almost unheard-of in their circle at that time. Her pursuits, though, began with volunteer work, not in a paid career.

Ottawa and politics

In 1918, when Cairine was in her thirties, the Wilsons moved to Ottawa. She came to a rather abrupt realization that her life should involve more than marriage and raising children. As her biographer, Valerie Knowles, reports, Wilson later reflected on this shift, writing of herself in 1931 in the 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.

So Cairine set out to become something more than a society matron. She was helped by her husband’s support, financial wealth and connections with politically influential friends. She added to these advantages her own intelligence, a gift for organization and an ample supply of energy and good health.

Not surprisingly, her first choice as a field of endeavour was politics. From the start she rejected such mundane tasks as pouring tea, so often the lot of female political workers then. Instead, she became involved in riding work. Her first office, in 1921, was that of president of the Eastern Ontario Liberal Association. At this time, Wilson began speaking in public, something with which she would never feel comfortable. Despite becoming more proficient over the years, it was never one of her better skills.

The federal election of 1921 was the first to see the majority of women able to vote nationally. (However, there were still significant race-based exclusions.) Although Wilson had not been a part of the women’s suffrage movement, over the years she would often work on behalf of women. Even if Wilson’s work remained undefined along gender lines, women’s role was often very much on her mind.

In the preface to a booklet on Liberal clubs she wrote:

Until recently the great mass of women have been regarded as children whose activities must be limited. 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 our powers to redress existing evils and in every respect to promote legislation which will benefit the greatest number...

— Montreal Star | November 24, 1930

Almost from Wilson’s first day in politics, she was at the centre of new organizations, taking a leadership role, admired for her intelligence, organizational skills and friendly nature.

  • In 1922, she chaired a 50-member committee that founded the Ottawa Women’s Liberal Club and served as its President for three years.
  • As honorary president of the newly-formed National Federation of Liberal Women of Canada, Wilson next focused on youth – her goal was to educate and involve them in politics. Wilson’s work with and commitment to the National Federation lasted well into her days as a senator; she was later rewarded by being named honorary life president.

Fortunately she was rich enough to have excellent help with her large and growing family at home. If they did not see as much of her as they would have liked, they knew they were loved and encouraged by their parents. Summertime, they escaped to the family retreat outside St. Andrews, New Brunswick. At home there was always a house full of interesting and influential people. Cairine was to be found whenever she could in her garden, which was for her both a passion and a relaxation. Cairine’s own children sometimes felt their mother lacked warmth but, as often happens, this perception was reversed for her grandchildren who benefited from her warmth and the interest she took in their development.

the working senator

When in February 1930, at age 45, Wilson was appointed to the Red Chamber (shortly before the Liberals and Mackenzie King were defeated by R. B Bennett’s Conservatives), it came as a personal disappointment to Judge Emily Murphy, a Conservative. Exactly what prompted King to seek Wilson’s appointment to the Senate is not clear. She and her supporters had expected this honour would go to Murphy in recognition of her work on the 1929 Persons Case. Murphy never expressed disappointment publicly. When another vacancy arose, she was again passed over because Prime Minister R. B Bennett’s government wanted a Roman Catholic as a replacement for Hon. E. P Lessard of Alberta who died in 1931. Murphy was an Anglican. Two years later, she died.

Cairine Wilson had expressed no interest in the Senate appointment, nor was she as well known as other active women. It may well have been King’s recognition of her outstanding work for Liberal party organizations and was no doubt influenced by his lifelong friendship with Cairine, her parents and her family, a friendship that Wilson treasured and maintained throughout King’s life in spite of occasional significant political disagreements.

At the time Wilson became a senator, only one of her children was living away from home. She told King: “You are going to make me the most hated woman in Canada.” Her usually supportive husband Norman balked at his wife taking on paid work, work that would put her on the public stage. In fact, he informed the governor general, Viscount Willingdon, that he and his wife “did not wish” the position. Willingdon phoned King, who in turn phoned Wilson. She answered that the appointment “might mean a divorce but that she would accept.” At this point Norman conceded, and later would take great pride in his wife’s senatorial role. On the day of her entry to the Senate he wrote to his daughter Janet: “The greatest event in British history as far as women are concerned is now passed. Mother is a full fledged Senator, has taken her oath (and) her seat in the Red Chamber ...” (Norman Wilson to Janet Wilson, March 2, 1930. Letter in possession of Janet Burns.)

