First in her field: 7 women who paved the way in Ontario

Canada is and has been home to many outstanding women. Ontario has an extensive list of women who are recognized as the first to work in their selected fields.

Below is a list of seven innovative Ontario women. They have paved the way for the women of today.

Agnes Macphail

Agnes Campbell Macphail, M.P. for South East Grey, United Farmer’s of Ontario Party, Ottawa, Ont., 15 May 1934 / Photo courtesy of the Library and Archives Canada/Muriel Kerr collection/c021562

Agnes Campbell Macphail was the first woman elected to the House of Commons in 1921. That was the first year women were able to vote in a national election. She was also one of the first two women elected as Members of Provincial Parliament in the Ontario legislature in 1943. Macphail played an important role in the passing of Ontario’s first equal pay legislation in 1951. She was also a firm advocate for prison reform within the country.

“I do not want to be the angel of any home: I want for myself what I want for other women, absolute equality. After that is secured, then men and women can take turns being angels.”

Agnes Macphail

Ellen Fairclough

Ellen Louks Fairclough – politician, ca. 1942 – 1948 / Photo courtesy of the Library and Archives Canada/Arthur Roy fonds/a047218

Ellen Louks Fairclough was the first woman to serve in a federal cabinet position in 1957. Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker named her as secretary of state that year. Fairclough was elected to the House of Commons a total of five times. According to Elections Canada, she was the only woman elected that many times during the 1950s and 1960s. She also advocated for granting Indigenous peoples the right to vote.

“Canada needs a woman’s voice.”

Ellen Fairclough’s campaign slogan

Grace Hartman

Grace Hartman was the first female leader of a major labour union in North America. She joined the National Union of Public Employees in 1954. She held many local and provincial positions in the years that followed. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) was formed in 1963. Hartman was then elected national executive as the regional vice-president for Ontario. She later became CUPE’s national president in 1975.

“The task we have before us is no less than the preservation of a decent, caring, civilized society.”

Grace Hartman during her retirement speech in 1983

Mary Dawson

Mary Elizabeth Dawson is the former conflict of interest and ethics commissioner of Canada. She is also the country’s first female prison warden. Her career in the penitentiary service began in 1967, when she worked as a secretary. In 1980, Dawson was selected as warden at Warkworth, an all-male institution in Ontario. She was also head of the Department of Justice Public Law Sector from 1986 to 1995. 

“I’m following the law. … I feel that I make the proper decisions, and I feel confident in myself that I’ve done a good job.”

Mary Dawson

Roberta Bondar

Roberta Lynn Bondar is Canada’s first female astronaut. She was one of six Canadians admitted to the Canadian Astronaut Program in 1983. Bondar became the first Canadian woman in space in 1992, flying on-board the American space shuttle Discovery. She has quite an impressive professional background. Bondar is also a neurologist, physician, educator and photographer. She specializes in the nervous system and is a pioneer in space medicine research. 

“Canada needs individuals to whom educators can point, and of whom we can be proud, whether athletes or astronauts or anything else. I think the role each of us plays is not so much ‘Look at me,’ but rather, ‘Look at our country.’”

Roberta Bondar

Anne Cools

Anne Clare Cools became the first Black senator in Canada in 1984. The influential Black Canadian activist was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Cools represented Toronto Centre-York as one of Ontario’s 24 senators. She served in the Senate for 34 years, six months and 30 days.

“I always object to social injustice, my mother trained me that way.”

Anne Cools

RoseAnne Archibald

RoseAnne Archibald became the first woman named National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in July 2021. Archibald was also the first woman and youngest chief elected for Taykwa Tagamou Nation in 1990. She was the first woman and youngest deputy grand chief for Nishnawbe Aski Nation in northwestern Ontario. Archibald was also the first woman to become Ontario regional chief in 2018.

“Today is a victory and you can tell all the women in your life that the glass ceiling has been broken. I thank all of the women who punched that ceiling before me and made a crack.”

RoseAnne Archibald during her AFN acceptance speech

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