Hon. Cairine Wilson

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Hon. Cairine Wilson

1885-1962

 

Senator Cairine Wilson, ca 1930-62 (LAC, MIKAN 3192074

Wilson (née Mackay) was Canada’s first female senator. She was the first woman to chair a Senate Standing Committee, presiding over the Public Works and Grounds Committee from 1930 to 1947. She went on to chair the Immigration and Labour Committee from 1947 to 1961, at a time when Canada was welcoming hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Europe each year. In 1955, she was appointed Deputy Speaker in the Senate. She was a philanthropist, the only woman president of the League of Nations Society in Canada (she opposed the Munich Agreement allowing Germany to occupy part of Czechoslovakia in spite of King’s pro-appeasement policies), Chair of the National Canadian Committee on Refugees advocating for less restrictive immigration policies and an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism.

Wilson lived at 192 Daly Ave. between 1920 and 1930 (she also lived at 240 Daly in 1918-1920). Built in 1893-94 as an ambitious, upper middle-class residence in the Queen Anne revival style, many of this building’s original details (veranda, elaborate chimneys, gingerbread gable, patterned brickwork) still survive. The Japanese Minister to Canada lived here just before the war.

 

Cairine Wilson was a fluently bilingual mother of eight, active politically (she was a prominent Liberal Party organizer: In 1928, she organized the first national convention of Liberal women in Ottawa; her father had also been senator and her husband an MP) and came from a prominent Montreal family. Mackenzie King appointed her to the Senate in 1930 four months after the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council ruled that women were eligible to be senators. Her appointment was almost stillborn when her husband took it upon himself to inform the Governor General that she would decline the nomination. She told King that she would accept the nomination even if it meant a divorce. Mr. Wilson relented.

The tone of the Ottawa Journal editorial endorsing her nomination, however, showed that attitudes towards women still had some way to go: “Mrs. Wilson is the very antithesis of the short-haired female type which talks of Freud and complexes and the latest novel, and poses as being intellectual. She is of the much more appealing and competent kind who make a success of their job of taking care of a home and rearing a family before meddling with and trying to make a success of everything else.” (quoted in Knowles, 2005)