Naturally there was some resentment, in particular from members of the House of Commons, including comments that a woman, especially one with eight children, had no place in the Senate. Wilson maintained she was well received there. What opposition there was, according to Agnes Macphail, in no way compared with the criticism that Macphail [CCF] had received as the first woman member of the House of Commons.

Wilson would always be praised for her sense of fashion. She was pressured to wear evening dress for her introduction to the Senate so as to match women visitors to the reception that was to follow. Characteristically she asserted her independence, choosing a powder blue afternoon dress with long sleeves and matching shoes. She believed these were more in keeping with her colleagues’ attire in the Senate.

Her first day on Parliament Hill set the pace for the rest of her life. She started with an early breakfast, got the children off to school, settled some housekeeping details and did the family shopping. A business appointment followed, plus a board meeting, an appearance at the governor general’s drawing room and, finally, her entry on Parliament Hill. Such was the grueling pace she would maintain for much of her life, always cheerful, dignified, organized and competent.

On February 25, 1930, Wilson made her maiden speech with husband Norman and daughters Olive and the younger Cairine watching. She spoke partially in French, in which she was fluent. She made a point of recognizing the province of Quebec, wishing “to pay tribute to my native province and cite it as an example for the whole of Canada.”

On April 11, Wilson attended a Saturday luncheon organized by the Montreal Central Women’s Liberal Club. “For a full minute, they remained standing, a company of 800, facing Canada’s first woman senator, who had risen to speak.” It was reported in the Ottawa Evening Journal: “Such homage has probably never before been paid a woman in Montreal as marked the welcome to Senator Cairine Wilson.”

Although the male senators with whom Wilson worked were the privileged men she had moved amongst all her life, she still felt lonely. The senators could be patronizing, especially if she made a mistake.

As she wrote to King: “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.” (Cairine Wilson to Mackenzie King, March 20, 1930, Mackenzie King personal correspondence, MG 26, J8, vol. 41, file 3).

More women would not be appointed to the Senate until 1953 – 23 years later – when Muriel McQueen Fergusson (who went on to become the first woman Speaker of the Senate) and Nancy Hodges joined her. Cairine enjoyed a close friendship and working relationship with them.

Wilson made a true contribution to the work of the Senate and to the issues of the day. She was a left-leaning Liberal, quick on her feet in the Senate on behalf of women and children, whether the cause was divorce, health insurance, preventive medicine, infant and maternal mortality, women’s working conditions, or education.

When a way was sought to broaden grounds for divorce in Canada, Wilson spoke in favour of more progressive legislation, one that could be modeled on a bill that had recently passed in the United Kingdom. Her support of the bill led to a flood of correspondence for and against her position. Amended, the bill eventually passed the Upper House despite fierce opposition from Roman Catholics, but was quickly defeated in the House of Commons. Liberalized divorce legislation was not to be passed until 1968, six years after Wilson’s death.

She promoted Medicare, and drew attention to the rise in mental illness, and also illness in middle age which she surmised was becoming more prevalent as a result of increased longevity.

Wilson belonged to 13 committees in her time in the Senate, all the way from Immigration and Labour, to External Relations, to Public Buildings and Grounds. She was also the first woman to be appointed chair of a Senate standing committee.

There were those who said it was time that a woman be elevated to the cabinet. There is no evidence that Wilson saw herself in that role. In the end, this honour fell to Progressive Conservative Ellen Fairclough, an elected member of parliament, in 1957 and in John Diefenbaker’s cabinet. As a cabinet minister, however, Wilson might have been required to support the policies of the government more strictly, and Canada would have lost a compelling voice for security and justice.

Wilson became deeply involved with the League of Nations Society in Canada, later serving on its national council and executive, ultimately becoming president. These positions were remarkable at a time when men dominated executive ranks, although there were notable exceptions – Agnes Macphail (first woman member of parliament) and journalist Isabel Armstrong also served on the League’s executive.

As a confirmed internationalist, Wilson believed that the League of Nations could be an effective instrument for peace. Unlike some in the society, Wilson subscribed to the concept of collective security. Consequently, in 1938 she put her reputation at risk by publicly opposing the Liberal government’s approval of the Munich Agreement (when England’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tried to buy peace for Europe by agreeing that Hitler could expand Germany boundaries into part of what was then Czechoslovakia). Wilson always believed she should share her personal wealth and talents for the betterment of society. She also believed nations should contribute to world security even if that meant putting peace aside in order to achieve it.

With war imminent, Wilson was one of those who believed the society’s relevance had come to an end, although hoping work might continue with the Literature Service and with refugees. The society eventually wound down in 1942 and in 1945 Wilson joined others interested in applying for a federal charter for the United Nations Association of Canada, the League’s successor here.

