Flashback Friday – Ellen Fairclough
This past Tuesday was International Women’s Day, which celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women past present and future. As such, I felt it appropriate to feature a Canadian woman who was a pioneer, and became the first of many woman to serve as she did. Ellen Fairclough was the first woman to be included in a Canadian Cabinet. She was also the first woman to be acting Prime Minister. Both of these achievements have been significant, as women have been included in Cabinet ever since, and today it is expected that women be represented in Cabinet, in numbers that are as close to equal as men. Therefore, today’s post is all about Mrs. Fairclough.
Fairclough was born in 1905 and grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. She was a very hard worker, and at the age of 12 began working in a department store, eventually taking a full time position by the age of 16. In 1931 she married Gordon Fairclough and the two had a son. She then decided to increase her business knowledge, and studied to become an accountant. She then worked her way up, eventually owning her own accounting firm. Throughout her adult life, she had identified with the Conersvatives, and her first involvement in politics came in 1946. At that time she was successfully elected to the Hamilton City Council, which she served on until 1950. Her next jump, was to the federal arena, something that was relatively unheard of at that time.
In 1949, Fairclough ran for a seat in the House of Commons. She was defeated, but got another chance when a byelection occurred in the riding of Hamilton West. Fairclough won the seat in 1950, and at that time was the only woman in the House of Commons. While she was not the first woman elected to the House of Commons, she was the only woman in the House until 1953. She continued to be a very dedicated worker. She tabled legislation aimed at increasing wages for women, and fought for greater rights for them. In 1957, John Diefenbaker’s PC’s were given a minority government, and Diefenbaker reluctantly put Fairclough into his cabinet as Secretary of State. Diefenbaker had not been thrilled about the idea of including Fairclough in his cabinet, but bowed to pressure to include her. In her memoirs, Fairclough stated that she believed Diefenbaker did not like her, as she did not support any of his leadership bids. One year later, Fairclough was given a promotion to Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. She would remain in that role until 1962. She was also Acting Prime Minister from February 19-20, 1952 thus becoming the first woman to serve as in that role.
As Citizenship and Immigration Minister, Fairclough relaxed some of Canada’s immigration regulations to make it easier for refugees and other immigrants to enter Canada. She had a few stumbles, but was generally regarded as a very competent and effective minister. By the time she left the position, Canada had greatly reduced racial discrimination within its immigration policies. In 1962 she was shuffled to the position of Postmaster General, and in 1963 she was defeated for reelection, as a surge of Liberals entered the House under the leadership of Lester Pearson.
Fairclough then retired from politics. She spent time working for the Hamilton Trust and Savings company, as a senior executive, and later served as the Chairman of Ontario Hydro. In 1992, she was given the title Right Honourable, by the Queen. That is generally reserved for Prime Ministers, Governor Generals and Chief Justices of the Supreme Court. In 1993, Fairclough returned to the PC leadership convention to officially nominate Kim Campbell as a candidate for party leader. Campbell of course went on to win the leadership and become prime minister. Fairclough then published her memoirs in 1995, and died 2004, at the remarkable age of 99.
Had her political career not been cut short in 1963 with her defeat, some speculate Fairclough could have gone much further in politics. Some even believe she would have been an excellent candidate to replace Diefenbaker when he resigned as party leader. Aside from all of that, Fairclough has an impressive resume, that will never be forgotten. Today there are 65 women in the House of Commons, and it is still very much a man’s game. Imagine what it would have felt like when there were no women, yet Fairclough did not let that stop her. She worked very hard for women’s rights and particularly for the residents of Hamilton that she represented. Her policies as Citizenship and Immigration Minister decreased racial discrimination, and allowed Canada to welcome many more individuals. She is certainly a Canadian icon.