Canada at war: standing up for principles

Wilson seriously took up the cause of refugees only a year after being nominated president of the League of Nations Society. The goal was to open Canada’s doors to desperate refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. It was uphill work as Canadians at that time were strongly opposed to a large influx of immigrants. With Depression-driven unemployment and little desire to become involved in Europe’s troubles, support for extending help was minimal. Wilson’s resolve to help refugees led to her leadership role in establishing the Canadian National Committee on Refugees (CNCR) in 1938.

1938 was the year President Roosevelt’s Under Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, brought 32 nations together at the Evian conference in France. The aim was to sidetrack critics of the U.S. Administration’s immigration policies and prevent moves to lower immigration barriers.

The Canadian government knew it had a hot potato in its hands. The prospect of accepting a sizable number of Jewish refugees from Europe was something Mackenzie King knew would raise the hackles of a number of groups. Although he had recorded in his diary his strong sympathy for Jews, he also had to deal with political realities, especially anti-Semitism in the province of Quebec on the part of its government and sectors of the Roman Catholic church. That old chestnut, Canadian unity, could be at stake, a possibility King couldn’t risk.

When the conference took place it was high on platitudes but low on meaningful commitment, although an Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees was established. It was around this time that Wilson became actively involved, working with other English-speaking community leaders such as the CCF’s M. J Coldwell, newspaper editors and Protestant church leaders. The country as a whole remained hostile to the concept of a liberalized immigration policy. Given Wilson’s family background and Quebec roots, her espousal of the refugee cause was surprising. Nevertheless she became a tireless, outspoken and courageous fighter for refugees.

As the pogroms against Jews and others continued in Europe, the CNCR began to lobby to liberalize immigration policy. A conference was convened, held at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier, where 140 delegates from 25 English-speaking organizations met. The sessions were sometimes heated and not all delegates were “on side,” notably Ottawa’s well-known mayor Charlotte Whitton who felt the committee was in danger of being carried away by its humane motives.

Later that day, thanks to Wilson’s influence, an audience was secured with King. An 11-member delegation met in the prime minister’s office on Parliament Hill, but without success. They were advised to approach provincial governments instead, adding to Wilson’s mounting sense of frustration. Not one to give up, Wilson and her Committee organized speaking tours, study groups and fund-raising initiatives.

Her workload was overwhelming, her work for the Committee adding to her senatorial duties. In March, 1939 (the year of her 30th wedding anniversary). The CNCR held its second annual meeting after which it once more petitioned the government to lower immigration barriers. Appeals for the Committee’s help with refugees continued to pour in, including one from Nellie McClung.

When the Committee achieved success, stories were placed in newspapers. Amongst its failures was the sad story of the Cuba-bound luxury liner St. Louis carrying 936 passengers, 930 of whom were Jewish. Turned away in Cuba, this vessel was diverted from docking by the authorities at a U. S. port, and then refused entry by Canadian port officials.

One month previously, CCF founder J. S Woodsworth had written to Wilson:

... I know that for most Canadians Europe is a long way off, but it would seem as if on the whole we are quite content to reap the advantage that may come through our dealings with a disturbed world, without on the other hand, being willing to assume any responsibility for the distress our neighbours are suffering.”

— J. S Woodsworth to Cairine Wilson, Mackenzie King Primary Correspondence (MG 26, J 1, vol. 282, p. 238438) | May 10, 1939

On September 10, 1939, while Wilson was on holiday, Canada declared war on Germany. Three of Cairine and Norman’s children enlisted: Angus in the Royal Signal Corps, Robert as an Observer with the RCAF and Peggy who was accepted in the first group of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC). The Wilson’s two sons-in-law made their contribution as well: chemist Alan Gill, Olive’s husband, accompanied General A. G. L McNaughton to England on an armaments mission. Stockbroker Charles Burns [Nesbitt Burns], Janet’s husband, was a Wing Commander with the RCAF, organizing flying control for Eastern Air Command.

The CNCR could not continue its quest for liberalized immigration policy and focused instead on securing admission for individuals and single family units. Wilson’s compassion and obstinate persistence were tailor-made for this approach, as was her access to decision-makers in government. She achieved many successes although her biographer believes her role was generally unknown to those she helped.

King eventually announced a modest program to bring over families from the Iberian peninsula (refugee Jews living in Spain and Portugal). Among those opposing the scheme was Maurice Duplessis, leader of the Union Nationale and Premier of Quebec. He accused federal and provincial Liberals of acting with the “International Zionist Brotherhood” to settle 100,000 Jewish refugees in Quebec in return for election financing. In fact, there were only plans for 200 families and there is no evidence in support of Duplessis’ charge. Eventually the CNCR helped locate and support 22 families.

Another project, to bring over some of the more than 9,000 refugee children, many of them orphans, was almost a complete failure although Wilson was able to take advantage of her experience on this project when organizing the settlement of British children who sought refuge in Canada from the bombing in Britain.

The war finally ended in 1945. It only emphasized the need for a more liberal immigration policy, highlighted by the presence of more than one million refugees and displaced persons in camps maintained by United Nations agencies, including concentration camp survivors.

The government continued to oppose any increase in immigration.

Wilson attempted to arouse public sympathy for these camp inmates whose plight touched her soul. Gradually through public pressure and the growing needs of the labour market, the doors began to open to Europe’s homeless.

In the spring of 1947, a widening of admissible persons was announced, along with agreement to admit “carefully selected” immigrants from amongst the displaced persons of Europe.

In October 1948, plagued by financial difficulties and with important goals having been met, CNCR members met in Toronto for their last formal meeting.

To no one’s surprise Wilson’s work on behalf of refugees continued, the focus now directed to refugees from what was then Czechoslovakia following the Communist takeover of the country in 1948.

The following year she was invited by King’s successor, Louis St. Laurent, to become a member of the Canadian delegation to the fourth General Assembly of the United Nations. Working with what was known as the Third Committee (to which most women delegates were relegated!), the latest refugee group became a contentious issue. The Soviet Union and its Communist allies regarded displaced Ukrainians, Poles, Byelorussians, Czechs, Lithuanians, Estonians and others who did not return home to live under Communist rule as traitors who should be made to do so. The Third Committee’s position was that all these people had a right of self determination, one that was eventually passed by the UN General Assembly.

    In her lifetime, Cairine Wilson received a number of honours:

  • Two honourary degrees were bestowed on her (a DCL from Acadia University in 1941 and another from Queen’s University in 1943).
  • In 1950 she received from France the Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honour (the lowest of the award’s five classes). The award coincided with the death at 75 of her old friend Mackenzie King.
  • The National Council of Women chose her to receive an award from the American Mothers Committee of New York, an organization that promoted peace through the women of the world, one for which Toronto’s Saturday Night proclaimed her as “Top Mama.”
  • Wilson’s fellow senators acclaimed her as Mother of the Year. It seems that awards at that time were directed as much to the recipient’s gender as to the work being honoured.

Wilson made parliamentary history in 1955 when she once again became “the first woman,” this time as Deputy Speaker, using her excellent French for part of her opening speech. She mounted the Speaker’s chair several times that summer of 1955.

In 1956, Wilson’s husband Norman, who had been in failing health for some time, died on July 14. He had been a devoted husband, loving father and enthusiastic grandfather. Despite her large family and circle of friends, she would face loneliness in the years that followed.

During the senator’s final years she endured ill health, an over-strained heart and uterine cancer which, combined with osteoporosis, weakened her bone structure. Her health prevented her in 1960 from going to Toronto to receive the B’nai B’rith Woman of the Year award.

To the last, refugees were in the forefront of her plans, particularly so during World Refugee Year (June 1, 1959 to June 30, 1960). There was a movement to empty refugee camps and although in her seventies and in poor health, Wilson held a party for 125 in her garden to raise funds, telling those assembled of the dreadful conditions in the camps and criticizing Canada’s lack of support of long-range plans for their closure.

The following year Wilson broke both hips in two separate falls and later broke her right shoulder as a result of a bedroom door which flew open as she was attempting to shut it. Her cancer returned and she was back in Ottawa’s Civic Hospital, followed by complications resulting from the hip fractures. On Saturday, March 3, 1962, she died suddenly, survived by all her children.

resources for this story

  • Valerie Knowles, First Person, A Biography of Cairine Wilson, Canada’s First Woman Senator,Dundurn Press | 1998
  • The National Archives of Canada has created ArchiviaNet, an automated research tool that allows us to access a vast amount of information from various databases and automated systems created by the National Archives of Canada. CoolWomen was able to quickly identify all of the photographs of Cairine Wilson by using ArchiviaNet – two of them were scanned into this database, and available for non-commercial use. If you wish to go exploring, visit National Archives [] and follow the links to ArchiviaNet.

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


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